National anxieties

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National anxieties

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Issues of security and identity have been unexpectedly prominent since 1997. On this terrain, New Labour has found itself squeezed between its liberal supporters and its anxious ones. The two can be reconciled in a politics of liberal realism, based on a robust defence of national citizenship

This essay is based on the pamphlet “Progressive Nationalism,” published by Demos in May 2006. To read the full pamphlet text, click here, and to read replies from Neal Ascherson, David Blunkett and others, click here.

The foreign prisoner debacle that cast a shadow over the recent local elections, and the government reshuffle that followed, marked one of the lowest points in the long New Labour hegemony. They were also a reminder of the unexpected dominance, since 1997, of the “security and identity” issues: crime, terror, asylum and immigration, race and national identity, hostility to free-riders, rising incivility and so on. Partly thanks to events—Iraq, 7/7, increased immigration—and partly to the fading of the old left/right, state/market conflict, these themes have dominated domestic politics, alongside public service reform, in Labour’s second and third terms.

The security and identity issues have not, historically, been strong themes for the centre-left. They seldom lend themselves to technocratic solutions and give rise to emotional, sometimes irrational, responses that liberals find hard to understand. When Labour came to power in 1997 it had clear social, economic and constitutional goals, many of which it has achieved. This has been far less true for the security and identity themes, although the famous “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan and the “rights and duties” approach to citizenship signalled a reasonable attempt to combine liberal principles with tough-mindedness.

This combination has become harder to pull off in recent years as public opinion has grown more polarised between on the one hand, a cosmopolitan minority with a universalist, rights-based, post-national ideology that is comfortable in today’s more fluid, pluralist society, and on the other, a more traditional group that is sceptical about rapid change and more concerned with roots, reciprocity and “something for something” citizenship.

Labour’s problem is that both groups are part of its historic coalition. On the cosmopolitan side is much of the liberal middle class (plus some ethnic minority voters), and on the traditional side is a large part of the white working class. To try to accommodate them all, Labour rhetoric has swung, sometimes alarmingly, between the two poles—from David Blunkett’s tough talking on crime and immigration to the post-national rhetoric of “cool Britannia.”

Moreover, Labour has had conflicting goals on some of the key security and identity themes. Consider the issue of immigration itself. On the one hand, Labour has embraced multi-ethnic Britain more enthusiastically than the Tories and encouraged historically high levels of immigration and the cultural and economic dynamism associated with it; it has also introduced the Human Rights Act (HRA), which blurs the distinction between the rights of citizens and non-citizens and makes it harder for governments to deport undesirable foreigners. On the other hand, Labour has sought to reassure those who face economic competition from migrants, as well as those made anxious by rapid change, with hard words (and targets) on reducing the number of bogus asylum-seekers, a points system to reduce low-skill immigration, and ID cards to link citizenship to entitlement more closely. Given these clashing messages, it is no surprise that the home office has often been found wanting in recent years and has been the site of several dramatic political resignations.

There is nothing unprincipled about facing both ways on such a big theme as immigration—any more than it is unprincipled to favour both economic efficiency and social justice. But it does make sense to be aware of the tensions so that you can explain them to the public. Too often, Labour has seemed confused and defensive and has failed to pull the policy strands together into a coherent “liberal realist” narrative capable of reassuring the anxious and the liberal.

Such a liberal realist narrative should start from the acknowledgement that a big part of politics is about marrying the twin, and sometimes conflicting, demands of tradition and modernity: the “particularist” commitment to specific communities and national traditions with the universalist, individual-rights culture of markets and law. Many progressives do not, in fact, accept this, and after the collapse of socialism some of them have sought salvation in post-nationalism. But a politics of liberal realism needs to navigate through those progressive confusions which stand in the way of a more meaningful conception of British national citizenship. There are three in particular.

