Fabian Review, Winter 2005, London Gordon Brown, Britain’s finance minister and likely next prime minister, has always been the left-wing conscience of Tony Blair’s centrist New Labour project. But in the past few months, he has been wrapping himself in the British flag. In January, the Fabian Society, the oldest think tank of the British ...
Fabian Review, Winter 2005, London
Fabian Review, Winter 2005, London
Gordon Brown, Britain’s finance minister and likely next prime minister, has always been the left-wing conscience of Tony Blair’s centrist New Labour project. But in the past few months, he has been wrapping himself in the British flag. In January, the Fabian Society, the oldest think tank of the British left, sponsored a conference a month after it published a special issue of its quarterly journal, Fabian Review, devoted to the issue of British national identity. In a speech at the conference, Brown asked: "What is the British equivalent of the 4th of July, or even the French 14th of July for that matter?… [W]hat is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in every garden?" The terse response two weeks later from David Cameron, the young, new leader of the Conservative Party, was: "We don’t do flags."
On the face of it, this is an odd political role reversal. Europe’s political left has traditionally had an ambivalent relationship with national identity and nationalism. Rah-rah patriotism was at odds with the left’s class-based view of society, pitting "instinct" against the left’s "reason." The horrors of aggressive nationalism in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, followed by a combination of European integration and the arrival of more multiethnic societies in the 1970s and 1980s, seemed to confirm the intellectual and political redundancy of the nation.
The British left has felt this ambivalence more acutely than most, as Britain seemed to evolve from an imperial to a postnational sense of itself without passing through the popular national revolution to align the nation and the state, as classically exemplified by France. Until recently, this fuzziness about national identity was considered a blessing. But suddenly the celebration of postnational, cosmopolitan Britain has been eclipsed by the return of "security and identity" issues, which explains Brown’s new enthusiasm for the idea of national solidarity. Several developments have propelled these issues to the top of voters’ concerns: a sharp rise in asylum-led immigration starting in the mid-1990s, continuing arguments over European integration, the developing story of Scottish and Welsh devolution, the 7/7 suicide bombings and anxieties about Muslim integration, and the fear of violent crime, among others.
One reason that Labour has had to reconsider its traditional inhibitions about banging the national drum is simply that it has been in power while these social developments have played themselves out. For example, in response to anxiety about asylum-related immigration, David Blunkett, the former home secretary and a blunt "man of the people," attempted to raise the visibility of British national identity by introducing citizenship tests and ceremonies for prospective British citizens.
There has also been some broader rethinking about the importance of a common culture and the limits of multiculturalism. I played a minor part in this debate two years ago, when I wrote an article in Prospect magazine (the monthly magazine I edit) titled "Too Diverse?" My essay described the "progressive dilemma" — the potential tension between solidarity and diversity — arguing that the more diverse our values and religious and ethnic backgrounds, the less willing we will be in the long run to support a generous welfare state. My article was reprinted in the Guardian newspaper and ignited a loud, sometimes rancorous debate. Some leading voices on the left agreed with my thesis that with modernity’s eroding of so many other forms of collective identity, a progressive British national identity that is comfortable with Britain’s place in Europe and its multiethnic character may be the last, best hope for preserving social democratic values.
Stepping into this debate is this special issue of Fabian Review. The Fabians are broadly in favor of what the influential Labour MP John Denham calls a new "patriotism of the left." In the journal’s opening essay, "Who do you want to be?" he writes, "A 21st-century British identity will have to be created, not discovered." That is much easier said than done, especially when a sense of Britishness has actually been declining, partly because the factors that helped to forge it — such as empire, Protestantism, and world wars — have faded from memory. Nevertheless, in a lengthy interview, Princeton University historian Linda Colley challenges the idea that it is somehow "un-British" to spell out the nature of a modern British citizenship.
Debates about identity and social cohesion can often turn very mushy, but there is a welcome concreteness about some of the Fabian ideas. Sunder Katwala, Fabian’s general secretary, has an 11-point charter for a new Britain, covering everything from a new coronation oath to independent immigration statistics. And Labour MP Gordon Marsden discusses providing more of an overarching sense of the nation’s history in schools, as they do in France, from the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties.
The Fabians are right to want to reclaim national identity for the center left. After all, many of those security and identity issues are about the role of the state in sustaining modern communities. These are issues as much, if not more, for the left as for the right, especially given the right’s turn to individualism and economic liberalism. But Fabian Review tiptoes around some of the most difficult questions. How can you promote a "new" British identity without implicitly criticizing "old" symbols, thereby excluding the British majority that identifies with its English ethnicity? How can you encourage integration without forcing people to do things they wouldn’t choose spontaneously? Isn’t a strong sense of cohesion and identity inherently exclusive? Given the pluralism, diversity, and individualism of today’s Britain, surely any sense of Britishness is going to be too thin to recreate the emotional glue — following two world wars and a depression — that helped build the modern welfare state.
The subtext underneath much of this discussion is that the British do not want to end up like the United States — which, for all its strengths, is racially Balkanized and highly individualistic with a threadbare welfare state. But how can Britons hold on to the European social model without the kind of homogeneity that created the model in the first place? The Fabians don’t have wholly convincing answers, but they are beginning to ask the right questions.
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