Battle in Print: Who are we in the 21st century?

Suzy Dean, 9 October 2006

The return of Britishness

In January 2006, in a speech to a Fabian Society conference, Gordon Brown (14.1.2006)announced three fundamental values that he believed encapsulated what it is to be British: liberty, responsibility and fairness. He argued that liberty was the ‘golden thread which runs through British history’; responsibility should not retreat into a form of paternalism, but remain a commitment to the strongest possible civic society; and fairness should go beyond a formal equality before the law to an empowering equality of opportunity for all. These values, Brown argued, are the ‘key to the next stage of our progress as a people…values that are capable of uniting us and inspiring us as we meet and master the challenges of the future’.

Is this really what it means to be British today? Well, certainly in the abstract it is hard to disagree. Brown cites a MORI poll in which people were asked whether ‘fairness’ was important in defining what it was to be British – 90 per cent agreed. But who wouldn’t? It is a safe bet that the other 10 per cent, rather than championing unfairness or Machiavellianism, simply resisted being led by such questions. One of the problems with opinion polls is that there is no scope for debate, but usually instead three boxes to tick ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’. There are rarely boxes that say ‘disagree with assumptions in the question’ or ‘depends upon what is meant by…’ As a result, the person writing the questions has a pretty safe bet of being able to reinforce what they set out to prove.

So what does Brown mean by liberty, responsibility and fairness? Even within his speech the concepts are nebulous. Brown cites Voltaire as saying Britain gave the world the idea of liberty, without ever unpacking what it means. Perhaps in trying to elaborate the liberty that Britain supposedly has a rich tradition of upholding, Brown would have come too close to revealing the extent to which New Labour has been betraying it. Even within his speech, Brown talks of the need to ‘reconcile’ individual liberty with ‘the need for security for all’.

Instead of telling us what liberty is, Brown tells us what ought to be done in its name. This includes the devolving of power from centralised institutions, enhancing local community action and taking citizenship seriously. From this speech alone it is clear that a crucial debate is needed about what liberty is and what should be done in its name, but this is glossed over. Brown has an uncanny ability to predict the conclusions of a ‘debate’, however, claiming that:

I believe that out of a debate, hopefully leading to a broad consensus about what Britishness means, flows a rich agenda for change: a new constitutional settlement, an explicit definition of citizenship, a renewal of civic society, a rebuilding of our local government and a better balance between diversity and integration…

Latent in this introductory paragraph are the viciously circular arguments Brown reiterates like a mantra. However, even if a debate was possible at this level, more fundamental discussions need to be had. Why is a debate about Britishness relevant now? Why is Gordon Brown dedicating his keynote speech at a Fabian conference to a polemic about what he thinks it means to be British?

Trying to cohere a divided society

Brown’s invocation of liberty is just one in a long line of pronouncements from the New Labour government on the nature of Britishness in the last five years. It has become an increasingly common feature of politicians’ speeches to discuss ‘our values’ and to try to proclaim them to the wider public. But where has this soul-searching come from?

Certainly, the discovery that it was homegrown terrorists who carried out the 7/7 attacks in London stirred much debate about the strength of British identity. As did the discomfort caused by the riots amongst Asian youth in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley in summer 2001. Such incidents have caused embarrassment to New Labour, which has been forced to admit that its much-cherished multicultural agenda had failed to produce the harmony championed by its rhetoric.

Even Trevor Philips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, who was once supportive of the multicultural agenda, which advocated taking pride in one’s cultural and racial identity, warned less than three months after the July bombings that Britain was ‘sleepwalking towards segregation’ and needed to integrate. Policy plans to integrate ethnic minorities into the British way of life have since been announced, for instance the call to give imams and other religious leaders specific Britishness tests before entering the country.

The question of Britishness for New Labour can be seen as a reaction to the sense of a divided society. New Labour has turned to the idea of Britishness to overcome a feeling of fragmentation among the wider public. It seeks to create a sense of shared meaning around a common identity, despite never articulating what this identification is in its own terms. Britishness is portrayed as an old tradition that needs no justification, or as a necessary counterweight to other, less desirable, values. Yet Britishness itself seems to have no logic.

The lack of substance in the Britishness issue is most clearly revealed in the discussion about how to engage with young Muslims. In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London in early 2006, Gordon Brown emphasised the need to win the hearts and minds of young Muslims. He suggested that this should be done through a clash of ideas in media, art and literature to show young Muslims that Western, in particular British, ideals are better than the fundamentalist ones that attracted the 7/7 bombers. Gordon Brown had a valid point, but he failed to make something useful out of it because he struggled to outline the precise values Britain is supposed to hold.

