Identity parades

The dilemma for modern liberal states is how to combine tolerance for diversity with a commitment to universal civic values. Michael Ignatieff considers how Britain, and British identity, is dealing with this dilemma in the face of ethnic and religious difference, Celtic devolution and European integration
April 19, 1998

The recent death of Enoch Powell provided the Conservative party with the occasion to mourn the loss of a great English nationalist; it allowed others to heave a sigh of relief; it enabled everyone to notice how much the debate about British national identity has changed since 1968. Then we spoke of race; now we talk about ethnic minorities. Then the ambient atmosphere of the debate was relative economic decline and post-imperial despondency. Now our new elite is "branding" Britain as "the young country," which suggests that we have not lost the capacity to tell ourselves agreeable fairy tales. National identity is not fixed or stable: it is a continuing exercise in the fabrication of illusion and the elaboration of convenient fables about who "we" are.

National identity is also about what we leave unsaid, what is forgotten or repressed. To break the first of these silences-about race-we must return to Powell. He was an ethnic essentialist. He thought that human beings belonged to primary groups-racial, ethnic and linguistic communities of descent. The English were such a group: a homogeneous national community sharing political traditions. Immigration threatened the cohesion of the Eng-lish because the new arrivals could not possibly share English values; and the English could not be expected to extend the protection of these values-toleration, respect for law, democracy-to non-white newcomers.

In Enoch Powell's vision of the English, civic values depended for their legitimacy on ethnic tradition. What tied English people to values such as fair play and tolerance was not that these were values anyone could believe in; it was that they were uniquely English. You believed them because you were born with them. If they weren't "your" values they could not meaningfully bind you.

It is worth remembering that Powell spoke for millions. Even people who did not see the river foaming with blood felt he was defending the England they loved. But the Powellite tide was turned. The response of the British political class of 1968 makes an instructive comparison with the France of the 1980s and 1990s. Powellite discourse was ostracised, as Jean-Marie Le Pen's equivalent has not been. Powell was stripped of his right to speak for England.

Why? Not because the "racism" which Powell conjured up simply vanished, but because most English people, when they thought about it, realised that it was absurd to believe that certain values-tolerance, fair play, live-and-let-live-could only apply to and among the white English-born. They could bind those who were not born here, no less than those who were. When the English were asked-as Powell asked them-to choose between civic decencies and ethnic identity, they chose civic decency.

What are these decencies? We live by "liberal fictions": that human beings are equal and that in a civic community all difference is minor. In reality, of course, we are all incorrigibly different: skin colour, religion, class and accent are the markers by which we identify ourselves. Yet equality is the moral story which governs even our hypocrisies; it commits us to a distinctive thought experiment on which all political life depends: that we see beneath the surfaces of difference to a common identity beneath. This is the idea which won in 1968. It was a victory for the idea of England both as a community of choice and one of descent; a community of values rather than a community of origins; a "civic" rather than an "ethnic" nation state.

but if enoch powell lost the argument over identity, he may have won the war over immigration. "Racialism" is banned from British political discourse; but so too is any questioning of the equation that "good race relations" requires "strict immigration controls." Post-Powellite British national identity is built on the silent proposition that the ethnic minorities in this country should remain at about 5 per cent of the national population. If, as Ernest Renan once said, national identity is based on forgetting, this is perhaps the first act of amnesia upon which contemporary Britishness is based.

Another act of amnesia may be involved in the language of identity which won out over Powellism: multi-ethnic multi-culturalism. What sense can be given to the idea that Britain is genuinely multi- ethnic, if the visible minorities remain at 5 per cent of the population? In inner city London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, "multi-cultural discourse" does describe the street life by day and sometimes the club life at night. Yet even here there is enduring residential segregation within the inner cities. "Multi-cultural discourse" implies that we now live together. In fact, notwithstanding the rise in inter-marriage, most of us continue to live apart.

Beyond the inner cities, what about the shire counties and the English hinterland of market towns and countryside where millions of people still live? Here, Englishness remains much as it was: cricket, back gardens, country churches, hedgerows, the "green and pleasant land"-albeit dotted now with supermarkets stocking pasta and olive oil, DIY centres, motorways and Sunday car boot sales. Here the language of multi-culturalism describes neither how people live nor how they wish to live. The idea that we are or should be a multi-ethnic community is regarded by millions of English people as either false to their own personal experiences or as an exercise in political correctness by a bien pensant elite which does not actually practice what it preaches.

