Why A Sense Of Britishness Matters
May 15, 2006
This month has seen the government bring forward its ideas to incorporate an appreciation of core British values into citizenship classes in schools. It has taken some time since last July’s terrorist atrocities on and under the streets of central London to produce action despite much national soul-…
This month has seen the government bring forward its ideas to incorporate an appreciation of core British values into citizenship classes in schools. It has taken some time since last July’s terrorist atrocities on and under the streets of central London to produce action despite much national soul-searching which took place immediately after the bombings.
The urgent national debate which was conducted on the television, radio and in the pages of all our national newspapers focused on how and why modern Britain could have bred so many anti-British fanatics from its own home-grown ranks?
All four of the London suicide bombers had been born, brought up and educated (often to an advanced level) here. Similarly the murderous placards held up by British-born demonstrators here in central London recently were completely at odds with the values that this nation holds dear. The outcry against both the demonstrators and the absence of resolute police action was entirely justified.
The notion of multiculturalism which had been promoted in our country over recent decades has finally been discredited. We need once again to assert strongly the core values of British identity.
What are those core values and how did they begin to take shape? I take as my starting point the defiance of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church by Martin Luther in 1517, an act which heralded the Reformation. The importance of these events to the intellectual development of Western Society and ideas cannot be overstated. Up until that fateful year there had been a universal Established Christian Church which was, like traditional Islam today, intolerant of any dissent to its power.
The threat of excommunication was surely not conducive to independent thinking, scepticism or even a broad range of academic speculation. By chance, within two decades under Henry VIII, England also struck out and this burgeoning intellectual freedom formed the basis of the British state.
It has been at the forefront of a vast array of developments in science, the arts, philosophy and political thinking which has moulded Western European and global civilisation since that time. The passion for secular democracy, individual liberty, freedom and equality before the law, religious tolerance and pluralism is at the heart of what it is to be British. Let us make no mistake – these values are not compatible with much of Islamic teaching.
Collectively we in Britain seem to have lost the confidence to assert our sense of identity. Ironically enough, the first wave of post-war immigrants were in doubt as to what Britain stood for. They were themselves products of British colonial rule, coming to settle in the Mother Country.
It is, of course, very un-British for us to codify our values in law. It is one of the reasons we have never had a written constitution (and why instinctively we, as Conservatives, are opposed to signing up to one via the European Union). The English way (and of course, on these matters we are quite distinct from Scotland) has been for slow, piecemeal evolution of laws and customs. English law has never been formulated as a coherent set of rules by the body of technical experts. In spite of all the centralising pressures from an established church, academia and ever more powerful State, and our law – the Common Law – has evolved. So too have the core values that make us what we are. Unlike other countries we have not sought to oblige our people to speak the national language, make a vow of allegiance or show respect to the flag. This infinite flexibility is in many ways a wonderful strength. Our customs and values are practical and based on ongoing reality. When circumstances change, so too can the law and common values with it.
One of the key flaws with a written constitution, whether national or super-national is its lack of flexibility. Inevitably a written constitution needs to be abstract and fails to address practical realities. Similarly it is over influenced by the specific circumstances prevailing at the time of its creation and accordingly is difficult to change over time without being subject to partisan controversy. By contrast, once encapsulated in rule-form then a determined and powerful State is able to scrap or re-write a constitution at will.
So what precisely are the non-negotiable components of British identity?
I was intrigued at just how many respondents to a survey in the Daily Telegraph last year came up with the phrase “fair play” as their own encapsulation of what makes our country special.
I suspect it is difficult for any foreigner to appreciate how pervasive is this uniquely British instinct. The full connotations of “fairness” are not really encapsulated in any other language. The nearest approximation is “just” or “reasonable”, but I suspect I had an atypical experience as a toddler when my parents assured me that, “life isn’t fair”.
Incidentally this is one aspect which defines my Conservatism. Not only is life at times unfair but it should not be the overriding aim of the State to make it so.
Fair play applies not only on the sports field? in principle, at least. It is also the glue of social and especially business relationships. Even in a highly litigious world where rule-by-contract seems to be the norm, British business culture remains easy going. Deals are concluded by word of mouth and will often by completed by the time formal paperwork is exchanged. It is all a little haphazard, inefficient and at times disorganised, but fair play ensures flexibility and that all the stops are pulled out in a genuine emergency. Meanwhile any conflicts are resolved by compromises on both sides rather than resorting at first instance to a legal process.
Naturally like so much that is quintessentially British, fair play is difficult to define. You know it when you see it. It is a matter of feel and there is a great moral pressure to play fair in human dealings, rather than ruthlessly drive home ones advantage. We like to win, but not at all costs.
The relationship between the individual and the State also has a peculiarly British slant. Our view of authority is in stark contrast with many of our continental neighbours. Not for us the Germanic adherence to rules, conformity and organisation. We appreciate the benefits of good order but will not unquestioningly take orders. The British way is to comply with directives that make sense, but freely express doubt.
