Britain: an island without a story

The latest UK report on terrorism is different to all the rest: it shows that Britain is making itself a target by advertising its vulnerability.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics UK

Since 9/11, numerous reviews and reports on security and defence have been published. Most of these publications fail, abysmally, to capture contemporary trends and challenges. They tend to be written according to a predictable template, always focusing on the rhetoric of ‘risk management’. The reports invariably offer a shopping list of security threats that Britain allegedly faces. They have a lot to say about ‘uncertainty’, ‘globalisation’ and ‘the unprecedented expansion of security risks’ – but they have little of note or meaning to say about the specifics of these issues.

The recent review written by Gwyn Prins and Robert Salisbury and published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) is different. It represents an important departure from the post-9/11 trend for shallow reports about security risks (1). Yes, Prins and Salisbury’s report does, somewhat predictably, highlight the problem of global uncertainty, and it uncritically adopts an overly expansive definition of security – but it also attempts to grapple seriously with the big problems of our time that are all too often evaded by others.

Gwyn Prins is a professor at the London School of Economics, and Lord Robert Salisbury is a former Tory Cabinet minister. The main focus of their review published last week – Risk, Threat and Security: The Case of the United Kingdom – is the fragmentation and moral disorientation of British society. The authors rightly argue that the strength of any society is based on its belief in shared values and its sense of purpose. They note that ‘the confidence and loyalty of the people are the wellspring from which flows the power with which all threats to defence and security are ultimately met’. They argue that, in Britain, people have become estranged from the nation’s institutions, and that what binds us together is far too flimsy to constitute a ‘dynamic community’. Of course, fears about a ‘loss of confidence’ in British society have been raised many times over the past century. So one key question that is implicitly raised by Prins and Salisbury is: what’s new today?

One obvious, significant development is that the ‘loss of confidence’, the absence of an overarching moral purpose in British society, now serves as a direct threat to Britain’s security. According to Prins and Salisbury, the UK ‘presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society, increasingly divided about interpretations of its history, about its national aims, its values and its political identity’.

In one sense, the problem is even more profound than the authors suggest. As I have argued elsewhere, Britain does not simply ‘present’ itself as a target – it often cultivates its image as a vulnerable target state. The tendency for British institutions and the media to flaunt their sense of vulnerability can act as an invitation to Britain’s enemies (2). What makes today’s sense of cultural malaise so significant is that it stands in contrast to the outlook of Britain’s intimate and not-so-intimate foes. As Prins and Salisbury point out: ‘The country’s lack of self-confidence is in stark contrast to the implacability of its Islamist enemy, within and without.’ To their credit, Prins and Salisbury seem to have enough integrity to say in public what many can barely countenance in private: that, frequently today, the British elite is forced on to the defensive by opponents who have little doubt that their way of life is superior.

Of course, having confidence in one’s community and way of life is not a psychological issue. Rather, clarity about what society stands for informs every aspect of social and political life. It ensures that people believe there is something important to uphold and defend. Historically, people have been prepared to confront violent threats to their lives and to make heroic sacrifices, if a conflict had some important meaning for them. But in order to do this, people need to know who they are and what they are all about. Thankfully, this key point is recognised in Prins and Salisbury’s serious assessment of the moral crisis in British society: ‘The deep guarantee of real strength is our knowledge of who we are.’

The problem is us, not them

In many ways, the media response to Risk, Threat and Security has focused on the wrong issues. One sentence in particular – which discussed the ‘misplaced deference to “multiculturalism”’ and the failure of British society to ‘lay down the line’ to immigrant communities – excited the media’s attention. Predictably, those who dislike multiculturalism have applauded the review, while the advocates of multiculturalism have criticised it. Yet these two issues – multiculturalism and immigration – are not the nub of the problem raised by Prins and Salisbury. What the authors describe as the ‘loss of cultural self-confidence’ has little to do with multiculturalism, and nothing to do with immigration. Rather, the loss of confidence comes, both logically and chronologically, before the institutionalisation of the multicultural ethos.

Sometimes, it seems that society has become so reconciled to the absence of any shared meaning that it simply ignores its symptoms. Earlier this month, Britain’s former education secretary, David Blunkett, warned that there were too few teachers to teach the new compulsory citizenship classes (3). Although he conceded that ‘this is a new subject area, difficult to bring alive to pupils’, he could not bring himself to admit that, as an academic subject, citizenship has no meaning, and teachers themselves have little idea about what sort of ‘story’ they should communicate. A couple of days after Blunkett’s warning, it became clear that while teachers are uncertain about how to manage citizenship classes, they are fairly certain about one thing: ‘Patriotism should not be taught in school.’ At least, that was the verdict of a report based on a survey of 300 teachers by Michael Hand and Jo Pearce of the UK Institute of Education. Hand and Pearce concluded that patriotism should only be taught as a ‘controversial issue’. Moreover, they argued that Britain, with its ‘morally ambiguous’ history, should no longer be made into an object of school pupils’ affection (4).

