The recent victory for the Scottish National Party in elections for the Scottish Party is a body blow for the 300-year old Union. It may not lead to independence as the SNP desires, but the very fact Scottish independence is up for discussion illustrates how big the divide between England and Scotland remains. The fact that much of the discussion about independence has been about economic pros and cons is a proof that money speaks louder than any other bonds that bind or divide people in capitalist states.
But before these elections, in March 2011, the Daily Telegraph ran a headline “Britons need to see themselves as a single nation”. The paper carried an interview with Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, who was until recently a Security Minister in Britain’s coalition government. Neville-Jones was the architect of the Conservative Party’s security strategy, so her words are worth considering.
Ahead of a trip to the US, she addressed the issue of Muslim integration, as if it were the most pressing issue affecting cohesion in the United Kingdom.
She argued that it was not enough for Muslims to “rub along” without breaking the law; rather they must be persuaded that their long-term future lies in Britain.
She said that the government was “trying to convince minorities in this country that they actually do have a long term future here and that it’s their country as much as anybody else’s”.
This statement gives the scale of the problem for this government as regards Muslims – which I would argue is small in the scale of issues affecting British identity. . The British establishment that once viewed everything through the prism of class, now views much of its policy load though the prism of ‘minorities’. Within that group labeled ‘BME’ (British Minority Ethnic) are a huge number that have been born in the UK, and been through Britain’s education system.
The fact that the state feels it has to ‘convince’ them of its views might sound totalitarian if this were, for example, the Chinese addressing the non-Han Chinese citizens of China, that they needed to be convinced of something they hadn’t been convinced of yet.
Neville-Jones wanted to outline a outline a “unity strategy” for integration in Britain which emulates the “American dream” and creates a “palpable sense of national identity” which sounded very much like what Gordon Brown was widely derided for attempting to do.
The first problem that Neville-Jones, Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Norman Tebbit (with his famous cricket test) and others have wrestled with is to define ‘Britishness’. It means different things to different people. There is an obvious divide, rarely discussed, between the largely liberal (small ‘L’) metropolitan class – over-represented in the political class and media, and the more conservative (small ‘C’) population of ‘middle England’. These two caricatures represent two different views of Britishness. One is rooted in enlightenment secular values which have slowly dominated since the 1960’s and the ascent of American culture. The latter is rooted in Anglican Christian tradition; England of Trollope, Chesterton and Jane Austen. The former embrace liberal values, viewed as permissive and soft by their critics. They might associate better with urban classes from Paris or New York than with “middle-Englanders’. The latter group are criticised as anachronistic, even bigoted. Increasingly, their voice and concerns are not represented.
The second problem is to admit that those Muslims who haven’t adopted Western values is not because they are unaware of which model of Britishness to adopt. Instead they are simply unconvinced by the values, and see something better in their traditional values that are rooted in Islam. It is hard to know what this government means by a ‘unity strategy’. Many non-minority Britons have little time for flag waving and ‘jingoism’ – which might feature at the soft end of the strategy. Those who argue a tougher stance might remember that Stalin went as far as banning Islam and russifying their names, and still failed to wipe out the Islamic identity of those in Central Asia and the Caucuses., and ask themselves how far would they want to go to convince Muslims to ‘westernise’ and ‘anglicise’.
The third problem is that integration into Western values can often mean integrating into negative lifestyles that exist in the West. Few would welcome Muslims or other migrants adding to anti-social behaviour, culture of disrespect, or family breakdown – all of which are extreme but very real results of free expression, scepticism for authority and individualism.
The fourth problem they face is that there are many other fault lines that exist in Britain. Neville-Jones admitted this in her March interview saying it was also important to “convince the majority population we are a single nation.”
But Neville-Jones did not address the details of the numerous other fault lines within the UK such as the North-South divide in England, which is largely economic in nature; as well as the aforementioned liberal-conservative divide. Also divisions upon lines of age promise to be a bigger divide than any other – partly because of values, but mostly because of demographics and economic factors. The politics of age has barely begun in Britain and Europe.
The Scotland question summarises it all. It is, like the politics of age, immigration and North vs South, a question of economic losses and gains. There is little in Capitalist states that goes beyond ‘what’s in it for me’ when it comes to the ties that bind people together.
Neville-Jones said the “ideal state” would not be achieved through policies and there was a role for the Tories’ “Big Society” in countering terrorism. “It is designed to create an active society as distinct from a passive one in which the state serves you and you look for the state for all your needs – actually get off you bottom and do things for yourselves,” she added.
In an age of economic austerity, rising individualism, and a reduction in the Christian ethic of ‘love thy neighbour’, the Baroness will have to wait an awfully long time before people start embracing this ‘Big Society’ idea.
In the absence of a credible way of repairing these numerous fault lines we are likely to see society’s bigots and opportunists (not simply amongst the far right but mainstream politicians and media as well) exploit the easiest way of uniting people. Sadly that is by demonising ‘the other’, the foreigner…the Muslim.
In that context Mrs Neville-Jones should see ‘rubbing along together’ and obeying the law as a positive result.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.