Wednesday, April 27, 2011
“Qualities of creativity built on tolerance, openness and adaptability, work and self improvement, strong communities and families and fair play, rights and responsibilities and an outward looking approach to the world that all flow from our unique island geography and history.”
It would be tempting, but mistaken, to characterise this rhetorical soufflé as meaninglessly pneumatic. It is easy to point out that ‘tolerance, openness and adaptability’ are complex attributes that don’t attach themselves to nation-states much less to just one nation-state, while ideas of ‘work and fair play’ mean different things to a postal worker, Jamie Oliver, a GP, Prince Charles, a call centre worker or a self-employed plumber. This is not the point. Blair’s tribute is a meaningful construction, but its meaning works through allusion and condensation. It indirectly mentions the material modes of existence of polyglot social layers, retaining its ability to do so precisely through its indirectness. It thus universalises (within its parochial national purview) experiences which have a particular social origin.
For example, the appeal to “strong communities and families” most directly touches on the experiences and aspirations of those inhabiting small towns, villages, and enclosed urban spaces. There, the very compactness of social organisation, the miniature scale of societies contained therein, and the spatial allotments of wealth and status within them, create highly localised identities – this street, that estate, our household. In the posh, prim looking terraces populated by small families, often with both parents in full-time, ‘skilled’ employment, and Neighbourhood Watch schemes on the go, the strong community and family is a by-word for the social facts – interpreted as cultural, behavioural qualities – which seem to set them apart from the sink estates. ‘Race’ penetrates this psychic terrain in complex ways, inasmuch as the social facts adduced above can be seen by some as traits of a possessive ‘whiteness’, so that this respectable looking little street with its white families and smug lower middle class conservatism, can be opposed to that dirty little conurbation at the other end of town where Asian or black citizens live with disproportionately high levels of unemployment, poverty and crime. Such social facts give the appeal to ‘strong communities and families’ a charge that it lacks in the flux of big metropolitan areas where people are as likely to live alone, communally, or with lodgers or friends, as they are to inhabit a traditional nuclear family unit, and where the delineations of race, ethnicity and culture constantly give way to hybridity.
And yet, few who have grown up in nurturing families would object to the idea of ‘strong families’. Even with all their usual patriarchal tyrannies and exploitation (there will be parents reading this who treat their kids as a source of bonded labour – their punishment awaits in the maelstrom of adolescent rebellion), functional families seem to be a source of security, love, mutual care and, not insignificantly, economies-of-scale. It is not strictly relevant here whether this perception is even accurate. The point is that it resonates with widespread experience. Similarly, the community is just that loose company of friends, acquaintances, busybodies, and helpful, moronic or batty individuals that one has known on one’s estate, terrace or flat block. Few would reject the idea that such communities are a ‘good thing’, needing strengthening. As the BBC frequently reminds us, “everybody needs good neighbours”. Strong communities and strong families can be claimed as ‘British values’ not because the UK is distinguished by such aspirations, but because only a minority are likely to object to them.
Politically, New Labour mobilised such ideas in support of a variety of objectives – providing tax credits to working families, coercing single mothers to seek waged labour, imposing curfews and ASBOs on working class children, installing CCTV on estates, boosting two-parent families, and so on. This brew of modest social democracy and strident social authoritarianism is hardly unobjectionable, or lacking in opponents. But it is embedded in a hegemonic language whose ideologemes, originating largely in the experiences of the lower middle class, were universalised and could thus provide a normative basis for such policies. Yet, this is no explanation in itself as to why such affirmations should be drafted in support of a notion like ‘British values’, or why politicians felt compelled at the turn of the millennium to assert the existence of this elusive creature, even as the irresistible winds of ‘globalization’ were supposedly laying waste to passé conceits such as nations.
For, if the tempo and urgency of such attempted interpellations – ‘Britain needs YOU’ – escalated in the poisonous atmosphere of the ‘war on terror’, the ‘Britishness’ bug was doing the rounds in Westminster well before the évènement of 9/11 and its ensuing wars. To answer this question is to say something about the “unique island ... history” that Tony Blair adverted to, particularly the shift from colonial white world supremacy to a defensive white nationalism signposted by Powell and Thatcher, the breakdown of racial comity in some former industrial redoubts, the state of British social democracy in the wearied, cautious, conservative dog end of the twentieth century, and the caesarist mode of the British executive under Blair.
I shall restrict myself here to the following observations about that. National identity, as with other identities, is relational, dependent on its situation vis-a-vis Others. Britishness was historically defined first in its imperial capacity, as the union between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland in 1707 provided the consolidated strategic base from which two aggressive colonial powers could make an undivided bid for world power. Together, Perfidious Albion and Imperial Caledonia set out to create a new world order. Linda Colley makes the case that British identity was decisively formed through Britain’s imperialist extensions into the Americas, Africa and South Asia, and its encounters with various Others. Imperialism obviously does not represent itself as predation, but rather as a wider moral and social mission which should engage the whole of the society, direct its overall efforts, orient its sense of identity. So, performances of Britishness took place in relation to the Indian, the Chinese, the African, and the Arab. Britishness was also, for as long as Ireland was seen as a property of the British crown, bound up with Protestant chauvinism, which provided much of the working class base of support for imperialism and Toryism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Britishness was reproduced through constant, historically disembodied 'memory' of World War II. Yet as that cachet lost its persuasive power amid colonial retreat and relative decline, a newer sense of Britishness emerged through Powellism and the search for a culturally pure, white Britishness. Britishness thus shifted from its orientation toward a global white world supremacism to a defensive white nationalism.
