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 integrationby Michael Ignatieff / April 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.