What is fascinating about Hand and Pearce’s indictment of patriotism is that it doesn’t simply offer a traditional but respectable critique of nationalism – it also fundamentally questions loyalty itself. They rhetorically ask, ‘Are countries really appropriate objects of love?’, and call for implicit cultural hostility towards ‘national histories’ which are all apparently ‘morally ambiguous’. Their advice is that ‘loving things can be bad for us’, especially when the ‘things we love are morally corrupt’. The message here is that we should morally condemn any attempt to construct a British ‘way of life’. One can, of course, argue that patriotism is usually the religion of scoundrels; indeed, there is an honourable tradition of pedagogy that encourages people to embrace genuine universal values instead of narrow national ones. Yet Hand and Pearce’s critique has little to do with the noble tradition of challenging patriotism; it does not simply warn against the manipulation of patriotism but actually counsels children not to feel good about their country.

Three quarters of the teachers surveyed by Hand and Pearce apparently agreed with this outlook, and said they felt they had an obligation to alert their pupils to the hazards of patriotic feelings. From their perspective, citizenship will be taught as a form of identity, attached to no particular community and with no particular meaning. Most strikingly of all, these recent discussions about patriotism and citizenship in schools barely registered in public media debate. The fact that schools cannot provide children with a story about who they are, or offer them any sense of wider loyalty to a project or an idea, seems to be of little interest in contemporary public deliberations.

It should be clear that it is not unruly immigrants who are preventing schools from projecting a coherent vision of the island of Britain. On the contrary, the British establishment itself is estranged from its own historical legacy. Its schools are embarrassed to offer children a meaningful story about the nation’s ethos and cultural traditions. If there is a problem of integration, then the issue is not the ‘reluctant immigrant’, but rather the failure of British institutions to make the case for integration, or to spell out what people ought to integrate into. Most attempts to spell out Britishness end up going the same way as Blunkett’s misguided citizenship classes. This fundamental failure to communicate a clear idea of what Britishness means has been thrown into stark relief in the recent ‘battle of ideas’ with Islamic terrorism.

One of the questions that haunted Tony Blair when he was prime minister was, as he put it, ‘Why are we not yet succeeding?’ Forced to concede that ‘many in our countries listen to the propaganda of the extremists, and accept it’, Blair called on the public to engage in the ‘battle for ideas’. His answer to the question of ‘why are we not yet succeeding?’ was: ‘[Because] we are not being bold enough, consistent enough, thorough enough, in fighting for the values we believe in.’ (5) His acknowledgement of the fact that the ‘war on terror’ lacked meaning for the British public encouraged him to shift the focus on to values. However, the very attempt to engage in what is effectively a propaganda war raised the question of what values to promote.

Today, it is far from evident that the ‘values we believe in’, as Blair described them, carry much conviction or meaning. It should be noted that after calling for a new boldness in ‘fighting for the values we believe in’, all that Blair managed to draw up was a list of trendy global causes: support for development in Africa; peace in the Middle East; fair migration; dealing with climate change; and creating international institutions ‘fit for these tasks’. Those were Blair’s ‘British values’. The very way in which this shopping list of issues was cobbled together betrayed its makeshift and artificial character. It smacked of an exercise in public relations. These are a caricature of values, and they have little true meaning amongst the British public.

The historical experience shows that values work best when they are not self-consciously paraded and continually explained. In previous times, phrases like ‘I am proud to be American’ or the ‘British way of life’ worked because they communicated taken-for-granted assumptions about the societies we live in. The meaning of such statements was readily understood amongst the public, whose ideas, behaviour and action were frequently informed by society’s unspoken values. If these phrases do not inspire people or inform our behaviour today, then that is because they seem less real to us. As numerous observers have noted, today most traditional, taken-for-granted, national identities have been called into question by recent events. Very few truths survived the loss of certainties that occurred towards the end of the twentieth century.

Today it seems that every attempt to kickstart a debate about values only exposes the lack of values. In Britain, Sir Ian Blair, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has argued that the war on terror is intimately linked with a broader ‘war of ideas’. So, as far as he is concerned, ‘getting the message right is vital’. But what is the message? Listening to Sir Ian, it quickly becomes clear that the message does not yet exist; rather it is something that has to be rather artificially built and invented. That is why Sir Ian declared: ‘I therefore absolutely back the United Kingdom government’s intent to build a clear narrative of “Britishness”, based on values of tolerance, fairness, inclusivity and respect for the traditions and faith of others.’ Note the words ‘intent to build’: this is a narrative that is still being worked on. At present, it is merely a declaration of good intentions that has yet to be turned into a script. A ‘clear narrative of Britishness’ is only an aspiration, not a reality.