First is the fallacy that humans are by nature egalitarian individualists with a tendency to treat all other humans with equal regard. The idea that all human life should be sacred and that all humans should be treated with respect does not mean that we have equal feelings or commitments to all humanity. In economics and sociology the left embraces the idea of group interests and affinities. But when it comes to culture or national sentiment, the left switches to a rhetoric of individualism, implicitly seeing society—or at least the dominant culture—as no more than a collection of individuals with no special ties towards each other. This “blank sheet” individualism often employs the language of internationalism and universalism, increasingly the preferred discourse of elites (of both left and right) in contrast to the economic and cultural communitarianism of most ordinary people.

Second is the fallacy that national feeling is necessarily xenophobic. Nationalism has always been Janus-like. Alongside the hatred it has generated, it is also responsible for many of the most positive aspects of modern societies—the idea of equal citizenship, the readiness to share with and make sacrifices for stranger-citizens. Feelings of national solidarity can be regarded as a more intense subset of the more general feeling of human solidarity—both are about identifying with and empathising with strangers. In today’s Europe, there is no reason for the two sentiments to conflict.

It was sentiments of national solidarity as much as class solidarity, a feeling that “we are all in this together,” that helped to build and sustain the welfare state. It is the core belief of the left, against the individualism of free-market libertarians, that there is such a thing as society—but in the modern world that almost always means a specific national society.

The left has historically struggled for a “universal” notion of equal national citizenship that is blind to wealth, gender and, more recently, race and ethnicity, and one that promotes a high degree of sharing and engagement with fellow citizens. Yet this idea of citizenship is not universal, it stops at our borders. Nations have boundaries. Citizenship must include and exclude. Notwithstanding the much greater international interconnectedness of modern life, we continue to privilege our fellow national citizens over those of other countries—consider the fact that we spend 25 times more each year on the NHS than on development aid. This does not mean that we regard British people as morally superior to others, nor does it mean that we have no obligations towards humanity as a whole, and especially towards the citizens of former colonial countries whom we exploited in the past. But such obligations do not require us to sacrifice the traditions and coherence of our own societies or to offer citizenship to anyone who wants it—we should express solidarity with the global poor mainly through aid, fair trade rules and a just asylum system.

The third fallacy is the belief that western countries, especially those like Britain with a colonial past, are responsible for most of the ills of developing countries and can best make amends by placing as few obstacles as possible in the way of people from those countries coming to live in the west. The legacy of colonialism is complex and varied. Some terrible things were done by western colonisers (especially in Africa) and some benign things too. But until the very recent past, almost all powerful civilisations—including Islamic ones—have embraced slavery and conquest; we should be careful not to judge the past by the standards of the present. It is, in any case, hardly an advantage for poor countries to lose their most dynamic people to the west. The dilemma for the left here is that its internationalism conflicts with its support for equality at home. Its internationalism requires the most open door possible to poor country migrants but a high level of low-skill migration depresses wages and is bad for equality in Britain.

Sensible policy cannot be made on the basis of the three fallacies above. However multiple and hybrid their identities, people still need to connect to the wider social and political entities of which they are a part. Yet the continuity and shared experience that creates real communities is undermined by many modern trends. As affluence, mobility and individualism weaken the other collective identities of class, ethnicity and religion (at least for the British majority), feelings of national identity may be the last resting place for the communal commitments that the left holds dear. Indeed, a progressive nationalism—comfortable with Britain’s multi-ethnic and multi-racial character and its place in the EU—is part of the answer to the progressive dilemma, the tension between solidarity and diversity (discussed in my essay “Too Diverse?”, Prospect February 2004). This does not mean ignoring or downplaying distributional and other conflicts of interest between groups within the national society, especially when inequality has been growing so sharply in recent decades. Nor does it require an uncritical attitude to the nation or its history and symbols. The left has often, with justice, mocked excesses of national vanity and antipathy to foreigners, and should continue to do so. But equally, the left’s uneasiness with national feeling is itself, in part, an anachronistic hangover from the days of militarist jingoism. Those days are gone; national feeling can now be put to better use.

