Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Invoking pluralism only to undermine its precepts. Protestantism does not indicate a more authentic form of Britishness.

It can be frustrating, attempting to interpret a newspaper’s report of a speech, without access to the original text. It is difficult, for instance, to judge whether an address given by Dr David Hume, the Orange Order’s ‘Director of Services’, offers a plausible elucidation of modern Britishness, albeit one that is concerned to defend a particular tradition within that identity (and its right to self-expression); or whether it represents, as the News Letter’s account suggests, a rather contradictory demand for Protestantism to be reinstated unapologetically at the centre of British identity, at the expense of pluralism.

Examining only excerpts of Hume’s speech, and skipping the silly Donaldsonesque stuff insinuating that Catholics cannot possibly be conscientious British citizens, each quotation is fairly defensible if we suppose that it is placed within a reasonable context. Indeed the speaker includes in his remarks a reading of Britishness which unionists of a civic bent will immediately recognise and applaud,

“The truth is that being British is not about race, or creed or culture. Being British is about pluralism not uniformity, it is about respect for difference and about difference itself.”


Given his generous, and accurate, interpretation of British identity, it is puzzling that, if one judges by the News Letter’s commentary and refuses to indulge the ‘Catholics as political vassals of the Vatican’ headtheballery, then Doctor Hume seems to be insinuating that Britishness has rather a lot to do with ‘creed’. Take, for example, this synopsis, from the newspaper report,

“Dr Hume said that it had become almost embarrassing to speak about the UK in any Protestant context and that labelling people defending their British heritage as bigots was a sign of immaturity.”


If this does fairly represent part of the speech which Hume delivered, then we have two separate theses which either the speaker, or the newspaper, has connected with inadequate qualification. Is it widely considered ‘embarrassing’ to ‘speak about the UK in any Protestant context’? Perhaps. There are those who do consider the Kingdom’s Protestant heritage embarrassing. It is certainly silly to ignore the pivotal role which the reformed faith had in shaping Britain’s history.

Are there those who imply bigotry simply because a particular aspect of Britishness is being defended? Certainly.

But, on the other hand, does defending Britishness necessarily entail celebrating Protestantism’s place in the national story? Unequivocally not. Britishness and Protestantism are two separate, although perfectly compatible, self-definitions within the context of the United Kingdom. It is either lazy, or sinister, to, without qualification, bundle the two concepts together in one sentence as if they comprise two premises of a syllogism.

Taken in conjunction with Hume’s argument against replacing the Act of Settlement, it is not unreasonable to suppose that he is elevating Protestantism and suggesting it indicates a more authentic definition of Britishness.

I have acknowledged previously that there is a legitimate contention, based on constitutional conservatism, which proposes that it is best not to tamper with fundamental aspects of the constitution. Broadly the logic is that, in the case of complicated, interconnected, constitutional tenets, if they are working reasonably well, it is best not to risk the unintended consequences which might flow from interfering unnecessarily with legislation. Whether we accept that the conclusion is correct, or not, it is, at least, a valid approach to the argument. Hume’s thesis is rather different.

“The issue is whether a future monarch would be taking political direction if they were Roman Catholic from the Pope, who is a temporal head of state.”


I believe that this is a much less admissible line to take. Indeed I find it both discriminatory and offensive to Catholics, because its implication is that no Catholic can show true political loyalty to the United Kingdom. It disingenuously conflates submission to the Pope as a religious leader with submission to the Vatican as a political state. It rests on a proposition which Catholics themselves find ludicrous.

By all means, Hume can argue that the Act of Settlement should be retained, but he should do so on the basis of sounder rationale than the belief that a section of British people cannot be trusted, by virtue of their religious faith. Nor is it enough to pre-empt accusations of bigotry by terming them ‘immature’, before effectively accusing vast swathes of Britons of disloyalty, simply because they attend a particular church.

Indeed, the Orangeman loses me entirely when he contends that,

“The solution to it all is very simple. The Vatican should withdraw its insistence that the children of mixed marriages must be brought up as Roman Catholics.”


Now, I appreciate that this is a favourite bugbear for evangelical Protestants (the accuracy of which I cannot verify), but surely it cannot be the only piece of theology on which the Pope’s claim to British Catholics’ loyalty rests? Weren’t we talking about temporal power and the Vatican’s head of state a moment ago? Unless the News Letter has made an important omission I can only assume that the stepping stones along which Hume’s speech is leaping have just allowed him to bound blithely across a rather obvious non sequitur.

I am, as regular readers of this website will testify, intensely interested in the relationship between identity, culture, nationality and political citizenship. I have written about Hume’s address as it has been reported in the News Letter and I apologise profusely if my understanding of its contents has been warped by a reporter’s initial misrepresentation. But from what I have read, it certainly appears to initially describe Britishness in a manner which I fully recognise, before thoroughly undermining the precepts of its own description.

I do not, for an instant, dispute that Protestantism has had a defining role in creating the United Kingdom which we enjoy living in today. Neither would I for a moment suggest that its position should be obscured, derided or ignored. But whilst it is right to recognise the special contribution which the reformed faith has made to our history and to our constitution, and whilst it is right that Protestantism should continue to play an important part in the life of our country, it should not be considered a defining characteristic of ‘Britishness’, nor should it be taken to indicate a more profound or authentic British identity, to which proponents of other faiths can never fully adhere.

Let the Protestant churches and Protestant organisations celebrate British identity, but let us not imply that a, “cultural, social and religious revival across the UK”, should involve Protestants, to the exclusion of other faiths and traditions.

2 comments:

fair_deal said...

Read Micahel GOve's contribution to Cool Britannia

Chekov said...

I can't find it FD, but here is Gove's attempt to define Britishness for Prospect Magazine.

There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness. Rather like trying to define leadership, it’s a quality which is best appreciated when demonstrated through action rather than described in the abstract.

As a Scot who, like Brown, has made his career in London and whose family are now rooted in England, I feel immensely fortunate to be a citizen of a cosmopolitan state where nationality is defined not by ethnicity but sustained by the subtle interweaving of traditions and given life by a spirit of liberty.

Britishness is best understood as an identity shaped by an understanding of the common law, refined by the struggle between the people’s representatives and arbitrary power, rooted in a presumption in favour of individual freedom, enriched by a love of the quirky, local and unique, buttressed by anger at injustice, constantly open to the world and engaged with suffering of others, sustained through adversity by subversive humour and better understood through literature than any other art.

But if you really want to understand Britishness you need to ask why the British find Tracey Emin loveable, regard Ealing comedies as sacred, look on the world of Wodehouse as a lost Eden, always vote for the underdog on Big Brother, make the landscape the central character in their Sunday evening dramas, respect doctors more than lawyers and venerate their army but have never had a soldier as leader since the Duke of Wellington.