16 December 2011

Keeping The British Flag Flying

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“The long-term prospects for Britishness appear weak” wrote John Curtice. Historian Norman Davies, plugging his new book on lost Kingdoms from the past suggests that the United Kingdom will shortly become another, telling ‘Start the Week’ recently that he detects in the renewed interest in specifically English history an “anticipatory nostalgia” for a “future realm of England”

Obituaries for Britain and Britishness are fashionable once again. There has been a recurring refrain, certainly since Tom Nairn’s highly influential “The Break-Up of Britain” in the late 1970s that, If Britishness was primarily the construct and identity of an imperial project, attempts to give it  resonance and meaning in a post-imperial age are ultimately doomed to fail.

Perhaps. Just because these obituaries have been premature before does not mean that they may not be proved right in the end.  But the United Kingdom has survived half a century beyond the age of empire. And the most striking thing about the new polling published today in a new Demos report A place for pride by Max Wind-Cowie is how British identity retains a considerably stronger and more persistent popular appeal than much of our anxious contemporary discussion admits.

“I am proud to be a British citizen” might sound unfashionable – but over three-quarters of people (79%) don’t hesistate about signing up to it.

That it turns out to be British Muslims – 83% – who are most likely to say that they are proud to be British – remains a counter-intuitive enough idea to win positive headlines  “Muslims are Britain’s Greatest Flag Wavers” as the Sunday Times previewed the report yesterday. The more general picture in the report and poll is off a quiet bedrock of strong patriotic pride. Wind-Cowie explains that Demos came to prefer the idea of pride to that of patriotism, finding that “patriotism” has limited appeal, not because people are against it as a principle, but because it throws up  particular images – like dressing up for Last Night of the Proms – which many people think feels a bit old fashioned, fetishised and not quite for them. It sounds like an endorsement of David Cameron’s cool observation that the British are “not really a flags in the garden” kind of nation.

But Demos find too that we British do turn out to be quietly proud of just about every national symbol you might choose to think of – with Shakespeare (with 75%) and the National Trust (with 72%) topping the poll. The polls shows that most people don’t feel any need to choose between those symbols of national pride which give the liberal-left a warm and fuzzy feeling – like the NHS and the BBC  – or those symbols of the British state with a more traditional appeal for the conservative right – like the Monarchy, the Army and the Pound. Two-thirds of us are proud of them all. A bit of British common sense is on display with smaller proportions willing to find “pride in David Beckham as a national symbol” or indeed Harry Potter when asked to do so by the intrepid think-tank researchers.

The Demos findings would seem to offer a decisive rebuttal to the deep pessimism of so much commentary, ever since Enoch Powell’s infamous warning that immigration and the creation of a multi-ethnic Britain inevitably entailed a nation building its own funeral pyre and absent-mindedly committing national suicide.

Britain is far from dead – and the existential threat which could end it comes rather less from the consequences of post-war immigration, but from the potential unravelling of a much older arrangement, as Scotland prepares to vote on whether or not to dissolve a Union between nations after three centuries.

Scots have long been significantly more likely to say they are “not British” than black or Asian Britons. Alex Salmond is the one politician in Britain who is making the weather, rather than being buffeted and tested by events, and advocates of Scottish independence are growing in confidence. Yet they know too that the Demos finding that still 62% of Scots are “proud to be a British citizen” presents a major challenge.

Indeed, there is an underexplored paradox at the heart of the forthcoming referendum argument.

Any traditional defence of the Union which gives off a sense of “rebellious Scots to crush”, as the usually suppressed verse of the British anthem puts it, will surely fail. It is not clear who will try to make an authentic and popular case to persuade Scots that they could choose to stay British. All three of Scotland’s pro-Union political parties compete over which is in the deepest disarray, while the broad civic alliance that might do it best seems nowhere in sight.

What is certain is that a campaign would have to fly both a Saltire and a Union flag, and be founded on the twin claims that the devolved settlement can contain easily enough space for civic Scottish pride, identity and democracy, and that there is also something extra which is valuable and worth choosing to have in the British dimension too. This argument would begin with the advantage that Britishness, properly understood, was never a monolithic national identity, but has had plurality built into it from the start, as the shared civic identity of a multinational state. Flying more than one flag should come naturally. Were this campaign were to turn up, It might take pride too in the fact that the undoubted renaissance of Scottish identity and pride over the last twenty years has, of course, taken place within the Union too, though some wish to go further.

What has been less noticed is that the advocates of independence face a similar dilemma. Were they to connect only with the one-third minority who identify as “Scottish, not British” is to guarantee failure.  For the independence cause to win this time around, it faces the difficult challenge of persuading a significant chunk of that 62% who declare themselves proud to be British citizen that they will retain enough of what they value about being British even as they choose not to be anymore.

The first green shoots of an attempt to make this argument could be found in the intriguing lecture by James Mitchell at the SNP conference, pointing out that independence would not end many of the British ties of the Scots, so making the novel argument that an independent Scotland could lead to a strengthening of Britishness, not a dissolution of it.

This suggests that the referendum argument is going to send much less like Mel Gibson’s Braveheart than many anticipate and instead resemble a rather complicated bout of jujitsu, in which the two sides articulate their common ground, making it difficult to identify precisely what is at stake – either emotionally or practically – in the actual choice between independence within the EU and some new “devo-max” approach within Britain and Europe.

The Demos report does picks up anxiety – about immigration, integration and the national story that we share – as well as our widely shared pride in being British. Wind-Cowie believes the citizenship test is important, but is sceptical about how well it works.

It is not difficult to mock the citizenship test. It is not really a citizenship test. Instead, it is the world’s worst quiz, designed by somebody who has never taken part in one, as an entrance exam less for British citizenship than for minor bureaucratic postings at the department of communities and local government. So six out of seven Brits fail it if they try to take it by relying only on their lifetime of experience as British citizens, without swotting up first. Immigrants do better, because they can learn by rote from the textbook what they need to know to become us: namely, the number of days a year that schools must legally open; the precise proportion of the population that is British Muslim; and the exact years that particular reforms to the divorce law were passed.

And yet when Oxford academics undertook the largest study of those applicants who took the test found that they were remarkably positive about the experience. What applicants particularly valued was the information contained in the handbook – not least because they were never going to work out what the House of Lords was for or how it worked otherwise.  Applicants found the discussion of “shared values” much vaguer and harder to get a handle on, but they are not alone in that.

Demos would scrap the test and make new citizens do voluntary service instead: this would show that new citizens are willing to contribute to shared values and to do their bit.

What problem is this trying to solve? More volunteering might well be good for integration, though the evidence about our new British fellow citizens is that they are pretty bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the whole British thing, and their contribution to society too, while it is the rest of us who are anxious and more sceptical about their willingness to join in.

Most new Britons would be willing to show that they would put something in, to go the extra mile to show that they are willing to contribute, so a scheme like this might work out. If practical issues of how to fit citizens’ service around work and family commitments were addressed. But the underlying idea is that the new Britons would show that they are “like us” by demonstrating that they can live up to our idea of our better selves – they would have to show a willingness to do something that we all approve of, and that some of us, sometimes, might do a bit of too.

There might be simpler ways to build confidence and trust. One would be to make much more of our citizenship ceremonies, in town halls up and down the country, and around moments of national significance too.

We should certainly think hard about how to make integration for new Britons work, while a good deal of the evidence suggests that much of it is working pretty well. The Demos report may really add to the case for, at least occasionally, looking through the other end of the telescope too – and to ask what we old Britons might learn about citizenship from our new fellow Brits too.

This post was originally published on the Iain Dale blog, www.iaindale.com.

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