The trouble with re-branding Britain
Churning out lists of Top Ten common values only highlights the lack of consensus.
For many commentators, fresh notions of British identity are needed to counter ethnic separatism. If only home-grown terrorists had identified with Britain, runs the theory, then perhaps they wouldn’t have slaughtered fellow citizens in London on 7 July. The realisation that Britain has no cohering values to bind people is a long time in coming. But it seems unlikely that either the Telegraph’s ‘Ten core values of the British identity’ or the government’s ethnic re-branding schemes will unite the nation.
The reaction to the Telegraph’s 10-point charter shows how doomed its proposal is. It might insist that ‘the sovereignty of the crown in parliament’ is a ‘non-negotiable component of our identity’ (1), but many others (including me) would strongly disagree. In the New Statesman, Tristram Hunt evokes George Orwell’s writing on British nationalism and provides leftish totems of British pride (2). Incredibly, this includes the Sex Pistols – unless I’m mistaken, nationalism wasn’t the intention of their banned 1977 single, ‘God Save the Queen’. Either way, such competing lists of British identity only show how difficult it is to find a common consensus. If forging national identity is the equivalent of Channel Four’s ‘Top Ten’ programmes, something is seriously amiss.
In the past, British national identity had strong appeal because it was based on material interests. No doubt some identified with a mythical and backward-looking idea of ‘Britishness’, but essentially the British nation state was seen as the best guarantor of maintaining living standards. Those of us who challenged this argument found ourselves challenging the very foundations of British nationalism. In its place, we sought a better way of guaranteeing rights, liberties and living standards – the Good Society – for all.
Today, though, the ‘common good’ isn’t considered so good after all. Take the Home Office minister Hazel Blears, who has argued that re-branding ethnic minorities ‘as Indian-British or British-Asian’ would achieve a ‘more comfortable identity’. This idea was pilfered from the American penchant for prefixing different ethnic groups as ‘African-American’ or ‘Italian-American’ – a development that was due to the rise of particularistic identities and multicultural thinking. Blears’ solution suggests ‘we want you to be British, but you can keep your Asian identity as well’ (3). Aren’t we supposed to be getting away from all this?
It seems that when discussing the meaning of national unity, ideas of ‘difference’ always win out over commonality. This is because the elites are actively hostile to the idea of a ‘mainstream’ of British society. The mainstream means sharing the same aspirations and expectations as other people and, as a consequence, fitting in. Yet the aspirations of the vast majority are held in open contempt by the elites. Is it any wonder that some minorities might also do the same?
It was a very different story for postwar immigrants to Britain. Some had fought for Britain during the Second World War. Many more identified with British society as a place to live and work. This wasn’t based on a fascination with the monarchy, warm beer or cricket, but because Britain offered a better standard of living and bigger opportunities for their children. Postwar immigrants wanted in on what everyone else aspired to – a good standard of living with rights, freedoms and liberties. Even when racial discrimination limited black and Asian immigrants’ access to mainstream British life, it was still the place to be.
Today, everything associated with mass society is seen as intensely distasteful and problematic. Whether it is driving cars, eating fast food, shopping at supermarkets, drinking in super pubs or holidaying on cheap flights, these are seen as activities that no right-minded person would engage in. On the whole, contemporary culture suggests that it’s better to be ‘apart’ than ‘a part’ of society. This is why clumsy appeals to national unity just won’t work. The elites have helped to encourage the alienated sensibility that was once the preserve of the Beats or, more latterly, teenage Goths. To be seen as ‘the outsider’ is now society’s most acceptable currency. This would be pathetic if it wasn’t so potentially dangerous.
While the London bombers’ nihilistic acts are extreme, perhaps the sentiments behind them are not. Whether it is anti-globalisationists smashing up McDonald’s, or columnists sneering at fast food, mainstream British life is seemingly deserving of contempt. So when my Muslim students bemoan ‘white’ society for its drinking and eating habits, it begs the question, what exactly has influenced them – a bearded imam or the prevailing outlook?
When the intelligentsia loathes its own society, and especially the people in it, it’s hard to see how national unity can be achieved. Identity Top Tens, ethnic re-brandings and citizenship ceremonies just won’t do.
Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.
(1) ‘Ten Core Values of the British Identity’, Telegraph, 27 July 2005
(2) ‘Why Britain Is Great’, New Statesman, 1 August 2005
(3) Guardian, 10 August 2005