An interesting essay by immigration minister Liam Byrne, entitled “A more united kingdom”, deserved a better press than it got when it was published earlier this week.
Most attention was given to the suggestion that there should be a public holiday to celebrate of “Britishness” and the list of 27 things that might make up the day. (Read the whole essay here or the list of 27 ways to celebrate here.) It was obvious that such a list would attract the eye of the media, when it stretches to almost everything you can think of, including spending the day drinking. I liked the additional suggestion that being British meant to “locate the nearest American and spend the rest of the day doing everything he or she tells you to do”.
But there is a serious point behind Liam Byrne’s work which needs more thorough consideration.
A central notion in the debate about the future of Europe is whether there is a European demos, that is to say whether the people of Europe believe that they have enough in common to make a shared democracy work. Would a minority accept that it was outvoted in a legitimate manner? The federalist case is that such a demos is indeed developing, but it is a matter subject to evidence and debate.
The point behind Liam Byrne’s pamphlet is to strengthen the idea of a British demos. (Indeed, it was published by the thinktank with that very name.) But the overall government drive for a British demos is intended to deal with two different threats to it, and I fear that it will end up dealing with neither.
The first threat to Britishness comes from Scotland, and the growing demand for Scottish independence. This threat is felt particularly keenly by Scottish politicians at the head of UK-wide political parties, whose legitimacy to govern in England (and conceivably even their ability to govern in England) is in doubt because of their nationality. MPs for Scottish seats at Westminster would be cut adrift were Scotland to secede from the union. (There seems to be greater concern within the Labour party about the rise of the SNP than in the Conservative and Unionist party, contrary to what the core ideologies of those two parties might lead you to expect.)
The second threat, and the much more serious one, is the increasing alienation from the British political process among the young, the poor, and the ethnic minorities. There is disengagement not just from voting in elections but from public life and the notion of a British community as a whole. This is what the immigration minister is more concerned about.
He is right to say that establishing a shared identity is necessary in order to deal with this disengagement, and right also to point out that identities can be multi-faceted so that a British identity need not cancel out any others, but it would be wrong to think that a menu of citizenship ceremonies and public holidays will lead to a new sense of national shared purpose. Citizenship needs to be built on more than just a 19th century idea of patriotism.
Quite what form a future shared identity will take, no-one can know at present. But it will be unlike anything we know or have known before.