A government’s first priority must be to its own citizens, all of them. This may seem obvious, but it often collides with the assumptions of the internationalist left (and the business elite) as well as the xenophobic right (who refuse to recognise the non-indigenous as full citizens). The uncomfortable truth for many progressives—and something which the universalism of the HRA blurs—is that the modern nation state is based not on a universalist liberalism but on a contractual idea of club membership. If we offered membership to the rest of humanity—through having no barriers on entry—it would quickly lose value. And it also follows from a liberal realist notion of citizenship that we should be far from indifferent about who becomes a fellow citizen. Yet a studied indifference has in the past been a distinguishing characteristic of progressive belief. (A recent report on migration by the RSA declared any attempt to favour skilled immigrants to be “reminiscent of the apartheid regime.”)

Security and identity issues throw up many hard questions about citizenship and membership. But two points for the centre-left are surely clear. First, these issues are mainly questions about community—local and national. By placing them higher on their list of priorities, many voters are expressing a fear of change, but they are also rejecting the idea of society as no more than a random collection of individuals.

Second, greater mobility and value diversity means that the everyday reciprocities and conventions that once underpinned membership of the local or national community are no longer so self-evident. We no longer support people in need just because they are “one of us,” or because our grandfathers fought together in the same wars. There are many different ways of being and feeling British or English, but all citizens owe a primary commitment to this society and the two contracts that help to define it. First is the political contract based on the “vertical” citizen-to-state relationship: acceptance of the rule of law and the authority of the state and its institutions; agreement to play by the economic and welfare rules and to accept national norms on such things as the place of religion, free speech and women’s equality. Alongside it stands the equally important social contract based on the “horizontal” citizen-to-citizen solidarity embodied in the welfare state and our shared experiences of using common institutions such as the NHS, schools, pubs, the BBC, public transport and sports and leisure centres. Rather than placing the stress on values and identity, Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit has usefully talked about the contract of national citizenship emerging out of an intersection of interests, institutions and ideals. But the point is that the nature of the contract and the behaviour of political actors need to be spelled out more explicitly than in the past. One recent example was the creation of the Nolan committee on standards in public life—people could no longer be assumed to know what those standards were.

The idea that the essence of Britishness is its lack of an essence is in many ways an attractive one—especially given that technically Britain is not a nation at all but a state formed out of the amalgamation of four countries. Geography and history have bequeathed us strong liberal and individualist traditions—Britons (or at least the English majority) tend to regard the state as a necessary evil rather than a benign parent. And we are notoriously a private people, uncomfortable with the idea of national solidarity or trying to legislate for something as intangible as “social cohesion.” David Cameron is right to say, in answer to Gordon Brown, that “we don’t do flags on the front lawn.” But to leave it at that is no longer sufficient. Over recent decades, there has been a sharp decline in big, defining frameworks in people’s lives, whether derived from family, nation or religion. A sense of national purpose has often been replaced by the idea of individual self-actualisation or by narrower group identities. And the idea of the national political community extending rights and obligations to all citizens over time—and as a result of historic struggles—has been replaced by the thin, ahistorical notion of human rights. The good society needs deeper commitments than that. The fuzziness of our idea of national citizenship and the declining appeal of Britishness threatens to disarm liberal politics in the face of a fragmenting common culture and the new vigour of BNP extremist populism. Populists present “the people” as a homogeneous entity facing a closed, corrupt elite which has betrayed the interests of the long-suffering majority. The liberal realist response must be to persuade an anxious public that British citizenship remains valued and protected by mainstream politics.