This does not amount to saying that most of white English society remains racist. Far from it. The politics of anti-racism, embodied by the Anti-Nazi League and similar organisations in the 1970s and 1980s, alienated the majority because it failed to understand that most people in this country accept that their civic traditions commit them to a nominal exercise in fair play. But fair play has its limits. It is useful to make a distinction between "negative" and "positive" definitions of tolerance, by analogy with Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between "negative" and "positive" definitions of liberty. Negative tolerance simply means putting up with what is different. Positive tolerance means actively embracing what is different.

The virtues of positive tolerance-of multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism-have been asserted, rather than argued, by the postwar liberal elite; for most of the British population-not just whites-their plausibility is not self-evident. In reality, like continues to live with like, and the practice of tolerance looks much more like polite-and not so polite-avoidance. Moreover, when advanced as a vision of national identity, multi-culturalism bothers many people because it appears to be a prescription for moral relativism. Tolerance appears to require that universal values bow the knee before cultural prejudices.

I believe in a multi-cultural society. What else can I do? I am a foreigner here. But we have to face up to this criticism that multi-culturalism is an apology for relativism. We need to define the core values which any society has to agree upon if it is to have the cohesion necessary to prevent arguments over priorities and values spilling over into irreconcilable conflict. Beyond tolerance, what? Beyond live-and-let-live, what? Where is the common moral ground under our feet?

Who would have imagined, in 1968, that it would be religious rather than racial difference which would force these issues into the centre of national debate? Since Powell's rivers of blood speech, the Rushdie affair has been the moment of truth which defined the limits of British civic tolerance. It certainly taught me where I stand. But it is well to realise that the affair led many Muslims to believe that this apparently liberal, multi-cultural and tolerant "secular" state actively despises the doctrinal content of Islam, its attitude to heresy, its treatment of women, its definition of family authority. Liberal secularism-to a convinced Muslim-masquerades as value neutrality. In reality, it is not value neutral.

The Rushdie affair also made liberals discover the limits of liberal value neutrality. Why, they asked, should a liberal society tolerate book-burning? What civic respect is owed to doctrines which are either empirically untrue or which deny freedom to others? Obviously Islam was not the only faith which raised these issues, but it is by far the most powerful tradition in our midst which contests the tolerance at the core of British identity.

Islam made us realise that this core was less secular than we had supposed. The almost forgotten protestantism within the British identity came to the surface. It is the protestant faith which the Crown is supposed to defend. If a multi-cultural society is to gain symbolic recognition at the heart of British institutions, the Crown will have to redefine itself not as defender of the faith but as a defender of faith. Even then the change will not necessarily command assent among the secular majority. Why should the Crown defend faith at all? Protect its freedom, certainly. But defend it? It was Islam which broke a key silence in British national identity: why a secular society fails to separate church and state altogether. (The West Indian immigrants who were at the centre of the race debates in the 1960s had not raised this issue because they shared the protestant faith of their "hosts.")

The Islamic challenge also laid bare the question of whether a secular society should tolerate forms of religious education which deny the validity of the scientific tradition. Were Muslim schools to be allowed to teach creationism rather than Darwinism? Should such schools receive public funding?

As liberal society struggled with these issues, it became clear that our moral problem is not relativism-anything goes-but pluralism, the enduring conflict between competing definitions of the good. On the one hand, it is apparent that all nations in the modern age must use their public education system to teach the values of secularity and science. Without such a core, confessional minorities will secede from the community and reproduce themselves on the basis of values which would make their young people unfit to understand or participate in the wider national culture. At the same time, a liberal society is committed to defend the right of religious groups to maintain their own communities of choice and descent.

