Demos Daily: A More United Kingdom

The current health crisis has in many ways seen Britain form a united front: working to tackle our neighbourhood struggles together, a shared appreciation for our carers, and a common feeling of solidarity in the fight against the virus. But more recently, we have seen divisions return to the fore – whether it be disagreement over the Government’s handling of the crisis, or the alleged ‘culture war’ that’s broken out over statues and how we deal with the more shameful aspects of our historical legacy. Yet it’s crucial that as we come out of this pandemic, we find a way to come together, unite and discuss the common values we all share. Back in 2008, then-minister Liam Byrne MP wrote a pamphlet proposing the need for strengthened shared standards in Britain, and suggesting a number of ways we could increase our unity.

Read the introduction of A More United Kingdom below, or the full pamphlet here.

Introduction

Fragmentation, free thought and new excitements came now to intrigue and perplex us – Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie, 1959

The idea of shared standards or ‘rules of the road’ has always been part of the fabric of political ideas and public life. For Labour they are the quintessence of the kind of cooperation that we believe vital to social progress. And over the last decade we have acquired a new appreciation of the importance of this ‘fraternity’, reciprocity and mutual respect to a healthy, wealthy – and more equal – society.

But modern life is bringing changes to the way shared social standards are created, reinforced and used day to day. In a more fluid world of international migration, fast-moving economies and changing social attitudes, individuals find new opportunities for career progression and personal expression. But collective life also faces new pressures as communities become more transient, families more dispersed, work less secure and traditional institutions less powerful.

For Labour, this poses some urgent new questions. We have always been comfortable with an extremely relaxed definition of what we think it is we have in common, but this will not do any more. We can live in a country where our values are different, where we have different inspirations and different ambitions, but living in a country without ‘shared standards’ is impossible. When a society begins to question the things it has in common, it is automatically more predisposed not only to the politics of fear but also to the politics of individualism.

As a counterweight to this, shared standards are the secret to preserving harmony in a more diverse society. When the rules of the road are clear, people relax about where their neighbours plan to travel. Every fraternal society has its code of conduct. Every happy family has good ground-rules. Shared standards are the glue that keeps diverse societies together; they are something akin to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ idea of the law: ‘those wise constraints that make people free’. (1) And this is no more or less than the insight that has been at the centre of progressive thinking since at least JS Mill.

Of course, these standards also come in different forms. Sometimes they are codified in law, as with property rights or privacy laws. In other areas, communities share less formalised conventions, which make communal life fairer and more fulfilling, from giving up a seat on a bus to the great British pastime of queuing.

Today, the appetite for shared standards, both civic and legal, is acute. This is the lesson of the immigration debate for Labour’s wider agenda: strengthening what we have in common must coexist with a respect for difference. My warning is that unless Labour takes this argument seriously the Tories will seek to take this ground. Already in the work of writers like Danny Kruger and others we see a Tory ambition to seize the language, the agenda and the policies of fraternity from us. Indeed Kruger points to a coming ‘passionate disagreement about who owns the ground of fraternity, and whether the state or the individual will lift their banner there’. (2)

Yet the reflex of the right is to draw the wrong lessons from history. In America and continental Europe, neo-conservatives are provoking ‘culture wars’ to promote a regressive agenda of their own. In Britain, the right seeks to revert to a set of traditional institutions, most obviously the nuclear family, in an attempt to stave off vast technological, social and economic changes. But the real lesson of the past is one of inventiveness, not stasis.

Because we have been here before. And we have once before mastered this challenge. At the end of the nineteenth century we felt in this country the industrialisation that sucked people out of the countryside into new associations in the city. As Laurie Lee put it: ‘Fragmentation, free thought and new excitements came now to intrigue and perplex us.’

Our national response was not reactionary; it was inventive. In cities like mine, Birmingham, at the end of the nineteenth century, we built a new civic fabric from scratch. Social and civic entrepreneurs like Chamberlain and Cadbury helped invent a new way of living together, underpinned by new, collective habits and services. Countless social and political entrepreneurs created a new richness in social and political life.

New answers will require the political imagination of all of us. Rather than hark back to the past, we should set sail for a different future, which is above all imaginative, where we seek to keep the standards and norms that have been shaped by our national history and reimagine how to apply them to the challenges of today. In this future we should strike an intelligent balance between what is common and the space to be different – with what Putnam called ‘an era of civic inventiveness’ (3) – and add this ambition to New Labour’s traditional themes of opportunity and security.

This is why the debate about Britishness is so important and so relevant today. Britishness is quite simply one of the most important associations that we have; it is a code, shaped by our history and reinforced by our everyday experience, which defines so much of the way we look at the world. We need therefore to think hard about ways to weave Britishness creatively throughout our work; and we must couple this with a much broader attempt to refresh fraternity in modern Britain, to renew the social contract that links us all.