Many measures introduced by Labour over the past few years have, indeed, aimed to raise the visibility and value of citizenship both to new citizens (citizenship ceremonies and tests) and existing ones (citizenship in schools). Why not go further? Why not, for example, an informal ceremony at the registering of each British baby’s birth, which provides an opportunity to explain what a parent can expect from the local or national state in terms of childcare, “baby bonds,” health and education, and what the state expects from you as a parent? Why not compulsory voting to underline that citizenship entails a minimum duty of political participation, and a national volunteering scheme for school-leavers? Labour has stressed the “contractual” nature of citizenship and the conditionality of at least some welfare benefits. This “something for something” approach to domestic issues has been a central plank of the party’s mainstream appeal and if it is to win political support for continuing high levels of immigration, it needs overtly to extend the idea from established citizens to new citizens too—through more formal probationary periods, tests and so on, allowing migrants to visibly “earn” their new citizenship. And a clearer “offer” of British citizenship needs to be made both to aid integration and to reassure existing citizens of the value of their own membership.

The master policy in this field is the introduction of identity (ID) cards, linked to a system of electronic embarkation controls. ID cards have, however, been sold in an overly defensive and technocratic way. They should be presented as badges of citizenship embodying the idea of the contract between citizen and state. They help us to know who is in the country and what their status is, and to protect the precious entitlements of all existing citizens. They can also help to defuse many of the inevitable tensions that arise where welfare systems and immigration meet.

Not everyone benefits from low-skill immigration—in certain areas it means extra pressure on low-cost housing and public services as well as downward pressure on the wages of the less skilled. Despite majority (and minority) scepticism about high levels of immigration, people are usually happy enough to accept newcomers, both nationally and locally, when they are seen to contribute and do not cut themselves off from the mainstream. An informal assumption—the migration equivalent of John Rawls’s difference principle on income inequality—might apply here, with migration welcomed to the extent that it can be shown to improve the lives of the least well-off British citizens. That will always be hard to prove conclusively one way or the other, but government and employers should certainly do more to show that they are doing their best to get existing citizens into jobs and training before reaching for immigration as the short-term answer to labour shortages. Unemployment in London is over 7 per cent, much of it concentrated among ethnic minorities, and there are more than 2m people in Britain on incapacity benefits, many of whom want to work.

High levels of mobility and immigration generate not only these “objective” grounds for anxiety among lower-income groups, but also a more general “subjective” anxiety that other people, especially newcomers, are unfairly jumping ahead in the queue of life. The disproportionate passion invoked against the “other,” and indeed the very identity of the other, is connected to media reporting. But it is not enough to say that people suffer from Daily Mail-induced false consciousness. Many poorer people in welfare states are acutely sensitive to free riders. A Prospect/Mori poll (Prospect, February 2004) asked whether respondents felt that other people were taking unfair advantage in their use of public services and benefits, and 45 per cent said “yes.” The groups most often blamed were asylum seekers and recent immigrants, but, more hearteningly, the long established minorities featured hardly at all, suggesting that, given time, people do extend their idea of the “we” when it comes to sharing resources.

This sensitivity to free-riding is another element in the rising salience of security and identity issues. It seems to be connected to the opacity of developed urban societies and the fact that even people on low incomes pay large chunks of their income to the state but cannot clearly see where, or to whom, it then flows. In their recent book The New East End (Profile, 2006), Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and the late Michael Young discovered deep unease among the white working class of east London about the shift from mutual forms of welfare to the modern state’s needs-based system, which was seen as favouring the Bangladeshi newcomers who had not paid their way: “Establishing a common understanding of reciprocity is a big enough challenge within a group that has fixed membership, but it becomes increasingly important to sustain where newcomers need to be brought into a pre-existing moral economy.”

If the lack of fellow feeling towards newer citizens is potentially part of the problem of sustaining welfare states in modern societies, it is the actual contribution of such citizens that may be part of the solution. That contribution allows the focus to be placed on our commonality as taxpayers and users of public services, and also allows a positive case for moderate immigration: it helps to shore up parts of the welfare state and cushions the adaptation to a society with an older average age. The first jobs that unskilled immigrants take are often at the lower end of the welfare economy, public or private. (Some commentators go on to claim that immigration brings large fiscal benefits to Britain. The reality, according to John Salt at UCL, a leading authority, seems to be that the costs and benefits more or less balance each other out.)

