FROM COMMON CHALLENGE TO COMMON PURPOSE
My friend Shahid Malik is a superb MP for Dewsbury and tells a funny story about a radio phone-in where he was once the guest. A caller rings in and starts haranguing him about the vexed question of English identity.
‘Isn’t it outrageous’ splutters the caller ‘that the Welsh and the Scots get all this attention to celebrate their identity and the English don’t’.
‘Well’ says Shahid ‘what is it you’d like to celebrate – I’ll celebrate it with you’.
A slightly stunned pause ensues, before the caller splutters back ‘yeah but isn’t outrageous that the Welsh and the Scots….’
Who wouldn’t empathise with our caller’s frustration? What I want to argue tonight that this question of identity, local, English, British, is one of the most complicated and important in public life today. Why? Because it holds the answer to how we renew a sense of common purpose at home in the face of common challenges at large.
Tonight I want to make just three quick points, to illustrate the theme.
First, let me congratulate you on your timing. Today is a day to celebrate not just St George, but the English identity of which many of us are so proud. But your debate comes at time when the very question of identity – and the shared values that make up the jigsaw of our self-image – looms larger and larger in the minds of all;
The prompt is not hard to spot.
This week our focus has been on the big question of the kind of economy we want to emerge from this downturn. But many in Britain today are asking a second question; which is what kind of society do we want to see emerge? If you ask that question, you’ll get a myriad of answers. But in my experience, the answers have a common theme. Because in essence, what people in England want today is a society where the price and the prize of globalisation feel better balanced.
Let me explain.
This country has done well from globalisation. But with the prize has come a price. Openness to the world has meant that not only good things – but bad things can wash up on the shore; Whether extremism – the risks that gave birth to Quilliam and the great work you do – or the global financial contagion – that has done such damage to our economy. So, the question for all modern nations is how do you win the prizes without paying a price that’s too high? Well, the answer is clearly not to seal the borders. To shut ourselves off from the world. Politically, you could vote for it. For fewer foreigners. For less foreign aid. For trade protection. For economic isolationism. But the truth is that we would simply shut ourselves away from influence on the world around us – and connection with the new possibilities it presents everyday.
I say there’s a different answer.
To strengthen the values that we share; To guard against the unchecked pursuit of selfish self-interest, whether defined by ideology or greed; With boundaries called a concern for others. In our communities and in our market-places; our society and our economy. To seek to build not a country of soulless wealth, but a country with a wealth of soul.
In the modern world, this is not the sigh of sentimentalism; it is the secret to success. We know, stronger shared values make for a strong society. But they make for a successful market economy too. In the 90s, we came to see the vital need of trust to the market. Francis Fukuyama laid out why in his famous book on trust;
‘economic activity…is knit together by a wide variety of norms, rules, moral obligations and other habits…one of the most important lessons we can learn from an examination of economic life is that a nation’s well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society. ’
So, what do we do next? In a world where people move across borders more than ever before, can we in this country celebrate both our differences and also what we share? In a world where global financiers often pursue cut and thrust, can we in Britain restore a sense of care and trust in our economic model?
In short, I feel our challenge today is this: in a world without walls, how can Britain change and adapt and keep up with the world around us, and still feel like home? My answer is an agenda to strengthen the values we share – and the sense of identity that badges those values for the world to see. An agenda that draws on some of the oldest ideas of freedom that have helped define England since Magna Carta.
This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of JS Mill’s On Liberty. A manifesto that was taken by John Rawls and Amartya Sen in more recent years to create a vital tradition of real freedom to live a life you have reason to value. But alongside this tradition of liberty, we need to remind ourselves of another; A tradition more redolent, not of a ‘take-away society’, where we ask what can society do for me. But where we ask, what can I bring to the table? The political philosopher, Quentin Skinner once said;
‘Contemporary liberalism, especially in its so-called libertarian form, is in danger of sweeping the public arena bare of any concepts save those of self-interest and individual rights’
‘Unless we place our duties before our rights, we must expect to find our rights themselves undermined’
This is the tradition of English republicans like Harrington and Milton who felt that for free states to remain free demanded civic virtue and public spiritedness. It is by living this tradition better that in turns strengthens shared values and trust. For most of us, this means a bit more work Each of us has a great plurality of identities today; I am the grandson of Irish immigrants. But I have three generations of family from Birmingham where I live today. I spent years growing up in Essex and a bit of me will always be proud to be an ‘Essex boy’. When I go to Europe I feel European. As a Catholic, part of me is defined by two millennia of history and an allegiance to the Pope. But I am English and proud of it.