Respect has to be earned by those in authority and we strongly resist anything approaching a cult of personality. You need only look at the antics of our tabloid press and the TV media which build up celebrities from the world of sport, entertainment, politics and public life then gleefully bring them down.
The tall poppy syndrome has its flip side. We give the individual more leeway than many elsewhere are accorded. Tolerance to outsiders, and especially foreigners, is greater than in much of Europe. The maverick and the eccentric are usually tolerated and often celebrated.
We respect initiative and self dependence with no end of solitary pastimes with which Britons can wile away in their leisure time or retirement. Many foreigners look on with wonder and disbelief at the companionship with animals that brings contentment to many of our countrymen. Gardening and DIY are far more prevalent on these shores and reflect a society that nurtures the virtues of individuality.
The rule of law is another peculiarly British concept. Our society is based on a notion that we all abide by the same rules. Whatever our wealth or standing.
No individual or institution, especially the government, is above the law. This applied 350 years ago to the monarch with the execution of Charles I in 1649, one of the earlier steps on the path to a modern parliamentary democracy.
The rule of law is a concept attractive to those who come and settle from abroad. It often stands in stark contrast to what many people from far afield have been accustomed to. We need only glance across the English Channel to examine how different the culture is in France, where its current President clings onto office for as long as he can in order to avoid corruption charges. Let’s not comment on the situation in Italy!
Our legal system is confrontational and determined to give the defendant a fair trial. Most European jurisdictions are designed to reveal the truth and therefore concern themselves with the interests of the State, rather than those of the individual.
Ours is a secular society. Sovereignty resides in the Queen, and as a constitutional monarch, with parliament. The British way is not to appeal to any higher spiritual jurisdiction. Our laws are made exclusively by the Houses of Commons and Lords and interpreted by an independent judiciary. For historical reasons we have an established Church, but no-one should mistake this as anything approximating to a theocracy. Indeed, pluralism and religious tolerance has been part of the British constitutional settlement since the glorious revolution of 1688. The deal is this: the law will not treat anyone differently on the basis of their belonging to a particular faith, religion, sect or ethnic group, but that tolerance must be a two-way street in the interests of good community relations.
Arguably the most important safeguard of personal freedom is the right to own private property and the confidence this will be upheld by the State.
Indeed most independent studies of the developing world identify the private ownership of property and the reliance upon the State defending this right as key to economic growth and development. My own Conservatism holds this principle to be foremost.
Twice my maternal grandfather had to flee because of political upheaval in central Europe. He lost all that he owned, bar that which he and my mother’s family could physically take with them.
Here in Britain we all feel confident enough of political stability to invest much of our individual wealth in real estate. In the developing world property ownership provides crucial collateral for entrepreneurs to start and build up businesses. But we should never forget the wise words of the great 20th century economist and philosopher, Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom,
“the system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not”
The freedom to buy and sell without fear of confiscation, to transfer ownership and to have contracts on property enforced is key to wealth creation. These rights – and their peculiarly British recognition – go back to before the time of Magna Carta.
Yet, once again, the Reformation was a key moment. Vast tracks of land acquired by the Crown and Dissolution of the Monasteries were sold on by Henry VIII to finance war and many Britons, behind the nobility, were able to become virtual freeholders in an enormous transfer of wealth that was never replicated on the continent.
Not for nothing do we say that an Englishman’s home is his castle.
British freedom and character spring from our institutions. As I have mentioned, ours is a nation which gives more credence to the rights of the individual to regulate his own conduct without recourse to coercion. Typical Britishness includes a sense of humour (directed most woundingly against those in authority), a stubbornness, a passion for freedom and justice and a stoicism at times of crisis. We thrive in emergencies and have a readiness to get on with the job when necessary.
In spite of decades of being made to feel ashamed of our colonial past, we are an instinctively proud people with a strong sense of national self-esteem. Our successors, whether our children or immigrants who come to these shores from far afield develop a political culture that goes back many centuries and brings with it a unique set of rights and obligations. This is a wonderful legacy and a tremendous foundation for all our children and grandchildren.
I am a dreamer. As an Englishman since birth, and a Londoner all my life, my opportunities and dreams appeared to have no limit. As an optimist, I am excited by the challenges that face me and our country in a fast changing global economy.
As a man in early middle-age I must confess that sometimes I envy those half my age and younger still. Their dreams and imaginations will be even more expansive than mine. With vision, leadership and passion for all that the future holds, we live in a world that has the most exciting opportunities. Opportunities that only a decade or two ago no-one would have imagined. Global travel has become commonplace; technology and the breaking down of metaphorical and physical walls has opened up a thrilling world alive with possibilities. This is all out there for anyone in this country to grasp.
Yet it was four British-born young men who on that dreadful Thursday last July chose to take a different path. A destructive imagination. Four young men with everything to live for. Two had wives and families; all four were in employment. They were not living in poverty. They had not been poorly educated. Yet fulfilment of their dreams meant bloodily terminating their own lives and that of dozens of innocent travellers in the most horrific way.
