March 17, 2005


Britain rediscovered: The British have traditionally had a rather weak sense of identity. Politicians of the left now want to construct a more visible, inclusive national story. What should it be based on? Can it be done top down? (Neal Ascherson, April 2005, Prospect)

David Goodhart (chair) It is often said that Britain has a fuzzy sense of its own identity compared to the classical nationalisms of continental Europe, France in particular. Many reasons for that are given: the fact that our institutions evolved slowly over many centuries, the fact that we are four different nations in one state, the fact of the empire. But the "who are we?" and "how can we live together?" issues—in part questions of national identity—have recently moved up the political agenda. That is the result of several developments: 9/11 and Islamic terrorism, devolution in Scotland and Wales and the consequent return of the English question, constitutional reform, European integration, a sharp rise in immigration, controversies around multiculturalism and the question of whether we need a strong common culture to sustain a welfare state. These things have underlined to some people the need for an inclusive national story, fearing that the alternative is not a laid-back post-nationalism but a strident, exclusive national story, or a drift into anomic individualism. But what should an overarching sense of Britishness—one that includes English, Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and ethnic minority Britons—consist of? Should it be based on values or on institutions? Is civic citizenship enough? And can any of this be created top down?

Gordon Brown I think almost every question that we have to deal with about the future of Britain revolves around what we mean by Britishness, whether it is asylum or immigration, the future of the constitution, our relationship with Europe or terrorism. Who we are, what we stand for, what we are fighting for, is crucial to any nation's future in the modern world. Unless you have a strong sense of shared purpose, a strong sense of who you are, you will not succeed in the global economy and global society. And I believe that we have not been explicit enough about what we mean by Britishness for far too long. When we look at history and at the values and ideas that shape British national identity, I would want to stress a belief in tolerance and liberty, a sense of civic duty, a sense of fair play, a sense of being open to the world. The real challenge over the next few years is to see how our institutions can better reflect these values. That may mean quite profound changes in how our constitution is organised, how civic rights work—especially at a local level, where big changes need to be made—and an anti-protectionist approach to the wider world. And we've got to think about the symbols of integration for the future—this is not just about a national day, or how to treat the festival of remembrance, it is about greater emphasis on the shared values that unite us. Our values have influenced our institutions and traditions in a particular way—partly because we have been a multinational society over centuries. And one proposition that I am keen to support is the idea of an institute of British studies, or something similar, that looks in depth—and in a non-partisan way—at how the ideas that shape our history should shape our institutions in the future and what effect that might have on policy.

Goodhart Does anybody want to contest the idea that Britishness should be based on values?

Billy Bragg I wouldn't contest that idea, but I would point out that one of our problems is that Britain doesn't have a founding ideal in the way that France or America does. We have Magna Carta and recently we have been talking a lot about habeas corpus but these are not easy, accessible things. [...]

Roger Scruton I would like to go back to what Billy Bragg said. People don't seem to have a clear picture of the past of their country any more. It is not a question of the actual history, but rather the history that is required to create a national loyalty. If you look at the Poles or the Czechs, every schoolchild can tell a story about what his or her country is. It is not necessarily the truth—it is a bit of the truth with a lot of embellishment—but it is a loyalty-creating story that gives people a way of attaching their emotions to each other, and in particular to strangers. I suspect that behind Gordon's stress on values is an attempt to make up for the fact that we have lost our national story, we lost it with the empire in a way. And you don't acquire values in a fit of absence of mind. [...]

Neal Ascherson There is a slightly absurd aspect to this—it reminds me of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, where they have this great committee in which they think about what it is that makes the Habsburg empire so wonderful. But the truth is that there are few things left of Britishness in emotional terms; fewer people feel primarily British. Gordon, you once proposed a British patriotism based on the NHS—and that made sense to me and many others. [...]

Brown That's exactly the point, isn't it Neal? Why is it that Britain, of all countries, created an NHS?

Because no one else had yet demonstrated what a godawful idea it was?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 17, 2005 11:57 PM


Posted by: ghostcat at March 18, 2005 1:44 AM

The worst public health system in Europe. Well, I guess if you need to be proud of something...

Posted by: at March 18, 2005 8:05 AM