Saturday, January 21, 2006

Gordon Brown on Britishness

When I say I’m studying politics, a lot of people assume I’ll be up on current affairs. In fact, my time is often spent on largely abstract argument, and/or historical ideas (I’m teaching Plato’s Republic this term, for example). Still, I did here about Gordon Brown’s speech on ‘Britishness’ (delivered 14/01/06 to the Fabian Society, and available on their website).

I only read it in full because one of our professors, Joseph Raz, decided to dedicate a seminar to it, as an example of contemporary rhetoric concerning a (supposed) political ideal. I’m glad I did, as I found both the speech and the seminar quite provocative.

Brown’s general claim was that we need to rediscover and reinvigorate a spirit of British patriotism and identity, both to stop the BNP seizing the nationalist ground, and because (he claims) we can only act well on the European and world stage with a firm confidence in who we are and what we stand for. However, it seems he has a rather strange notion of Britishness.

Much has been made already of him trying to force a French or American model on us. For example, in one of the most talked about passages, he asks “what is the British equivalent of the US 4th of July, or even the French 14th of July for that matter?” The simple answer is that we don’t commemorate any great revolution because we didn’t have anything equivalent to the American or French revolutions. Of course, our history is full of significant dates – Magna Carta (1215), the Civil War (1642-8), Glorious Revolution (1689), (First) Great Reform Act (1832) and more, which I’ll come to in a minute – but none of these were so significant in establishing our modern state.

Perhaps Gordon Brown is forgetting we do have national saints days – St George, David, Andrew and Patrick respectively. Of course, there’s no patron saint of Britain or the United Kingdom, but that’s because of our state’s unusual position as a union. I’m not sure any of these days really do much to foster the kind of patriotism Brown desires – St Patrick’s has been co-opted as a drinking festival, and St George’s day is usually marked at best by a Boy Scout march. I have no reason to expect an arbitrarily determined new ‘British Patriotism day’ to be any more successful.

As for history, Brown claims to argue, but really asserts, that there is “a golden thread which runs through British history – that runs from that long ago day in Runnymede in 1215; on to the Bill of Rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country to successfully assert the power of Parliament over the King; to not just one, but four great Reform Acts in less than a hundred years… the idea of government accountable to the people”. This teleological view of history developing towards some purpose, as if along a predestined path, has proved popular from the Greeks and medieval theologians to Hegel and Marx who both saw history developing through ‘epochs’ (stages) towards greater rationality and freedom. Few serious historians these days hold to some such view of a grand design or theme, and when I read the passage to a historian friend he was practically distraught at such ideas being expounded by someone who could soon be running the country.

In any case, it seems Brown has only a fairly loose grasp on our nation’s history. Perhaps he wants to cherry pick the best bits, but our history is not full of glory. Somehow we’re a nation that can celebrate even failures, such as the retreat at Dunkirk or the Charge of the Light Brigade. Atrocities committed in ancient wars can perhaps be forgiven, with the Geneva Convention and such far from anyone’s mind. Maybe the dangers of WWI and II even excuse some war crimes. But what of, for example, the massacre of unarmed civilians during the Boer War? Surely that too is part of British history? Or, nearer to home, suppression of Welsh and Scottish national minorities? To say nothing of the mess we created in Ireland…

Referring to the London bombings of last July, Brown says “we have to face uncomfortable facts that there were British citizens, British born, apparently integrated into our communities, who were prepared to maim and kill fellow British citizens, irrespective of their religion” but this isn’t new. Catholics and Protestants were burning each other throughout most of the 1550s – and I doubt the last part of Brown’s statement is intended to endorse killing fellow citizens when it is on religious grounds. Then we have the Civil War less than a hundred years later, and right up to date decades of paramilitary activity in Ireland (though, admittedly, most of those on the Republican side aren’t British citizens, the point is the bombings London witnessed were hardly alien).

Leaving aside questions about Brown’s British narrative, he thinks it shows the value of liberty to be a distinctively British idea: “Even before America made it its own, I think Britain can lay claim to the idea of liberty”. The idea that it matters ‘who got there first’ seems, frankly, ludicrous. Suppose the Americans had ‘discovered’ liberty, would it follow we should abandon it, or consider it unBritish? For the sake of completeness, however, I should point out Brown’s history again seems to be lacking. The ancient Athenians invented democracy around 2,500 years ago, and both Plato and Aristotle identified this with freedom: “Isn’t the [democratic] city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And doesn’t everyone in it have license to do what he wants?” (Plato’s Republic 557b), “A basic principle of the democratic constitution is liberty” (Aristotle’s Politics Book VI 1317a40).