So the balance struck between the Scylla of ethnic fragmentation and the Charybdis of secular tyranny is to allow religious communities to teach what doctrine they want, provided that they also expose students to the core of secular science; to hold what views they wish about writers, provided that they do not endorse fatwahs; to maintain what values in respect of female obedience they wish, provided that the females in question retain the right to leave and join the secular majority. In this way, a liberal society reconciles core values necessary to national cohesion with freedom for minority cultures. In this way, national identity can be reconciled with moral pluralism.

the other side of conflict between religious community and national identity which has emerged since the Powellite 1960s concerns women and the family. Here Islam is not alone. Jewish Orthodoxy and Christian fundamentalism also disagree with the feminist egalitarianism which has transformed secular family values in the majority culture.

At one time, the gulf between majority and minority culture on family values might not have been large. But in the 30 years since the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality, the chasm between traditional family culture and the norms of liberal secular culture has steadily widened. Traditional religious groups now feel their very moral identity threatened by the norms of secular culture. This is a conviction which unites traditional Islamic families no less than Orthodox Jewish families and traditional English conservative families. All feel that the wider culture is fragmenting into an aimless hedonism which is weakening the social order itself.

For the moment, the truth of this view is not the issue: liberal sexual culture may or may not be hedonist; it may or may not be fragmenting the family. The fact is that significant ethnic and religious groups feel that it is. A liberal need not apologise for the freedoms-moral and sexual-which the 1960s brought about. But even a liberal has to acknowledge that his own values are not hegemonic. In place of consensus we have confrontation; in place of silence we have a furious debate.

As the moral cohesion of secular society appears to fragment, minorities question the terms of identification and assimilation. They pull back and begin to think of themselves as Orthodox Jews first and Britons second; Muslims first, citizens second. All modern societies are experiencing the fragmenting effect of "identity politics." The elective "civic" bonds which tie national societies together are fraying; the "ethnic" bonds-of religion, race and origin-are re-asserting themselves. One dimension of this is an increasingly bitter disagreement about what constitutes acceptable family and sexual values.

When theorists talk about national identity, they rarely discuss the family. But some consensus about what families are or should be is central to any idea of a nation. In Britain, "we" were a "we" to the extent that we all believed, or thought we believed, in the same kind of family. To an important degree this was always an illusion. A postwar suburban consensus in favour of the nuclear family-holidaying at Butlins, buying their first Morris Minor-was central to the British self-image of the mid-1950s and early 1960s. This image was based on keeping certain realities out of the frame of the family album: father's affairs, mother's unhappiness, Uncle Jack's homosexuality and little Annie's homoerotic stirrings. Moral consensus depended on silence and exclusion. But since the 1960s, moral disagreement is out in the open: there are single parent families, same sex families, and all the variants of post-nuclear divorce families. Once a set of norms sustained policy discussion about how to target welfare assistance to families. Now these norms are gone, and with it has gone one of the elements of consensus on which national unity was once based.

As the value systems regulating family values have fragmented, the terms of assimilation to the "civic" core have also changed. Assimilation used to mean introducing the children of ethnic and religious groups to the terms and conditions of the majority culture. Now these groups are seeking to protect their children from the majority culture.

Even secular families feel that they should protect their children from the public culture of modern entertainment and from crime in the streets. Even the secular family-whatever its form-often feels itself to be a haven in a heartless world; instead of assimilating children into the public realm, families now try to protect themselves from its intrusions. Children no longer venture out into the public realm unaccompanied; they no longer have their own private world outside in the streets; they grow up locked inside families; and as trust in the safety of the public realm has diminished, the gulf between the private and public worlds has grown.

All this has had an important impact on our sense of national identity. Commitment to "civic" values-toleration, fair play, openness, mutual trust -is only as strong as the public sphere itself. If families lose faith in the public sphere-lose faith in the streets, in the culture of public entertainment-if they increasingly look to the family to protect them against the public sphere, the "civic" core of attachment to national identity will weaken.

A strong "civic" culture depends on public investment and public services: schools, hospitals, roads, street lighting, police, libraries, swimming pools, parks. These are the institutional sinews of a strong national identity. If these services deteriorate, three things happen: the wealthy secede from the public realm and purchase these amenities on the private market; they cease to be willing to pay the extra taxes needed to renew a public realm from which they have decided to secede; those who are left both abandoned and dependent on failing services are tempted to withdraw their consent from the national project. This downward spiral has to be reversed if we are to renew the terms of civic cohesion.