But even if free-rider anxieties are not justified, they must still be answered, not just dismissed. And, above all, if the welfare “contract” is to stand at the heart of national solidarity, it is essential—more so than in the past when Britain was a less open society—to establish more transparent rules of national membership and entitlement, hence the importance of ID cards and conditional benefits.

This is all the more important because Britain has an unusually open welfare state, which has in recent years been drifting away from a contribution-based system, with its link between what you put in and what you get out—at least for unemployment benefit and pensions—to a system based on needs and residence entitlement, regardless of what you have paid in. To preserve popular support for a “common pool” welfare system, you need to have some confidence in your fellow citizens to play by the rules. But we have been making this shift to more common pool welfare at a time when general trust levels are in decline, and when people believe that Britain no longer fully controls its borders. This latter belief is partly justified. As any migration expert will tell you, it is hard to keep full control of your borders when there are 90m journeys into—and a similar number out of—Britain each year. (ID cards are, in part, an acknowledgement that in an age of mass migration, national borders will always be somewhat porous, and that therefore citizenship status needs to be more routinely established in everyday life.)

Making citizenship more visible and raising, somewhat, the qualification hurdles is belatedly bringing Britain into line with much of the rest of the developed world, including the US. At present, permanently resident non-citizens in Britain have almost all the benefits of citizenship except for being able to vote. More benefits, especially long-term ones, should be based on citizenship rather than merely residence. Indeed, we should consider establishing a more formal two-tier citizenship, a temporary British resident status with fewer rights and duties for those who want to come here to work for a few years and then return home, alongside a more formal, full citizenship. (The recent RSA migration report suggests offering some workers from outside the EU a five-year visa, which would entitle them to work but not to bring their families. An alternative might be to require temporary workers to pay a small, insurance-style health premium to use the NHS.) There are complex issues here relating to welfare access but it should be possible to work out a system which would be of benefit both to Britain and to the temporary worker, and would help to underline the “specialness” of full citizenship. A two-tier system of full and temporary citizenship (replacing the current messy, multi-tiered system) would need to take care that members of the settled minorities did not feel lumped together with temporary citizens in a “second-class” box. But survey evidence suggests that indigenous Britons do distinguish between members of the settled minorities, who are considered fully British, and asylum seekers or temporary workers (often whites from eastern Europe) who are not.

Labour’s balancing act on the security and identity issues has had some success at the rhetorical level. Implementation has, however, been far less successful, which has exacerbated Labour’s political problem: it has talked tough—thus alienating the progressive middle class—but failed to convince people that it is achieving its goals—thus alienating more traditional and working-class voters. The particularly poor local election results in London, where the progressive middle class is over-represented, appears to reflect this double alienation. Moreover, its hyperactivism in this field, in terms of initiatives, legislation and swapping ministers around, has failed to reassure people but rather seems to have contributed to the feeling that all is in flux.

The shrill response of some parts of the civil liberties lobby to the government’s homeland security initiatives has also deepened the ideological polarisation. The default position of many civil libertarians is a deeply conservative (and chauvinistic) view that our existing common law practices and institutions are sacrosanct—implying that all those continental European countries that do not have jury trials but do have ID cards are significantly less free or liberal.
The government, fearful that people might take the law into their own hands if it did not act vigorously after 7/7, was over-hasty in some of its legislation—especially the glorification of terrorism clause and the 90-day confinement without charge, (the latter being rightly knocked back by parliament). But the arrival of the modern terrorist cell and the suicide bomber surely warrants some shift in the balance between individual rights and collective security.

Other changes too require our laws and institutions to adapt. The criminal justice system and its evidence requirements were not designed for a persistently disruptive ten year old with no proper authority figure to control him or her. (Asbos are denounced by many civil libertarians, but after some teething troubles, they seem to be popular and reasonably successful in dealing with disruption on some of the roughest estates in Britain.) The asylum system was designed for a few Soviet dissidents, not for an era of mass migration. The welfare state was designed in an era of closed borders and a more instinctive sense of national solidarity.