Anyway, whatever the reason – and Brown backs up his unconvincing history with some even less convincing statistics plucked from unnamed social opinion surveys (and one YouGov poll) – he claims that Britishness is not a matter of “exclusive identities rooted in 19th century conceptions of blood, race and territory”, rather “shared values – not colour, nor unchanging and unchangeable institutions – define what it means to be British in the modern world”. It seems that Britishness has little, if anything, to do with being born of British parents, on British soil, or formal procedures of naturalisation; rather it’s a matter of sharing “A distinctive set of values” later identified as liberty, tolerance, fairness and responsibility.

I hope I wouldn’t be alone in doubting that these values are far more universal than ‘distinctive’. Unless Brown’s suggesting our long historical association with liberty (for example) has given it a totally different meaning for the British than, say, French or Americans, then I’d hope they share these ideals too. To define a particular identity on universal values seems totally misguided, Brown might as well have said being British is a matter of having two arms and two legs. This definition seems to exclude British passport holders who don’t respect such values – meaning perhaps the London bombers weren’t British after all – while at the same time extending honorary Britishness to anyone in the world who believes in basic liberal, humanist values.

Maybe this is what Brown means by “inclusive Britishness”, but to me the expression sounds like an oxymoron. There are many people in our country who are not and never will be British. Through university, I know many foreign students from countries as diverse as USA, Mexico, Poland, Germany, Belarus, Australia, South Africa and more. Some have indeed spent a long time in Britain and are informally naturalised, others are only here for a year or two in passing – but should I treat any of them differently from fellow Brits?

The fact is, Britishness is not inclusive, because – at least by any normal definition – it is exclusive to the British. However, we all belong to many different overlapping and nested communities. For example, I am a native of Colchester, Essex, England, Britain/the UK, Europe, the ‘Western’ world, and planet Earth. Brown even picks up on a similar point, referring to how “when we were young, we wrote out our addresses: our town, our county, our country, our continent, the world”. Why focus on any one of these particular sub-divisions? That is, why should I care about my Britishness rather than a narrower identity (being English, or from Essex) or a wider one like being European? It seems if we want to be inclusive, we should perhaps focus more on common humanity and less on any local or patriotic ideas.

None of this would be so bad if Brown’s speech was simply empty rhetoric, pandering to a popular audience theme, but as ever I think there’s more to it than that. In the later stages, he turns to policy implications. Firstly, I think both from the general style and substance, and focus on his own important role (e.g. “I am meeting all faith groups to discuss community service. And shortly I will meet business organisations”), this is a speech intended to portray Brown as our next PM-in-waiting. His comments on Bank independence, devolution and such are certainly self-justifying and congratulatory remarks on what “we” (Labour) have achieved.

When he spells out a future agenda “From the quality of citizenship lessons in our schools; to building on the introduction of citizenship ceremonies; to defining not just the rights of citizenship, but the responsibilities too; to finding the best ways of reconciling the rights to liberty for every individual with the needs for security for all” it sounds almost totalitarian. Of course, it’s a matter of exactly how these ideas are fleshed out, but the line between citizenship lessons and childhood indoctrination with nationalist values is a fine one, and Brown is vague on what our responsibilities are, or how they trade off against liberty.

Of course, I’m not suggesting Brown is an evil dictator, but certain elements of his speech are hardly reassuring, even aside from its general nationalistic tone. “The Olympics is but one example of a national project which is uniting the country”, he says, and building Autobahns was such for Germany in the 1930s. Brown also reminds us that “in war time a sense of common patriotic purpose inspired people to do what is necessary” – perhaps suggesting we too should be prepared to make sacrifices, for while he suggests that patriotism can also inspire and motivate in peacetime, one cannot help but remember the wars in Iraq and on terror. Further, while Brown “suggested during the General Election there was a case for a further restriction of executive power”, he doesn’t mention the fact it’s the present Labour government planning ID cards and imprisonment without trial by jury.

As if, perhaps, to reassure us he isn’t planning on totally centralising power, Brown advocates local government. In doing so, he recognises “people’s local sense of belonging is now focused on the immediate neighbourhood”, ignoring his earlier rejection of 19th century focus on territory, and the fact this localism is counter to a wider British identity. He suggests that government should promote integration, even through “mandatory English training” with no reference to what people want. He makes lofty claims about “common good” without spelling out what this means – in a heterogeneous society, very little I believe.

If Brown’s speech stirs up critical reflection and informed debate, then I will welcome it for bringing important issues to the fore, and strengthening the political culture of our society. As it is, however, he barely stops short of telling us what to think (“I believe in your discussion today you will conclude…”), and I am worried by much of what he says. The hallmark of a free democracy is the ability to question and challenge authority. The reaction to Brown’s speech will tell us more about modern Britain than all his fancy rhetoric.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:45 pm

    Brown is right

    The Iran Crisis getting worse