In the Thatcher era, a brief festival of British revivalism harnessed the remaining energy behind this decaying idea on a series of spectacles from the royal wedding to the Falklands jubilee. These dramas of rebirth and tradition helped to congeal the policy mix of Thatcherism - White Brittania was defended through immigration controls, Ruled Brittania through intensified policing and public order crackdowns, Ruling Brittania through imperial reassertions and Atlanticist hyper-globalization. But by the end of the 1980s, the potency of this revival had been discharged. Partly, this was because the class alliance that made Thatcherism viable was breaking up under the weight of Thatcherism's social consequences. Partly it was because the world order was changing as the Cold War ended, and the Tory base divided over Britain's future global orientation - toward Europe, entrenched Atlanticism, or toward a garrisoned island-state? This was not something on which the manufacturers, financiers, and small traders who made up the Tory base could agree on. Obviously, 'Islam' comes into this, having played an important in British Aryan identity in the colonial era, both explaining anti-colonial revolts as 'native fanaticism' and justifying their suppression. For contemporary purposes, 'Islam' begins to become relevant to the formation of an anxious-aggressive 'Britishness' at the tail end of the 1980s, as 'black' political identities begin to break down into localised constituents and Thatcherite 'Britishness' is increasingly exhausted.
The British Labourist tradition had always incorporated the pro-empire Left, represented signally in the Fabians, and in the post-war period had developed a pronounced Atlanticist strain, which favoured managing imperial decline through the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. If Labour had a pacifist, internationalist tradition, it also boasted a monotonous parade of establishment sycophants, imperialists, race-baiters and opportunistic patriots. New Labour comprised in essence an alliance with Whiggish Liberals and social conservatives. Its turn of the millenium attempt to reflate and re-define 'Britishness' derived more from the managerial, Whiggish ideas dominating British social democracy at the depleted, dog end of the twentieth century than with major global antagonisms. The Blair administration attempted to pioneer a centre-left nationalism that would provide a basis for social cohesion (if necessary, helped along by social authoritarianism), a mobilising discourse for social reform, a competitive rationale for social democratic acquiescence to 'globalization' (Britain must punch above its weight), and a hegemonic doctrine underpinning Blair's autocratic executive style.
These ingredients were already evident in the 1997 election campaign, but Blair's caesarist moment came with the Kosovo war, through which he proved his mettle not as a daffy airhead 'Bambi' figure, but as a hardened ideological warrior, someone capable of whipping public opinion into line. Following this venture, which won him many ecstatic plaudits from journalists and the political establishment, he began to articulate more clearly his brochure for Britishness based on international competitiveness and military assertion. Following the riots in north-eastern towns and cities in 2001, New Labour ratcheted up those aspects of its Britishness agenda concerned with social cohesion, scapegoating Asian minorities for allegedly failing to integrate. Minorities were ordered to internalise a 'core of Britishness', which meant being politically compliant, quietist, lawful and generally effacing those culturally specific excesses that supposedly made them unacceptable to their white counterparts. But as of 9/11, Britishness was destined to have its run in with 'Islam'.
From the Rushdie affair onward, 'Islam' became an object of official ideological interrogation, as the media increasingly devoted attention to 'Islam' as a security threat, a source of political instability, and particularly a menace to the nation's values. In relation to the 'war on terror', Britishness was aggrandised through the constant belabouring, surveillance, harassment and outright repression of Muslims, even as the British state itself underwent dramatic changes, and its constituents loosened in centrifugal fashion. 'Islam' is seen as at one and the same time, too radical and too rooted; a source of instability and of exaggerated, embarrassing cohesion; revolutionary and reactionary; a politicised religion, or a pseudo-religious politics; a de-nationalised revolutionary creed, or a smug, conservative, violent upholder of 'family values' in their worst sense. Its very ability to be represented in such a shape-shifting manner makes it the ideal foe, the perfect foil for Britishness. This 'Islam' can accumulate enemies on the Left as well as the Right, among secular liberals as well as religious conservatives, among feminists as well as patriarchs. Through negative contrast, it gives 'Britishness' a force and attraction that it would otherwise lack. 'Britishness', thus defined through the encounter with 'Islam', has been routinely performed routinely by squaddies in Afghanistan, as well as by police squads, and belligerent journalists, for almost a decade now.
So, where do we stand today? The Cameron executive is, like its caricature in Steve Bell cartoons featuring the Prime Minister suited in a pink condom, slippery, soft-edged, and impossible to pin down. It lacks definition. Sitting at the apex of a weak, fractious neo-Thatcherite government, slowly pulling apart over the unlikely issue of AV, Number Ten seeks to re-deploy the elements of 'Britishness' through renewed imperial bloodletting, more tough talk about immigrants, and of course an incredible amount of bullshit and insincere sentimentality over the royal wedding. But, as polling data has more or less consistently shown, there's little enthusiasm for more war, and this one doesn't have a narrative capable of engaging 'British' sentiments even if the nation's imperial appetites hadn't been exhausted by the alliance with Bourbon Bush. And while the media, police and local councils will probably succeed in cutting out most expressions of republicanism on the day, the royal wedding is a topic of satire or bored indifference for most. Only the immigrant-baiting, which is a divisive issue for the coalition, actually seems capable of summoning the requisite temper, and even there the evidence is mixed. Yes, polls do show that the constant propaganda about immigrants and minorities has a pronounced effect on popular attitudes, and encourages a vicious minority to engage in racist violence. But on the other hand, there's no sign that talking a lot about immigration makes the Tories popular - far from it, in fact. There seems to be no doubt that a re-organised 'Britishness' could potentially provide a rightist counterpoint to social struggles against austerity, but the present signs are that 'British values' have lost touch with some of the material bases that gave them their peculiar charge and universal validity.