Thursday 20 March 2008

'Britishness' without equality is meaningless

The review by Lord Goldsmith, the former Lord Chancellor, that proposes "coming of age" citizenship ceremonies for all school-leavers to swear allegiance to the Queen, apparently to encourage young person in the "responsibilities of citizenship", was just the first step. Gordon Brown has already spoken about the need for 'earned citizenship', which "should not only be a matter of their [immigrants] choice but should depend upon actively entering into a contract", whilst plans are in hand for a Britishness statement and new legislation in which 'rights and responsibilities' as intrinsically linked.

The purpose of all this activity is to try and define 'Britishness' for the purposes of creating something called 'a greater sense of national cohesion' and, inevitably, to 'marginalise the extremists'. Writing in the Daily Mirror, the musician Billy Bragg said, "I'm proud of our diversity but I admit there is a hole at the centre of our multicultural society - what we need is something to bind us together as citizens."

There are two problems, however, with Bragg's efforts to reclaim patriotism from the right wing. The first is that the government's plans for creating a British identity have, since the publication of the Cantle report following the riots in northern England in 2001, been premised on blaming immigrants for segregation - a theme taken up so enthusiastically by Trevor Philips of the Commission for Equality & Human Rights. It's hard to see how citizens can supposed to bind together if minority communities are condemned for failing to embrace supposedly 'British' values. But the second is the hypocrisy of claiming that in some mythical golden age, there ever existed peculiarly British values such as fairness and respect for others. Seldom were such values evident in the 1960s and 1970s, when the first generation of immigrants were arriving in Britain.

If there is a hole at the centre of our multicultural society, it is the chasm of inequality, at the heart of which is a failure of the state to treat people as individuals. Discrimination against individuals' race, sexuality and gender is based on group stereotypes - which is why the idea that immigrants are responsible for a 'problem' with our national cohesion is fundamentally racist. And whilst the rights that are supposed to protect us as individuals from the state's use of coercion or aggression are seldom applied equally to all citizens, especially if they are black and get pulled over by the police, or gay and seeking to adopt children, then we will continue to have an increasingly divided society. The battles fought by campaigners over the years, including those that burst onto the streets in the early 1980s and in 2001, were an attempt to remind the state that all individuals, no matter how different they might be from those who exercise power, have a right to equal treatment.

At the same time, what the government calls 'responsibilities' (once simply call 'the law'), beyond which individuals can determine their own actions, have been increasingly encroached upon. Meddling in our daily lives for the 'greater good', though anti-terrorism laws, violations of privacy and the repression of nonconformist or minority ideas, have weakened further the bindings that hold us together as citizens. In truth, the biggest obstacle to 'national cohesion' is the government and others like the press, who hold extraordinary power and use it to interfere in the lives of individuals and who proclaim the virtue of values that they routinely ignore.

It is they who need to pass a test set by us on the "responsibilities of citizenship", not sixteen-year olds leaving school.

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