A strong national identity depends not just on a well-financed and efficient public sector; it also depends on an economy and a welfare state which facilitate inclusion. To the degree that the economy fails to employ those who are prepared to work, the national project as a whole is failing them and their loyalty is bound to be provisional. National identity is inseparable from an idea of justice. The economic system must be seen to be delivering-not equality of outcomes, but equality of opportunity and discernible reward for effort.

Anyone on the centre-left of British politics believes that national identity is linked to an idea of social justice derived from the British socialist and social democratic tradition. A decent and humane welfare state, after all, is what is held to distinguish our society from the savage capitalism of the Americans. This perception is rooted in the British educated middle classes, who are among the chief beneficiaries of a system which, they suppose, exists for the benefit of persons less fortunate than themselves. The reality is that few of those who actually depend on the welfare state for their housing, health care and income believe that it is especially decent or humane. Certainly, few believe that in return for rights to welfare, there is an implied duty of responsibility to the society as a whole. If you live in crumbling tower blocks on the pittance which single mothers receive, it is a little too much to be asked to believe that rights entail responsibilities.

It is a middle class hypocrisy-or complacency-to suppose that much perception of justice, and any great sense of obligation, enter into the poor's relation to the welfare state. So that if we credit the welfare state with the sense of national identity which we prize, we should beware of assuming that its beneficiaries (at the bottom end) feel the same.

If we believe that Britain is a "civic" rather than an "ethnic" nation, a community of values rather than a community of common descent, we had better realise that the institutions which make it plausible to believe this-mainly the welfare state-are badly in need, not simply of so-called "reforms" but of basic investment. In short, more cash. If we want a "civic" community, we had better be willing to pay for it.

this brings me to the final act of amnesia on which contemporary Britishness is based: the place of the nations of Britain in the national self-image of the English. Britain has been a multi-national nation state since the incorporation of the Welsh and Irish in the 16th century and the union with the Scots at the dawn of the 18th century. Yet the English persist in believing that they are an ethnic-that is, English-nation which happens to have, by accident of history, a Celtic fringe. If, as I said at the outset, the English resist the sense that theirs is a multi-cultural state, it is because, in part, they refuse to understand their own history as a multi-national state. Britishness has been much less salient to the white English sense of national identity than to any other national group. It is no accident, therefore, that blacks and Asians rarely describe themselves as English, always as British. This is because they regard English as an ethnic term, a badge associated with a certain skin colour. Among white people, the "ethnic" definition of the state as an "English" creation has persistently competed with the "civic" components of British national identity, the ones associated with parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and the traditions of tolerance and fair play.

With Scottish and Welsh devolution accomplished, regional English assemblies on the way and, just possibly, a Northern Ireland assembly as part of a peace plan, Blair's Britain has embarked on a constitutional experiment which will concentrate English minds for the first time on the extent to which they belong to a multi-national state of which they are just one, albeit the most important, part.

A Canadian such as myself is bound to view this experiment in devolution with some foreboding, since our own devolution has gone to the brink of jeopardising national unity itself. But there is no going back. For the alternative is unthinkable: a further centralisation of authority in London, exercised on peoples with a growing consciousness of themselves as separate nations. This path would have fractured the "civic" core on which a British national identity depends: the legitimacy of the Westminster parliament itself.

In a devolved Britain, "civic" and "ethnic" identity will surely be ever more completely sundered. For the nations of Britain may share the same history, but they do not believe the same myths. The English cannot be expected to understand the battle of Culloden as the Scots remember it; any more than the protestant Irish can be expected to accept the myth of Cromwell's massacre at Drogheda.

Silences on which the British identity once depended have been broken. Once broken, they reveal the extent to which we live in a plural moral world. In belief systems, we are no longer of one faith; in our private lives, we are no longer within one family model; in the nation itself, no longer under the stable or uncontested dominion of the English; and we no longer belong to a community of common origins. We are living in what Isaiah Berlin called a "pluralist" world of incommensurable and sometimes incompatible visions of the good.

If we no longer believe the same things and no longer originate from the same place, it becomes even more important that the institutions we have in common should deliver a common basis for citizenship. The decay of "ethnic" commonality-of origins and values-makes the "civic" core the only remaining common element of national identity: a police force which we trust; courts which do justice; politicians who don't have their hands in the till.

