Wednesday, 15 April 2009

His master's voice

Ed Husain, currently the government's top go-to guy for all things "Muslim", is at it again. The celebrity ex-Islamist, whose Quilliam Foundation is almost exclusively funded by the government, is hosting an "event" on the subject Britishness. Visitors to the new-look Quilliam site are now greeted by a fluttering union jack linking to a preview for the seminar, which offers such delights as Liam Byrne - the cabinet office minister who was recently forced to apologise for the misuse of his MPs postage allowance - on the subject of "How do we build a Britain of shared values?" We are told that "for security purposes" the venue for the event cannot be disclosed. That's how high an opinion these people have of their own significance.

The concept of Britishness, currently much in vogue, would seem to have two princpal aims. Firstly, to do something about the Muslim "problem"; secondly, to give Gordon Brown a point of contact with people in England. Even as his own sense of "values" has been revealed (to anyone who didn't know) to encompass employing professional character assassins and an inability to apologise, so he has continued to make speech after speech demanding that his definition of national, international, economic, moral or spiritual (it depends on his audience) "values" form the basis for policy and, indeed, nationality.

In a CIF piece plugging his seminar, Ed Husain wonders "What in Britain glues us together to prevent us from turning on one another?"

Simple common human decency, of course. People of whatever political, racial or religious "identity", if they are reasonably brought up and not sociopathic don't need Gordon Brown, or Ed Husain, lecturing them about "Britishness" to know it's generally not a good idea to massacre hundreds of their fellow-citizens. Or fellow non-citizens, as may be.

Husain seems not to get this obvious fact. He quotes what he calls the "powerful, instructive words" of 7/7 ringleader Muhammad Siddique Khan, "You are at war with my people, and I am a soldier." He says:

In Khan's mind, "my people" were not those with whom he grew up, attended school, worked, shared national sports aspirations and lived. To him, being British meant little more than holding a British passport. He was not alone.

Indeed he was not alone. He had three equally delusional colleagues. Even if you add in all the two hundred or so people charged with offences under the terrorism act in the past decade - or the couple of thousand "under surveillance" - you are still looking at a minute segment of the population. A very high-profile segment of the population, because of the disproportionate media coverage of anything connected with terrorism, but still a negligible one. There are probably many people to who "being British" means little more than holding a British passport and who present no sort of danger either to life and limb or to social cohesion. They might be Scottish nationalists, or utopian internationalists, or members of the global financial elite who prefer to keep their assets in the offshore accounts Brown and his fellow G20 leaders have been getting exercised about recently. Or they might feel so disgusted by the government's policies that they feel ashamed to be British. Which is, surely, their right in a (supposedly) free society. Ed Husain again:

We need to move beyond simplistic debates about identity and engage with the deeper issues that are at stake. Too often, commentators have suggested that a united society can be built on shared tastes in sport, food, and clothing. This is not enough: such arguments overlook that the 7/7 bombers played cricket, ate fish and chips and dressed in jeans.

And what Husain's argument overlooks is that there were just four of them.

It strikes me as ridiculous to frame citizenship programmes around the needs of such an unrepresentative group of disturbed individuals. All that the state should require of its citizens is that they pay their taxes and obey the law. Beyond that we are in the realms of propaganda and indoctrination, neither of which strikes me as being particularly "British" - any more than Brown's recently-announced plans to inculcate a sense of national identity by using British teenagers as a source of unpaid labour. Britishness as something defined by and imposed by the state is - apart from anything else - profoundly un-British, an irony the prime minister seems incapable of understanding.

Nations are brought together by shared stories, by a national spirit, by indefinable eccentricities. With a government unable, or unwilling, to celebrate our shared national story - which used to concentrate on such things as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Henry VIII's wives and the Victorians' conquest of much of the known world - what is left but a series of empty platitudes, a statement of "values" that say nothing whatever about being "British" as opposed to being French or Taiwanese. Or there is an appeal to such things as freedom of speech, the British constitution, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and other parts of our national inheritance that have been systematically undermined and betrayed by New Labour, whether in the form of the Lisbon Treaty or the latest Criminal Justice Act.

In a speech to the British Council in 2004 Gordon Brown spoke of "the importance of and the need to celebrate and entrench a Britishness defined by shared values strong enough to overcome discordant claims of separatism and disintegration". That sounds like it was aimed at the Scots Nats. But what were those "shared values"? Here's an instructive passage:

Take David Goodhart's recent contribution to the multiculturalism debate. In questioning whether there is an inherent conflict between the need for social cohesion and diversity he emphasised that what we need is "a core set of social norms". Who we are does matter.

And while Melanie Phillips argues that a culture war is raging, she has a remedy rooted in shared values of Britishness. There is hope, she says, because if citizenship is to mean anything at all ministers must sign up to an overarching set of British values.

Interestingly, while Sir Herman Ousley, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, directly assails her views and Goodhart's, he too returns to that same starting point - that there are British values all can share.