The looming test case for whether the system can adapt is the question of how the Human Rights Act can be made to work in an atmosphere of heightened security anxiety and public hostility to extending the rights of British citizenship to foreigners who have committed misdemeanours. The problem appears to be not so much the HRA itself but Britain’s legal culture, which not only has an honourable tradition of defending individual rights but also, sometimes, an adversarial hostility to democratic politicians. Consider those successful asylum claimants who seem to have clearly forfeited their rights to stay, including hijackers and people traffickers. France is also subject to the HRA but has a much more robust approach to ejecting undesirable foreigners who are a potential threat to French citizens. Will Britain’s judges shift in response to a shift in the public mood? Probably not, until someone blocked by the courts from deportation commits an atrocity.

Before the European convention on human rights was passed into British law in 1998, the system acted as a back-stop in cases of serious abuse. British citizens could still take cases to the Strasbourg court but it was a complex process used as a last resort. Now the convention acts as a more upfront veto on legislation. The ability to declare legislation incompatible with the HRA in the name of certain inviolable rights is a proper check on democracy, but it should not too easily pre-empt the decisions of elected politicians—especially when big events such as 7/7 require politicians to reflect a change in public mood. One answer to the tension between the HRA and national politicians over differing interpretations of national security might be for governments to just take a tougher line—to fight rulings to the bitter end, and as a last resort—possibly after a free vote in the Commons—refuse to comply with rulings, placing the onus on Strasbourg to throw Britain out of the convention.

The underlying problem with the civil libertarian case is that it has a contradictory attitude to the state. Most civil libertarians are on the left. They acknowledge that we are no longer living in societies of self-sufficient yeoman farmers, and that in our densely populated urban centres we are dependent on an effective state. But the civil liberties movement was born out of the totalitarian abuse of state power and thus privileges the individual, sometimes even against the public interest. Tzvetan Todorov, writing in a recent issue of the American journal Salmagundi, puts it well: “We are living in a world where the state is no longer asked to express the collective will, but rather to ensure our personal safety and the right of each of us to act as he or she sees fit. Paradoxically, we ask more and more from the state but on condition that it always be in the service of the individual: we owe nothing to the state which owes us everything.” He points out that in Europe today the chief threat to democracy does not come from the expansion of the collective will but from the unprecedented strengthening of certain individuals—from unaccountable media barons to Islamic terrorists.

A moderately strong state is a necessity in a technologically complex, highly urbanised society. It does not need to be a liberal state, but in a country like Britain with long democratic traditions, the danger of a slide into authoritarianism is small. Much less secure is the survival of a generous welfare state, redistribution of wealth and a strong bond of citizenship—these are threatened by affluence, diversity and individualism. (The only possible countervailing factor that may benefit egalitarianism and solidarity, in the medium term, is some sort of energy rationing or household carbon emission limit.) A great effort of political will is required merely to hold on to the welfare state as it is, and enlightened self-interest is likely to be too thin a basis for it; some sense of fellow feeling and shared collective destiny is necessary too. The nation state, the idea of a national story, even the idea of the British people, have all been in retreat in recent years. That is partly because the things associated with the first 250 years of Britain—Protestantism, empire, world wars—have faded from memory or in importance. The challenge, as Gordon Brown argues, is to revive the idea and the institutions of British national citizenship to reflect the realities of the country today. These things cannot easily be commanded by politicians. But their actions and initiatives can help to reinforce the continuing value of the nation state as the only feasible site for the sharing and redistribution of resources on any significant scale, as well as for democratic accountability. For that reason it is particularly in the interests of social democrats to preserve it and shape its future.

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David Goodhart

David Goodhart
David Goodhart is the director of Demos and editor at large of Prospect. He is the author of "The British Dream" (Atlantic) 

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