Rebranding Britishness: the last refuge of the vacuous
Gordon Brown's speech to the Fabian Society showed that our rulers are in the grip of an identity crisis.
‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’, pronounced Samuel Johnson in 1775. At Saturday’s Fabian Society conference on Britishness – ‘Who do we want to be?’ – diverse elements of the British centre-left scuttled for cover beneath the flag (1).
Labour chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown called for a new ‘British Day’: a patriotic day held on Remembrance Sunday to celebrate British
achievements, history and culture. Figures from the centre-left stated their intention to wrest back the union flag and patriotism from the far right. There are ‘tremendous progressive gains from the principle of Britishness’, argued the chancellor; and sessions buzzed with talk about the need to define ‘common values’ and build a ‘framework for consensus’.
The concern with laying down national identity doesn’t spring from the streets of Britain. Few lose sleep about the question of how we should
define our national values or reconnect with British history. The ‘Britishness problem’ is primarily a problem in the mind of the elite, an elite that is acutely conscious of its estrangement from the public. Brown expressed his desire for a ‘common patriotic purpose’ which ‘binds people together’ and can ‘motivate and inspire’ (2). When leaders talk about the need for allegiance to Britain, they really mean the need for allegiance to them.
Brown said he wanted a more ‘explicit patriotism’ based on a ‘celebration of who we are and what we stand for’, and he invoked a spectrum of British
and American patriotic rituals. He reportedly requested that a Union Jack sit behind him at the conference; the slightly tattered version the Fabian Society dug out gave the air of a British Legion event. Brown invoked Remembrance Sunday, 4 July (American Independence Day), and 14 July (French Bastille Day); proposed a ‘British national community service’ based on the American Peace Corps and the British Voluntary Service Overseas; and argued that ‘British history should be given much more prominence in the curriculum’.
All of this points to a conservative turn in New Labour. Remember the days of ‘New Labour, New Britain’? This was a regime that sought to declare year zero, to lay down a modern vision of British identity that was entirely distinct from the past. Out went the monarchy and dusty old history, and in came Britpop and talk about the future. Of course, New Labour’s ventures – from Cool Britannia to the Millennium Dome – crashed and burned long ago. Now it has given up on creating new national symbols and is opportunistically scouring around for old ones to take over.
The chancellor did propose some modern values for us to unite around – liberty, responsibility and fairness – but his outline of these was bland
beyond belief. By plagiarising the rituals of the past, the British elite is trying to hide the fact that it stands for little in the present.
Old patriotic symbols are seen as empty vessels into which the British elite wants to breathe new content. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell told
conference delegates to get over their aversion to the union flag, saying that they needed to interrogate themselves about why they were
uncomfortable with it. The fact is that these old symbols are available for hire. The Union Jack has lost its associations with British colonialism and
the British right: it is used at athletics events and on tourist garb, but little else. Because it is an empty shell, Brown is free to call it ‘a flag for tolerance and inclusion’.
This is the first Fabian conference on Britishness, representing a shift from its usual redistributive fare. Why are so many on the centre-left obsessed with Britishness? Everybody from Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland to head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) Trevor Philips have argued for new common values and rituals. What this shows is that holding things together is now a primary aim of what passes for progressive politics. Phrases that buzzed about on Saturday included ‘providing a sense of place’, ‘social inclusion’, ‘social cohesion’, ‘building consensus’, ‘common values’. The conference was haunted by the spectre of the 7 July bombers, symbols of the dangerous consequences of people not feeling that they belong in Britain.
Many on the centre-left aren’t concerned with changing things for the better, but simply want society to hang together. Rather than improving people’s lives, they simply want to make them happy with things as they are. ‘The ties that bind: what do we need Britishness for?’ was the title
of one session. This is about seeking stability, soothing angry breasts and giving people a sense that they belong.
In this, the centre-left is on a hiding to nothing. It seems to believe that the problem is resolvable at the level of symbols; that if it can only
come up with enough lists of ‘values’ or snazzy new designs for banknotes, people will sign up to Britishness. The question of ‘what is to be done’
often regressed into a brainstorming session, as if politicians were PR managers trying to sell a new brand of toothpaste. But national rituals cannot just be conjured up. Rituals such as 4 July, 14 July and Remembrance Sunday came out of popular mobilisations and shared national experiences;
they weren’t the result of a think-tank conference in central London.
Because the conference operated at the level of symbols, nobody was under pressure to spell out what they meant or acknowledge contradictions. One person could talk about the need for ‘unity’ and ‘common values’, another for the need for ‘diversity’ and ‘respecting difference’, and they could
both sit happily in agreement side by side. Brown could talk about the value of liberty, without anybody asking how exactly New Labour had defended liberty with its laws banning ‘indirect incitement’ to terrorism or stemming criticism of religions. Delegates were free to bat around values and catchphrases to their hearts’ content, without consequence.
The fact is that we don’t agree what values should go in any British constitution, still less on the real content of these values. Even within the small world of the Fabian Society conference, people were at odds with one another. The elite is looking to codify common values, erect some national scaffolding to keep society intact; it has no interest in having arguments or winning people over.
We should oppose these attempts to force through a premature consensus. What we need now is more arguments, where disagreements are forced to the fore and their consequences spelt out. Current blueprints for Britishness come out of the elite’s desire for a quiet life. Right now, the more noise the better.
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