There are a number of fertile areas to begin this process. The statement, or bill, of British rights and duties is perhaps the most constitutionally prominent opportunity to set out a picture of the contract that binds us together. The Olympics in 2012 will be an extraordinary stage for the UK to have the chance to set out our national story. Renewed investment in our history and the sites, landmarks, monuments and markers of our shared heritage provides not just a way of enticing tourists to Britain, but a focus for local interest and pride. Many in the UK would like to see greater honour accorded to our veterans, and leaders like the Chief Rabbi have argued for greater attention for inter-generational exposure to the sacrifice of others. In our schools, the citizenship curriculum should be a matter of debate and discussion. Our local councils are already developing practical steps like providing sensible guidance on how we live for migrants.

One of the clear opportunities to respond is in our policies for migration and integration, as laid out in the Home Office’s recent green paper. (4)

In this pamphlet, I explore three further ideas to sit alongside an argument for citizenship reform in the immigration system, one unashamedly cultural, one political and one that is both civic and economic:

  • a national day to celebrate what we like best about ourcountry
  • a stronger defence of the Union
  • the Labour Party leading a renewal of civic pride and association as part of a broader, sustained effort to regenerate Britain’s poorest places.

A national day to celebrate what we like best about our country

Last year, wherever I went in Britain talking about immigration, I got a sense that Britain was today a country that was comfortable with difference. As one lady said to me in Edgbaston: ‘We can learn to live together, if we only put our minds to it.’ In this remark you hear captured the strong sense that the time is right for Britain as a country to do more to celebrate the things that we do have in common. A national day would be the perfect way. There is no national blueprint for what people want. In my discussions, people suggested 27 different ways of celebrating a national day (see chapter 6). I suggest we just get started.

A stronger defence of the Union

Britain has emerged from the last two decades of globalisation as one of the world’s most successful societies. It would have been impossible for any one nation of the UK to have achieved so much alone. But there is another reason for the defence of the Union.

First, Britishness as a political idea is much more flexible and inclusive than many sub-national identities. As Vron Ware puts it: ‘I think British is easier [than English] – it’s clearly a bit more plural as it includes the Celtic fringe: Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It seems to accommodate the regional difference.’ (5)

But second, the Union is a constitutional example of the kind of balance that we all must achieve in the modern world. I am the grandson of Irish immigrants. But I have three generations of family from Birmingham, where I live today. I spent years growing up in Essex and a bit of me will always be proud to be an ‘Essex boy’. When I go to Europe I feel European. As a Catholic, part of me is defined by two millennia of history and an allegiance to the Pope. But I am British and proud of it. The celebration of the Union is fundamental to Britishness because it is de facto a construction of multiple identities. An argument for dissolving the Union would be a lamentable admission that in this age of diversity we are unable to master the task of marshalling, combining and celebrating what is in common between our modern plurality of identities.

The Labour Party leading a renewal of civic pride and association

Without doubt, the job of building a more cohesive society would be easier if competition for resources in some of our poorest places was not as sharp. But in my own constituency, Hodge Hill, I have come to see that alongside my work on regeneration through my Hodge Hill 2020 programme, I had to find different cultural, civic, faith-based ways of getting residents out of the streets they live in and into the streets of others. Stronger local roots, I learnt, are the ground floor of regeneration. So I am bringing together local and oral history projects, exploring how inter-faith groups can grow, and backing young entrepreneurs who are using sports and street games to bring different groups of young people together. This has convinced me that as part of the huge programme of regeneration now proposed by this government, the Labour Party nationally must invent a new style and purpose for Labour parties locally. The Labour Party needs to lead a local renewal of civic pride and a renaissance of what de Tocqueville called ‘the art of association’.

Here then are some first thoughts about New Labour’s renewal and how Labour can lead a debate and lead change about how we strengthen shared standards in Britain, and how we put alongside new arguments for empowerment, an agenda for refreshing fraternity in modern Britain. It is a debate that is national and local, political and civic, and forms an agenda for Labour in government and for Labour parties in local communities.

In his speech, A Struggle for the Soul of the 21st Century, Bill Clinton (6) describes the world that is being created right now as a ‘world without walls’. It is a world with the promise of glittering new rewards; new advances in science, new wealth powered by trade and technology, and new freedoms to move and explore for literally billions of people.

But the risks are great too. Especially the risk that the divisions of the past – between rich and poor, young and old, domestic and ‘foreign’ – become deeper and more bitter. Successful societies will be those that make the right investments in people and embrace change. But voters will only make that choice if they believe that this new world will offer them a fair chance to succeed and a fair share of the rewards. Above all, people will want this world without walls to still feel like home. And that is why strengthening shared standards – creating a more United Kingdom – is so important to the emotional calculation that voters face today.

 


Notes

(1)  Jared Diamond in his extraordinary Guns, Germs and Steel: The fates of human societies (New York: Norton, 1999) puts it thus: any complex society requires enforcement of rules, if necessary by complex central organisations to (a) solve ‘the problem of conflict between unrelated strangers’ that grows astronomically as societies become denser; (b) manage communal decision making in similar conditions; (c) redistribute goods as needed in any exchange economy; and (d) manage trade with others.

(2)  Kruger, ‘The right dialectic’.

(3)  Putnam, Bowling Alone.

(4)  Home Office, The Path to Citizenship.

(5)  Ware, Who Cares About Britishness.

(6)  Dimbleby Lecture, 2001