It is easy to describe them as Islamic Fundamentalists. I believe a more accurate description is that they were fanatics of an extreme and violent political cult.
Rather than obsessing in a debate about multiculturalism we now need without delay to counteract the sense of humiliation, grievance and culture of victim hood that has beset so much of the Muslim world.
I am reminded of a meeting in Damascus with leading Syrian academics when I visited that beautiful city as part of a parliamentary delegation in 2003. It was depressing to listen to their world view. Not least as it is this backward-looking approach to life they inculcate into the young generation of Arabs when they come into contact. How could hope and enthusiasm be inspired into the hearts of young Syrian men and women when the nation’s thinker’s could not see beyond the injustices of 1948? They bemoaned the lands that had been stolen from their forefathers as Israel was created after World War Two.
Reflecting on this insidious culture of victimhood, I pointed out that my own ancestors had similarly lost everything. Indeed, my mother’s family hailed from a part of Central Europe now in Poland where we had owned land and property dating back to the seventeenth century.
When the Russian Red Army advanced in the early months of 1945 my mother, then a young girl, was forced to flee from her homelands in a process that nowadays would be called ethnic cleansing. From the comfort of a professional lifestyle, my maternal grandparents eventually fled to the west, taking with them only that they could wear or carry.
Two generations on has my response been to wallow in self-pity, relishing victimhood, demanding my ancestral homelands back and refusing to look to the future? Perhaps as the descendant of an ethnic German rather than Arab or Palestinian, my life has been easier, not least because the vocal left wing guilt industry only seems to recognise injustice where there is an ethnic or colonial element. The dispossessed from Central Europe have had to get on with their lives. And get on with life we have. I am intensely proud of my forefathers ? after all they are an integral part of what I am. However, I focus my energies on the future and what can be achieved through my efforts and endeavours. I cannot think of anything more destructive and futile than harbouring a life long grievance about the treatment of my grandparents. The Arab world now needs political and intellectual leadership to encourage its people to take a more positive path. Meanwhile, we in the West must not play up to this culture of historical grievance. It may escape the conscience of the self-appointed guardians of post-colonial Europe, but it does nothing to improve life for countless millions in the Middle East. Truly Islamic fundamentalists have become the doctrine of choice for the modern day grievance-mongers in the same way as fascism and communism were in the 1930s.
That is why the preposterous proposal that we should negotiate with Islamic terrorism is so fatuous. They cannot be appeased because their aim is simply to destroy all that we stand for. We must continually remind all of our citizens of the historical foundations of our free, open society if we are to hold our nerve in the face of the global terrorist threat.
Overcoming the threat of Islamic political terrorism will take decades to be sure. The development of this neo-fascist, violent cult has been assisted by the Western world turning a blind eye. US commercial interests, in particular in Saudi Arabia resulted in the gradual emergence of the Wahhabi thinking as a dominant force there. The stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia since the 1980s has infuriated and humiliated radicals and many of less extreme views.
It was these events that saw the arrival of Osama bin Laden as a global figure. The poverty of respect and dignity which lies at the heart of the appeal of his cult is fuelled by deep seated humiliation. The Arab-Muslim world today is backward economically and politically. This is a far cry from its past glories and sense of religious superiority.
Imagine for a moment how you would feel as a young Muslim with that heritage, now living as a second generation British citizen in a country whose institutions are constantly playing up to your feelings of discrimination, whether real or imagined. The sense of alienation and humiliation makes for the most unstable mix and a breeding ground for extreme violence.
However, all need not be lost.
At the beginning of this year I paid a return visit to the country with the second largest number of Muslims in the world. Unlike Saudi Arabia, much of the Arab world and Pakistan these Muslims were living in a democratic society with a progressive set of values, similar to those that British culture holds dear.
The country in question is India ? and their Muslim population is almost 15% or 150 million. It would be naïve to suggest there are not economic and political tensions between Muslims in India and the predominant Hindu majority. Equally the secularisation of the past 55 years there has resulted in an explosion of wealth in a fast growing Muslim middle-class, who have a huge stake in the continued wealth and advance of that economic superpower of the future.
As it happened we visited Kashmir, the region where tensions in Hindu and Muslim have been at their greatest. Even in Shringar and Jammu, the state’s two biggest cities, there have been substantial advances. The power of imagination and dreams has been put to best effect. Secularism is at the cornerstone of India’s success, coupled with sustained investment in education.
As ever, so much hinges on education. In the course of my travels as a parliamentarian the one Arab country which I visited with the least natural resources, Jordan, has the most highly sophisticated education system. The late King Hussain and his highly impressive son, King Abdullah, realize that they could not simply rely upon oil for the welfare of their people. Instead they invested in developing the talents, enthusiasms and energies of their most important resource ? their people.
We have much to learn from overseas, but firstly we must show confidence in asserting our own nation’s values. Only then will the process of integration and assimilation of those betrayed by a multicultural experiment begin.