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In search ofBritish values
In July, Gordon Brown published a green paper called “The Governance of Britain.” The final section said that we need to be clearer about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be British. It proposed “to work with the public to develop a British statement of values.” We asked 50 writers and intellectuals to give us their thoughts on this statement and what should inform it. Here are some edited extracts: find the rest on our website at www.prospect-magazine.co.uk
VERNON BOGDANOR POLITICAL SCIENTIST The question ofBritishness is really a surrogate for two quite different problems. The first is that ofholding together the post-devolution, multicultural United Kingdom. The second is that ofstrengthening the bonds ofcommunity so that we can live more happily together. Gordon Brown is squarely within the socialist tradition in arguing that we should learn to realign rights and responsibilities. The trouble is, however, that neither philosophers nor politicians have been able to show how this can be achieved in a society whose dominant ethic is that of individual aspiration.
PAUL BROKSNEUROPSYCHOLOGIST I would rather not stand for the national anthem. As an atheist and a republican, it gives me grieffrom the first line. To stand or not to stand? Thankfully, there are relatively few occasions when I am faced with the dilemma. At school I used to rise grudgingly and slouch, which was the most I could get away with. That, feebly, has continued to be my stance. But when I sat out the anthem at a recent Wembley cup final, the bloke behind me, with whom I’d just been having a genial conversation, took offence and belted out the verse as if gobbing at the back ofmy head. When he was done I turned and saw a look of hurt and contempt. I wished I’d stood. But what would I be standing for? In this case, it would be no more than for the sake ofconformity. And empty conformity, I fear, is the problem with Gordon Brown’s new nationalism. It is deeply un-British. I celebrate the core democratic values, the principles ofliberty, free speech, fair play and so on that we rightly cherish. But we should honour the fact that they are enshrined in our institutions in large part due to the
great British traditions—core values, perhaps—ofradicalism and dissent. This gets no mention. Brown’s flag-flying vision is disturbingly retrogressive. Be brave, prime minister, and commission a new national anthem. I doubt there’s a verse to capture the “ideals and principles that bind us together as a nation,”but anything would be better than the current bilge.
STEPHEN CHANPOLITICAL SCIENTIST I was a child ofthe Chinese refugee diaspora in New Zealand and, my host country having then a bruising environment, I decided after the early harassments that I did not want to be Kiwi, and became instead a staunch Anglophile, for three reasons. First, a petty one-upmanship, affecting the outlook ofthe “mother country”better than my antagonists; second, I never learned French well enough to indulge myselfproperly as a Francophile; and third, because I was much taken by Defoe’s description ofthe English, indeed the British, as a miscegenated race. I thought I could go to Britain and be whatever I wanted to be. What brought me to Britishness was that I didn’t have to swear allegiance to anything. Not a goddamned thing. This was meant to be the most tolerant society on earth and, even now, when I return from escapades in dictatorships, I always walk to Westminster and pay my respect to the Houses ofParliament for letting me live as a different person. So I treat talk of“core values”and “what it means to be British”with suspicion. I don’t mean that I do not subscribe to the values oftolerance, plurality and their expression in debate and democracy. I do mean I am intensely suspicious ofany suggestion that “core values”were arrived at by “British means”—by which is meant via Britain’s attachment to the
western rationalist and Enlightenment tradition. I would be happier ifthose British “core values”were also seen as influenced by Islam, Hinduism, African philosophy, Chinese polyglot mixtures of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism— and that Nasir Khusraw’s defence of intellectual freedom is seen as important as Milton’s defence offree expression.
ROBERT COLLS HISTORIAN National values come out ofsocial systems, and are similar across similar societies. No government says it stands for unfairness, inequality, and oligarchy (although in truth most ofthem do). The government proposes a “statement ofvalues”setting out what binds us. But ifthe values bind us, why do we need a statement? And ifthey don’t, in what sense are they our values? National identity is a historical relationship, not a set ofvalues. Not all nations have identities, and only a few have them strong enough to exist independently ofthe state. National identities happen when nations see themselves as one, regardless ofwhat divides them. In the British case, identity was built on a long line ofpolitical compromises at home and military victories abroad. The result was an identity based on an overarching sense ofEnglish liberty at home and British power abroad. In such circumstances a written constitution was said to be unnecessary. And so it proved. The remarkable thing was not that the modern British sustained a union ofsentiment, but how well they sustained it. Only Catholic Ireland ran counter, and only decisively late in the day. Our current predicament is that the conditions in which this identity thrived have more or less disappeared. The state, whose job it is to secure the nation and express its identity, is no longer sure who that nation is. The old historical relation
22 Prospect OCTOBER 2007