Friday, 19 September 2008

A More United Kingdom? Nice talk, shame about the actions.

As a GCSE English Literature student, the only text that I loathed more than Wordsworth’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’ was ‘Cider With Rosie’ by Laurie Lee. You might say that I was not exactly entranced by bucolic English idylls at the age of 16, whether they were rapidly changing or not. I wanted instead, to read some god-awful nonsense by William Burroughs or subject myself to fifteen hundred pages of Norman Mailer.

Honestly, I cannot remember whether Lee’s book deserved my disdain, I suspect not. Nevertheless, when I discovered that Liam Byrne’s Demos report, ‘A More United Kingdom’ (PDF), quotes ‘Cider With Rosie’ at the outset, it immediately acquired a bundle of negative associations, before I had even begun to inspect it properly.

Byrne’s report has already attracted ridicule, with its 27 suggestions to celebrate a proposed national day, one of which is drinking! Undoubtedly, despite weighing in at 90 odd pages, much of this document is fairly fatuous stuff. Nonetheless, leaving aside the headline grabbing passages, there are indications here that Byrne has a reasonably solid grasp of the benefits and merits of the United Kingdom, even if his argument that Labour is best placed to preserve the Union is both misplaced and ironic.

The report’s central tenet is sound enough. Byrne posits that respect for difference does not imply that we cannot celebrate that which we share as British people. Principal amongst these commonalities must be a set of ‘shared standards both civic and legal’. These are characterised simply as the ‘rules of the road’ by which our society maintains its character and its function.

Of course the questions which this initial gambit raises are, which other points of cohesion can be legitimately celebrated and what exactly do the fundamental standards or ‘rules of the road’ entail? Byrne’s report attempts to present its answers as if they were extracted from British people themselves, although many are hoary old Labour think-tank chestnuts.

Thus, we have suggested a ‘Bill of Rights and Duties’, or the citizenship curriculum, attempts to codify Britishness, alongside more organic notions like inculcating respect for those who sacrificed their lives in the World Wars or coalescing around the London Olympic celebration.

The three broad categories, under which Byrne proposes to galvanise efforts to forge a more united Kingdom, are, (his pet project) a national day, a stronger defence of the union and “the Labour Party leading a renewal of civic pride and association as part of a broader, sustained effort to regenerate Britain’s poorest places”.

Obviously it is notion of a national day which has attracted most press attention and in particular the ideas, (again) supposedly harvested from the British people, about how this day might be spent. We can largely dispense with the latter suggestion, not because the notion is not worthy, but rather, because it simply represents the type of posturing which Labour feels it must indulge in, in a vain attempt to appear as if it has not jettisoned completely its founding instincts.

I shall return to Byrne’s mooted robust defence of the Union in a moment, but first I’d like to touch briefly on the ‘rules of the road’. These are outlined as follows.

- Learning English.
- Signing up to tolerance.
- Paying your way.
- Obeying the law.

As a set of aspirations to which all British people, or people who wish to become British, should subscribe, these are relatively uncontroversial. Although I would suggest that many British born people are less likely to fulfil the third suggestion than many who come here from elsewhere. Yes, anyone who cannot speak English should attempt to learn. Yes, tolerance should be expected and the rights and freedoms which we take for granted must be upheld by all citizens. Certainly people must be expected to obey the law. Everyone should attempt to pay their way, but realistically there will be those who cannot. Are they any less British than those who can?

As I have previously intimated, Byrne appears to understand the strengths of the United Kingdom instinctively enough. Britishness he posits ‘is a de facto construction of multiple identities’.

“An argument for dissolving the Union would be a lamentable admission that in this age of diversity we are unable to master the task of marshalling, combining and celebrating what is in common between our modern plurality of identities.”

Undoubtedly he is correct when he avers,

“The UK would be tragically diminished if Scotland sued for divorce. And within a torn UK, our sense of England – our past and our future – would shrink. And the implication of this must surely be that more English, Welsh and Irish politicians and civic leaders need to find space and time to make the argument for the Union.”

His argument for a sustained defence of the Union is impeccable,

“surely our task in Britain today is not to plan a separation, but to combine better a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Britain into one United Kingdom.”

Stirring stuff, were it not for the stark fact that Byrne’s party has visited more harm on the Union since taking government in 1997 than perhaps any party before it. His party continues to undermine and diminish the bonds which hold the Union together. Its constant, ill considered constitutional tinkering threatens to destroy the very thing which it purports to value.

Much of the document constitutes justification for a pre-emptive strike against the Conservative Party, which Byrne warns will attempt to dominate the ground of ‘fraternity’. He claims to be seeking a means, “where(by) we seek to keep the standards and norms that have been shaped by our national history and re-imagine how to apply them to the challenges of today”. If he seriously believes that the Labour government have thus far followed a constitutional project which answers this description, he is in deep denial.

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