These different identities reflect the freedom I have to live a diverse life. Yet the risk that comes with this freedom is that we end up living in networks not neighbourhoods, where we know our neighbours; where we’re part of local life; where we are part, in other words, of a community. Globalisation has increased our networks but we musn’t let it diminish our neighbourhoods. I think that the decade ahead therefore is going to demand a decade of radical communitarism, with patriotism not an add-on, but something centre-stage.
The five great arenas of civic life
Let’s start in our constitution; in our cities; in our class-rooms; our communal life; and in our conversations.
Let me take each in turn.
When we feel that we share a national story, it is easier to see our links to each other. When I was Immigration Minister I spent months talking to hundreds of people around the country about their Britishness. Many talked about the little things that sometimes mean everything; a cup of tea; pubs, cider, queuing, proper chocolate; fish and chips, darts, fashion, the seasons and the countryside, walks and clubbing. Many mentioned bigger things: the BBC, the NHS, the monarchy But what emerged most was the values of tolerance and above all of fairness; a healthy disrespect for authority yet a keen sense of order. And in views on immigrants, people were clear; we are not a nation of Alf Garnetts; but we want newcomers to sign up to the rules of the road.
Now Jack Straw has given us the opportunity in the green paper on rights and responsibilities, the opportunity to codify that story; it is an opportunity to get our story straight – to share it, and to live it.
Second, are our class-rooms.
Already, citizenship education – the education of our children not only in their rights – but what it is right to give – is well established. This is a vital opportunity for our young people to develop their understanding not only of the world around them – but the world inside them. The Prime Minister has now thrown down the gauntlet for us to develop a national youth community service scheme. What better flag to fly could there be for a Britain that emerges from the financial crisis? Tomorrow I will accompany the Prime Minister to East London, where we’ll see for ourselves the difference that voluntary service by young people can make – both to their own lives and to the communities in which they live. The Prime Minister will meet volunteers and those who benefit from their service, and he’ll outline new ways in which we’ll be working with schools and community organisations to significantly increase voluntary service among 14 to 18 year olds. Concrete, radical steps which will tap into the enthusiasm for voluntary service which so many young people have today.
Third, in our cities.
You know, at the end of the 19th century we did something incredible. As millions of people left the country and came to our towns and cities, we created Britain’s great civic fabric that knitted those new communities together. In my own city, pioneers like Chamberlain, the Cadburys, Matthew Boulton, and the hundreds of civic entrepreneurs they inspired created a strong civic fabric to match wider and wider city frontiers. Today, after 12 years in office, we have completely transformed the fabric of community institutions in our towns and cities But the last decade is only the start. We now plan to build 3 million homes – overwhelmingly in urban areas – together with £35 billion on new schools and our plans to renew our hospitals and health centres. We must then put these community institutions front and centre of a new wave of civic renewal in our cities.
Fourth, in our communal life. Which I am pleased to report is stronger than ever.
Britain is never stronger than during adversity. Crisis reported that 5,000 people volunteered to help run its centres in Xmas 08, up 66% from Xmas 2007. The Times Charity Christmas appeal had its most successful year ever in 2008, raising over £1m. Children in Need had a record response from the public in November, raising £21m. The number volunteering is up on five years ago. 41% of us, say we’ve volunteered at least once in the last year. One in four say they volunteer once a month. Our goal is to see that civic force get bigger still; We want to see it grow by over 800,000 over the years to come. And are backing that ambition with £145 million of government support
Finally, there are our conversations.
I serve a very diverse community in Birmingham. In a diverse community like mine, with the chance to talk to people from all corners about all things, I am constantly struck by how the things we have in common with each other, are so much greater than the things that set us apart. The truth is, on the basics and the big things, we see eye to eye; Yet we fail to see this in each other, because we don’t talk to each other enough. The playwright, Arthur Miller, once said that he wrote to help people feel less alone. That is a task that each of us could take on by finding new ways of showing each other our common interest. That’s why I see in a constituency like mine, the importance of the work of local leaders, whether they are community leaders, religious leaders, political leaders in finding ways of bringing people together around the arts, history, culture, sports, faith to get people out of the streets they live in, into the streets of others.
So, we should be ambitious for the new economy of the future. And we should be ambitious for society too. We have more to gain from the world at large, than we have to fear. But if we are to do well; if the prize of globalisation is to outstrip the price; if we are to master change in a way that leaves Britain still feeling like home, then we need imagination to forge from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, from a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish country, a more United Kingdom.
Speech by Liam Byrne MP to Quilliam, Thursday 23rd April 2009