Management, not meaning

In many respects the July bombers tell us something about the sense of alienation people feel from British identity, and we can perhaps understand their motivation as fuelled by a search for a meaningful identity in the world, a connection to something greater than themselves. Unfortunately, it appears that the alternative that best appealed was the allure of fundamentalist extremism, which gave the terrorists a sense of purpose. The banality of values on offer in mainstream discourse managed to turn a potentially positive human instinct into a suicide pact. Isn’t it sad that the search for a broader sense of meaning was in the end channelled towards Islamic extremism.

This is not to say that the absence of a broader identity has the same devastating consequences upon the wider population. There seems to be a search for meaning in society which everybody is reacting to differently. Some people don’t express it in extreme terms or even in terms of Britishness. Many people identify themselves by their musical or sporting tastes without the need to question their place in the world or take to the extreme the search for something bigger.

New Labour have responded to this search for identity not by offering an inspiring vision to society – one which all people no matter their religion or colour would want to be part of – but by managing it. Increasingly, a politically impotent New Labour focuses on what was once apolitical – the banality of our everyday lives – to engage with us. New Labour will legislate on everything from the things we say to one another to what we feed our children, but we rarely hear a politician offering us an inspiring vision and a good reason why we would want to try and make it a reality. Just one example of Labour’s dull vision is in their focus on smoking. In 1998 they pledged to help us to change our ‘attitudes and behaviour’ towards smoking at a cost of £50million in the first three years alone. It seems that New Labour’s quest for a sense of British identity is meant to cohere, yet there is no sense of what to cohere around or why we would want to cohere at all.

Contemporary politics so lacks vision that it is not unusual to hear politicians asking people what they want, just as when they ask people ‘What does it mean to you to be British?’ It seems that New Labour isn’t clear about what its values are, and cannot explain them. Therefore, it keeps asking the public what they think being British is, whilst repeating that everything they do is British, rather than worthwhile in its own terms. One of the most striking thing about the Britishness agenda is that New Labour is now attempting to justify itself in cultural rather than political terms, serving to promote decency and tolerance through a string of policies because it’s British rather than progressive. For instance, when the religious hatred bill was introduced it was framed as something that decent honest British people wouldn’t have a problem with. Not only does this formalising of culture eradicate the need for a debate, because culture ‘just is’, but, more disastrously, New Labour makes it look like a debate is going on when it’s not. It is actually imposing a consensus which only serves to alienate and disempower the public further.

As the government increasingly formalises our sense of identity as a non-smoking, non-offensive, weight conscious public, legislating what constitutes us as citizens or – more importantly – of what we as citizens should not do, the impacts of this formalisation will have an increasing effect upon people’s lives as they find themselves backed into a corner regarding how they can define themselves.

Sidestepping debate

Where Blair is trying to address the identity question in the UK he has tried to do it by managing rather than inspiring society, using the Britishness agenda as an empty justification for many of New Labour’s policy initiatives. More importantly, the Britishness agenda signifies a shift in politics, which today seems to be less concerned with political ideals and more concerned with formalisıng culture in a bid to stay relevant and engaged with an increasingly uninterested public.

It would be a mistake to simply argue that a definition of Britishness should come from the bottom-up because to make such an argument would be to engage in the framework of a debate that has been dreamt up by New Labour. The fact that the question is being asked at all should be challenged, as it says more about the people asking the question than it does about what British society needs today. The problem is not just that Labour is attempting to impose a top-down agenda upon the public, it’s that they believe that their farcical attempt to generate a debate that will legitimise decisions they have already made will spark any interest on the part of the public imagination.

Rather than engaging in a New Labour imposed debate about what it is to be British, a far more important debate is why we tolerate such banal chatter from politicians who are supposed to represent us. Again citing an opinion poll, Brown claims: ‘As many as half of British people said they were worried that if we do not promote Britishness we run a real risk of having a divided society’. The irony is that the more Brown – and the government as a whole – sidesteps any real debate about the future of Britain and imposes its managerial agenda under the façade of a ‘public debate’, the more real the risk of a divided society will become.


Brown, G. (14.1.2006). The Future of Britishness. Speech to the Fabian Future of Britishness conference.

Demystifying the crisis

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