ON BEING BRITISH
Values are mediated through institutions. So what happens when we no longer value the institutions?
These are momentous days for Britain and what we understand it to be. In the 2015 General Election, the Scottish National Party made astonishing gains; neither the Conservative Party nor now the Labour Party has any effective representation north of the border. England belongs largely to the Conservative Party, with some cities and other places remaindered for Labour and many feel the choice of Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader will only reinforce this pattern. A critical debate is underway over the value and purpose of the European Union at the very moment an unimaginably large wave of refugees is hoping to make their home in its countries.
What, then, is distinctive about Britain and its contribution to the world? France has its coherent values of liberty, equality and fraternity which cleverly balance capitalism, socialism and nationalism respectively. No-one visiting France and seeing its municipal architecture could fail to appreciate this. Anyone touring Britain would have a harder time discerning values.
For some this is seen to be a strength. On the right, the preference for pragmatic solutions over ideological beliefs is believed to have kept us rooted in tradition and incremental change; on the left, diversity is championed more than national coherence and talk of distinctive British values is often frowned upon.
Significantly, when people are asked about what makes them British today, they are most likely to describe a set of values - fair play, tolerance, freedom of speech, democracy – which are shared by many other nations and are thus not distinctively British. What used to make Britain distinctive was regard for its institutions – the Monarchy, Parliament, the courts, the police service, the BBC, the NHS, the Church of England, trades unions and small businesses. Though other countries fairly claim similar structures, these institutions were both informed by a particular British ethic and helped to shape public values.
The deriding of these and other institutions, so popular today, has diminished a sense of what holds us together. Values are mediated through institutions; if the latter no longer matter, the former must find another means of expression. Increasingly this is through global, digital media. This media is more demotic, less restrained and more prone to exaggeration. It is also prey to populist politics and religion, as we are discovering to our cost. Most of us probably like the ferment of ideas, images and art which we can draw on so easily now from any source, but there is a reaction against such cosmopolitanism. The retrenchment into ethnic nationalism is becoming palpable across Europe. Some of this is benign; increasingly it is malevolent. The European project itself had the laudable goal of emptying its countries of poisonous nationalism. For some there are good reasons to abandon this project, but it would come at the cost of more chauvinism.
The goal of civic nationalism is preferred, where citizens can rally around a nation’s institutions and the public realm is open to all. If we continue to assault our institutions without any regard for praise where it might be due, we will struggle to develop an inclusive, egalitarian community with places of common ownership and loyalty.
In Britain the Church still has a considerable public role which, if anything, feels like it has grown in recent times. Its primary loyalty will always be to Jesus Christ. Part of this loyalty is to find ways of blessing the nation through a witness to its Saviour which is rooted in truth, love and a practical regard for the vulnerable. If there has been a particular British ethic before, its tone was largely set by a living or residual respect for the Gospel of Christ. This is a witness we must sustain in volatile times
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