IN BRITAIN, we are generally proud of our reputation for tolerance, fair-mindedness and moderation. These attitudes, which some people argue are under attack, can be virtues, but do they make us vulnerable too? Can qualities that are cast as defining features of Britishness become weaknesses that compromise the integrity of our nation?
European countries, particularly those that had overseas empires, absorbed waves of immigration during the late twentieth century. Then, in the twenty-first century, the continent experienced an extraordinary influx of people from North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, many of whom practise the Islamic faith.
Among liberal Britons, Emmanuel Macron became something of a hero for advocating a ‘sovereign, united, democratic Europe’, but, when France’s president defended his state’s secular principles against the influence of Islamism, the reaction was different. The French have a long-standing tradition of expecting incomers to integrate with their culture and values, but Macron’s campaign was more difficult for ‘progressive’ opinion in Britain to accept than his views on the EU.
In the United Kingdom, we are inclined to think that our society and identity should adjust to accommodate the arrival of newcomers from around the world, rather than expecting immigrants to adjust to pre-existing ideas of Britishness. That’s a defensible way of looking at the world, but it’s fair to ask whether it makes our national identity more or less coherent. Has it contributed to binding people together more tightly? Has it fostered a greater sense of belonging to the United Kingdom across its regions?
A cynic would say that it encourages naivety about people who are hostile to our way of life, and campaigns that attack our nation’s moral and political fabric. He could note that public institutions ignored the cultural component of child sex abuse scandals, like the one in Rotherham. Or point out that, unlike France, we seem relatively powerless to resist purges of statues and symbols linked to our history.
The openness of many people to the claims of regional separatists across the UK is certainly marked by naivety. There can be few countries with serious secessionist problems that have such a generous, even sympathetic, attitude to political forces that want to pull them apart.
As the unionist journalist, Henry Hill, observes, we set a remarkably low constitutional threshold for giving separatists their way. Decades ago, we conceded the principle that Scotland and Northern Ireland could leave the Union by means of a one-off popular vote. Indeed, in Northern Ireland’s case, the government declared that it had no “selfish strategic interest” in an integral part of its territory.
The idea that there should be a new referendum on Scottish independence, just six years after the last one, is not only tolerated, but treated as a perfectly reasonable expectation by many commentators. Circumstances have changed, apologists for separatism claim, citing the fact that more Scots voted to remain in the European Union than wanted to leave. It’s a strange paradox that many well-meaning Britons have sympathies with Scottish and Irish nationalism – while viewing any assertion of British nationhood with unconcealed disgust.
An indulgent attitude toward Irish separatism is even more prevalent. This ranges from outright support for republicanism, particularly on the Left, to widespread acceptance of a nationalist narrative, across the political spectrum. The United Kingdom is divided by a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, principally because the Dublin government and nationalists insisted that no extra checks or infrastructure could be accepted at the Irish land frontier.
Many Brits now seem to believe, in line with republican propaganda, that the Northern Ireland Troubles were at least substantially the fault of the UK and its armed forces.
The IRA was responsible for two thirds of deaths during the conflict, of which the vast majority remain unsolved. Yet, a small number of incidents, like the murder of the solicitor Pat Finucane, whose family repeatedly claimed direct involvement by the British government, attract a disproportionate share of attention and resources. Sir Desmond de Silva previously found that the killing involved ‘no overarching conspiracy’ by the state, but the government still announced that it will be subject to a third review. Even that outcome is attacked viciously by critics who demand a public inquiry.
Why is there a tendency, among some Britons, to indulge regional separatists’ anti-UK nationalism and some religious minorities’ hostility to our way of life, but wish to dilute or apologise for any assertion of British identity? Is it a form of self-loathing? What are we saying about who we are, when we insist that our history is not something to be proud of, or demean national symbols and institutions, or strip back national traditions, because we think that these actions are in line with the values that we hold today?
Some of these questions around self-confidence and self-assertiveness apply across the West, but they seem particularly relevant to Britain. British enthusiasm for French Europhilia, for example, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. While many staunch ‘remainers’ see the EU as a way of escaping the confines of traditional nationhood, somebody like Macron views it as a way of protecting and projecting French power.
If the United Kingdom ever splits up, it will be a geopolitical trauma that affects us all and shakes the West. It would be ironic and regrettable if we contributed to that outcome by letting attributes that shape modern Britishness, like self-effacement, embarrassment at chauvinism, and tolerance of difference, cloud our judgement about the threats that we face as a nation.
Photo of President Emmanuel Macron by Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com