The problem of authority without meaning

The absence of a ‘clear narrative of Britishness’, the refusal to provide children with a comprehensible story about who they are and what their community represents, and the wider decline of cultural self-confidence – these are all different manifestations of the same problem: the estrangement of the British elites from their own historical legacy, institutions and authority.

In a sense, the key issue raised by Risk, Threat and Security is the inability, but also the reluctance of the authorities to act authoritatively. When Prins and Salisbury argue that ‘the confidence and loyalty of the people are the wellspring from which flows the power’, they, too, raise the question of loyalty, the question of whom and what we should be loyal to. It is clear that British institutions find it difficult automatically to win people’s genuine loyalty. And one reason for this is that authority is rarely exercised with meaning. Prins and Salisbury point to one symptom of this problem: ‘There is now such a disjuncture between Britain’s enduring security interests and the manner in which the state’s moral and material defence of those interests has been pursued since the collapse of the Soviet Union.’ Yet this inability to act purposefully, and in line with national interests, is no episodic failure of policy. Rather, it indicates that the British establishment itself feels cut adrift from its institutions, and particularly from its historical legacy. That is why its response to every problem is to modernise, modernise, and modernise again. The establishment’s desire to put as much distance as possible between itself and the values into which it was socialised dominates the elite’s imagination today. Prins and Salisbury demand that ‘our common understanding of and allegiance to the United Kingdom must be restored’. But that isn’t going to happen under an establishment that has effectively disowned its historical legacy!

A bit of historical perspective can throw some light on the contemporary problem of authority. Concern and anxiety about the sense of purpose of British society have been raised on many occasions throughout history. Indeed, Risk, Threat and Security cites Shakespeare’s lament that ‘This England’ has ‘made a shameful conquest of itself’. The report also draws an analogy between today and the predicament Britain faced before the outbreak of the First World War: ‘In all three ways – our social fragmentation, the sense of premonition and the division about what our stance should be – there are uneasy similarities with the years just before the First World War.’ A sense of historical perspective is useful, but representing today’s crisis of elite confidence as a present-day version of past problems is ultimately misleading.

It is true that in 1914 Britain was afflicted by a powerful social crisis. In the years leading up to the Great War there was an unprecedented degree of class polarisation and conflict. In the early years of the twentieth century, the British elites became defensive about the way in which their Empire was run. After the Boer War there was a palpable sense of loss of moral authority. Dozens of publications held forth on the subject of England’s decline. Nevertheless, when the Great War came, the government of the day embraced it with relish. It regarded the war as an opportunity to demonstrate its moral virtues and consolidate its authority at home and abroad. Its call to arms enjoyed widespread public support; people from all social backgrounds volunteered to fight a war that they believed in. Subsequent disenchantment with the outcome of the war should not obscure the close relationship that the government enjoyed with its public. For better or worse, most of the time those in authority could act authoritatively and with meaning; it was a very different situation to that which exists today, where officialdom lacks any substantial connection with the public.

Today, not only is Britain an island without a story; it is also a place that discourages debate about what kind of stories should be told. ‘The deep guarantee of real strength is our knowledge of who we are’, says Risk, Threat and Security. Very true. But clarity on such a fundamental question requires a grown-up discussion about important issues that are frequently sidelined in public discourse. An honest and open engagement with the problems raised in Prins and Salisbury’s review would be a positive step in that direction. A final point: many of the problems raised by Risk, Threat and Security have specifically British focus; yet the problem of collapsing cultural self-confidence will be recognised by intelligent readers throughout the Western world.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown has just been published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi asked if terrrorists really are grooming our kids. In conversation with Brendan O’Neill, Furedi described the war on terror as a symmetry of confusion. Elsewhere, O’Neill suggested that Gordon Brown was obsessed by security long before he became prime minister, and that the 2007 car bombs, in London and Glasgow, were packed with nihilism. Munira Mirza showed how ‘homegrown terrorists’ are a product of Western self-loathing. Mick Hume suggested Islamic terrorism is real, but overstated as a threat to our society. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

(1) Risk, Threat and Security, G. Prins & R. Salisbury RUSI, February 2008

(2) Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown, Frank Furedi, Continuum Press, 2007

(3) Warning over citizenship classes, BBC News; 2 February 2008

(4) See Patriotism ‘should not be taught at school’, The Daily Telegraph; 4 February 2008

(5) A battle for global values, Tony Blair, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007

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Topics Politics UK