Because it is such common institutions, rather than common meanings, which now define our identity, the final challenge-the European project-is perceived as a threat. If it is our institutions-parliamentary democracy, the common law, the monarchy-which make us what we are, these are the pillars which European federation and a common currency appear to knock out from over our heads.

Yet perhaps we should realise that our institutions are good because they work well, not because they are distinctively our own. It might be reasonable to be proud of British institutions; but it is not necessarily reasonable to believe that our institutions are unique or uniquely good. We sense that since the 1960s both our institutions and way of life have converged towards European norms. For centuries we defined ourselves as an island of freedom on the edge of a continent of despots and fanatics. With political stability and representative democracy securely established among our ancient rivals, defining ourselves as an island of liberty sounds increasingly like an exercise in nostalgic narcissism.

Our liberty is rightly precious to us, but it is no longer very distinctive or especially English. Nor is it clear that our liberty could not be equally protected by European institutions. It already is, by virtue of the fact that our laws allow British citizens to refer claims to the European court; and by virtue of the fact that much useful protection of the rights of consumers and of the environment has come our way through European directives. The idea that European legislation is necessarily illiberal, pettifogging and intrusive is a parochial fantasy. It has sometimes made us freer and more efficient. If our identity is rooted in our civic liberty, it may offend our pride to discover that other nations in Europe are just as free as we are; but it should surely change our estimate of the risks of ever closer European ties.

As citizens, we must be clear about the distinction between sovereignty and legitimacy. There seems little doubt that closer European union will reduce the sovereignty of the British parliament: it will not eliminate it, but it will become a middle-level assembly, with local and regional assemblies below it and a European parliament above it. Sovereignty in Britain will be distributed across three tiers of government rather than two. But what matters more is legitimacy: whether the laws and regulations, executive decisions and other directives which originate from these tiers of government, have our consent. Legitimacy is the issue, not sovereignty; and the opponents of European integration are engaging in a fine exercise in English narcissism if they suppose that our existing British institutions already provide us with fully legitimate government. Already we are not nearly as democratic as we should be. I cannot see how European integration will make us less so.

Opponents of European integration make the same essentialist argument about legitimacy which Enoch Powell made: that the only institutions which can be legitimate to the British people are their own ones; anchored in their own traditions and values. This might have made sense if Britain remained the only island of liberty in Europe. But this is no longer so. There are many countries just as well governed as we are. There are many countries from which we can (and do) learn. The legitimacy of institutions is not a matter of tradition, but a matter of function. For example, I would be in favour of Britain becoming part of a European federal state if I could be convinced that the decisions of the European parliament would be legitimate: that is, based on electoral consent of the governed; and if strict subsidiarity restricted the decisions of this tier of government to those matters of genuine pan-European concern.

I am not pro-European because I believe our destiny is in Europe; nor because in the end globalisation and economics leave us no choice. Peoples do not have destinies; and their politics are not determined by fate or by the global market. They always have a choice. We have a choice over the euro and over federation. And we will continue to have a choice, even if the euro and the federation go ahead with or without us. On the balance of probabilities, our economic future is more secure within a common European currency than outside it. But if we find that it is not-and over a long enough period to make the demonstration certain-democracy demands that our rulers take us out. The only convincing argument in favour of European integration is that it will make the British Isles better governed and more democratic. The European project is drastically unfinished: it is not democratic now. It will have to become so, if it is to survive. Whether it does so depends on us and our elites and what we negotiate as the terms of further integration. If our negotiations cease to be obsessed about retaining British sovereignty and turn instead to the task of gaining for British citizens a structure which has democratic legitimacy, we may produce a Europe which enhances rather than diminishes British identity.

In any event, the point about the European decision is that if it is about legitimacy and not about sovereignty, its outcome need not threaten British identity as such. This is not a young country; it is an old one, with great traditions of liberty. These are neither so distinctive nor so democratic as we like to suppose, but they are a matter of quiet pride. The task is to worry less about our identity and care more about our freedom; to care less about sovereignty, and more about legitimacy, both here and in Europe. Were we to make this change in our heads and hearts, we might look to our future with a good deal more hope and a good deal less fear.