The fact that such different people can agree on the need for "shared values" rather implies that these values do no amount to very much. Did Brown have anything specific to share? Well, while he admitted that "a strong sense of national identity derives from the particular, the special things we cherish" he was much more impressed by the general and the vague. There was "a uniquely rich and diverse culture" and "a characteristically British set of values and qualities that, taken together, mean that there is indeed a strong and vibrant Britishness that underpins Britain." Which means what, exactly? An orange, after all, has a characteristically orangey set of characteristics which, taken together, make it recognisable as an orange rather than a lemon. Such as its orange colour and the distinctively orangey taste.

OK, Gordon could do slightly better than that. Britain was "remarkably outward-looking and open" (compared to where? Outer Mongolia?) and a "vigorously adaptable society" that was "both creative and inventive" (there's a special prize for anyone who can pin down the difference between creativity and inventiveness). But it's also "rooted" - "Britain's roots are on the most solid foundation of all - a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to tolerance and fair play." All characteristics strongly represented by the present government, needless to say.

Brown admitted that these values are "of course to be found in many other cultures and countries" but then goes on to claim that "taken together they add up to a distinctive Britishness". Which is, of course, a complete non sequitur. It is not "values" that define Britishness but particular things - fish and chips, thatched cottages, red postboxes, roads that become impassable every time it snows, the Grand National. And these things change over time. Curry houses are now as "British" as old-fashioned pub signs, not because of officially sponsored programmes of multiculturalism, but because they have been naturally absorbed into the landscape and into the national psyche. And it wasn't some national characteristic of tolerance and cultural pluralism that made for the spread of Indian restaurants; it was because people wanted to eat the food they provided.

A national culture is organic and unpredictable. Attempts to impose it from the centre usually fail, or produce ugly results. Perhaps the United States of America, which has long harboured the conviction that "Americanness" is a moral as well as a political category, is exceptional. But even American patriotism flows from (and was built up by) that nation's long and particular history, and is sustained by unique cultural artefacts recognised everywhere as distinctively American. One could go further: the tendency to take abstract values such as liberty and democracy and concretise them as national characteristics is, itself, an defining feature of the American "spirit". It is emphatically not part of the British national spirit - which is partly why government attempts to build a national "statement of values" can only strike a false note. Especially if, as Brown did in that speech, you try to derive such values from "the great tradition of British liberty" that he has done so much to undermine.

Ed Husain's piece today is just such a collection of empty clichés, but with a particular Islamic twist. He thinks that we lack a "connected identity here in Britain" caused by "atomised, self-centred existence" which is, indeed, a feature of modern life, especially in cities, but not I think particularly a British problem. He also claims, bizarrely, that there isn't enough discussion about national identity or "citizenship", that "a national conversation is overdue":

British bashfulness also prevents us from talking about ourselves. "Mustn't grumble" stops us from complaining about our identity malaise. An aversion to ideas and anything remotely intellectual – unlike the eager French – blocks any discussion of shared values, or common ideas that glue us together. But for how much longer? I believe that this lack of a vigorous debate is damaging Britain.

On the contrary, I think there has been far too much debate about "national values" recently. It's boring, alienating and irrelevant to most people's lives. More to the point, constant self-flagellation and navel-gazing about the perceived lack of "shared values" fuels the very sense of alienation Husain identifies as the problem. He also claims that "since losing its empire, Britain has failed to re-invent itself or to find a new, attractive identity." That complaint echoes one first made by US secretary of state Dean Acheson in the 1950s. Britain has, of course, re-invented itself (or been subject to attempts at re-invention) many times since the Second World War, highlights including the Swinging Sixties, the much commoner lowlights including "Cool Britannia" symbolised by a pointless, largely empty "Dome". In former days, British identity tended to be an unspoken, low-key type of nationalism, symbolised for example by the absence of any form of national dress. Flag-waving was confined to Last Night of the Proms and the occasional royal wedding. It didn't need to shout, and certainly not to obsess about what it was.

The current Brown-directed garbage about citizenship elides two very different things: an individual's relationship towards other people, whether in their local neighbourhood or at a national (and indeed international) level, and the individual's relationship with the state. "Citizenship" is both a legal concept, based on entitlement to a passport and the vote, and a moral concept, based on living in a society. The same word may be used for both; but that does not mean that they must be or even ought to be confused. To combine them, as the present British government is trying to do, in an artificial "Britishness", is to assert the state's sovereignty over both individuals and social groups, even to nationalise personal identity. I suppose that's the idea. Hence the paraphernalia of ID cards, lessons in "values", "citizenship ceremonies" (at the moment just for immigrants), repeated consultation exercises, a putative "national day" and the new proposal for "compulsory volunteering".

To be frank, I worry about the government interfering in questions of national identity at all. Just as it should not be for the state to justify someone's personhood, so it what constitutes Britishness - or any other national spirit - is not in the gift of a particular government. Gordon Brown happens at present - and, one hopes, not for much longer - to be prime minister and head of the political administration. That is all. It is no more for him to define "Britishness" than it is for Max Clifford, Rowan Williams, Ed Husain or the late Jade Goody. A set of "core values" set down by a here today, gone tomorrow politician is at best worthless, at worst positively pernicious.

A relatively new factor, of course, is the effect of massive immigration - although for the majority of immigrants adapting to British life has been generally trouble-free - and (of particular concern, for obvious reasons, to the celebrity ex-Islamist Ed Husain) the existence of a disaffected element in the Muslim community. There is a problem here, but it is a fairly narrow one. Husain appears to want to recast the whole of British identity, even culture, to deal with it. He writes:

But can a secular, liberal democracy in 2009 sustain values-based challenges from faith communities?... Without fear of racism or Islamophobia, it is time to ask the difficult questions. Can religiously observant Muslims really integrate into Britain? And should they? How can a nation that has pubs as its shared space, ever truly welcome non-drinkers? How do ordinary Brits really feel about those who prefer orange juice to beer? And how can religious, marital monogamists raise children in a sexually liberal society that values individual choice over collective obligations?

Quite apart from the fact that there have always been non-drinkers and non-fornicators who have had no problem feeling a sense of belonging, this formulation shows a perverse (and, dare I say so, almost Islamist) wallowing in the seamier side of national life. Do readers of the Daily Mail who enjoy tut-tutting over pictures of drunk teenagers feel less "British" as a result? And to answer his last question, "marital monogamists" should do what marital monogamists have always done, and attempt to instil their values in their children. And if the children rebel and go their own way, then they will be distressed as parents have always been distressed at the behaviour of their offspring. But they will probably get over it. Most people grow up to become marital monogamists eventually, after all.

If all Ed Husain is saying is that all children, including those from Muslim backgrounds, should be taught that they live in a secular state and that they have a duty to obey the law, then I agree with him. He appears to be saying something far more ambitious, however. He clams (absurdly) that we are currently facing "the strongest challenge to Britain's value system since the civil war"; his solution, it seems, is that a new notion of national identity ought to be constructed, which everyone of whatever background should have a duty to adopt. Such ideas are illiberal and, coming from someone who wrote a bestselling book describing his longtime association with Islamic radicals, presumptuous in the extreme. He appears not to understand British culture or national character at all. But then again, I suspect he's really just doing his paymaster's bidding.


Edwin Moore said...

Excellent piece.

It's interesting to compare 'Ed' with Inayat's old MCB pal Osama Saeed. Saeed was until quite recently the MCB rep in Scotland; then he became the Muslim Council of Scotland; and now he is the Scottish Islamic Foundation.

Alex Salmond is as desperately keen on 'Scottishness' as Brown is on 'Britishness', so he gave Saeed's organisation £400,000 of Holyrood dosh and said - with characteristic Salmond hubris - that Scotland would become an example to the rest of the world for islamic integration.

And Saeed will be an SNP candidate at the next election, proclaiming Scottish-Islamic values.

I would love to see a head-to-head between Saeed and Hussain explaining what their shared British, Scottish and Islamic values are, but it's not a debate we're likely to see soon, alas.

Perhaps we should forget the rhetoric and follow the money and power. 'Ed' Hussain will doubtless be Lord Hussain one day- and Osama Saeed will doubtless become a 'Guardian of Scotland' or some such thing (Salmond has actually proposed this title for the Scotland football team)

This shared values thing can be quite profitable. Heresiarch, how about forming a Heretics Foundation in order to promote heretical values? They might give us money to go away!

McDuff said...

Very good post. One thing (there always is with me), if I may:

A national culture is organic and unpredictable. Attempts to impose it from the centre usually fail, or produce ugly results. Perhaps the United States of America, which has long harboured the conviction that "Americanness" is a moral as well as a political category, is exceptional.Do you mean that American national culture can be considered to be somewhat centrally planned but not ugly? My experience with the quasi-religious nationalism that lurks on the underside of American Patriotism™ leaves me just as sure of the ugliness of it as I am of our own meditations on the theme of nationalism. However, it's possible I may have misunderstood what you meant was potentially exceptional about the USA.

The Heresiarch said...

To elaborate: the notion of "Americanness" emerged during the War of Independence as a means of unifying what were in some cases very different colonies. To that extent it was imposed from the top down. It was also strengthened during the Civil War and to an extent imposed on parts of the country that were unwilling to receive it. Many such attempts, historically (such as the Soviet Union) have failed. American nationalism is artificially constructed but has come to seem as "natural" as any based (as most are) upon shared ethnicity. As to whether or not the results are attractive or ugly, that of course is a matter of opinion.

asquith said...

If there's one thing that this country stands for, it is liberty. I argue with the local BNP (of whom, in this city, there are many) on the topic. They unveil their "plans" for the government fto force people to do X, Y & Z. it sounds like something out of East Germany. But I don't want to live in East Germany, or for that matter Sweden, I want to live in Great Britain.

I am quite a romantic when it comes to vaguely eulogising what this country has stood for down the centuries. But I do not think Broon, or any other authoritarian, understands this.