By Rick Muir
Questions of identity crop up continuously in public debate. See for example the BBC’s wrong-headed ‘White‘ season and the constant political soul searching over immigration. Even popular television programmes like Strictly Come Dancing and the X-Factor have got themselves into controversies over questions of age, gender and sexuality.
Identity has, of course, always mattered to people, and always will – but the intensity of these debates, and the range of identity-related questions being discussed, is notable. This is largely due to two trends. First, increased economic competition and the decline of traditional industries have produced processes of ‘individualisation’ leading to the weakening of traditional loyalties based around class and place.
Second, processes of globalisation have led to unprecedented movements of people, capital and goods around the world, breaking down homogenous national cultures. Both of these trends have brought with them advantages in terms of greater individual liberty and cultural diversity – but they have also clearly dislocated many people’s sense of who they are, and produced increased insecurity and anxiety.
For the left this has led many to question our traditional approach to managing questions of identity in the public realm: multiculturalism – a framework that gives public recognition to the many different identities that make up our society. Trevor Phillips famously said that multiculturalism had left us “sleep walking into segregation.”
Philips was wrong, and attacking a straw man caricature of multiculturalism. A multiculturalism that gives respect to all and recognises diversity should be defended to the hilt. Where we got it wrong was that we were too insensitive to the need for interaction between different groups – leading to a situation in some parts of the North West where Ted Cantle concluded people were living “parallel lives.” The left should defend multiculturalism – but fight segregation.
In part that effort requires work at the level of social capital and social networks: supporting and sustaining those spaces where people can meet and interact whatever their background. This includes the institutions of local civic society, participation in social movements, comprehensive schools – as well as shops, parks and local pubs.
But there is also a job to do at the level of identity as well – multiculturalism must be complemented by and nested within shared civic identities, both local and national. Typically the British left gets queasy when it comes to national identity – we were of course an imperial power and many of the symbols of nation are wrapped up in that. Nevertheless a shared sense of common obligation and citizenship is vital – both for community cohesion, but also for support for redistribution through the welfare state.
But which nation? For the English there is the problem of disentangling two national identities barely distinguished – something which is much clearer in Scotland and Wales. The left has typically favoured narratives of Britishness, simply because Britain is a state, whereas England is not. Britishness has always, therefore, had a more straightforwardly civic cast compared to Englishness. Scottish and Welsh national identity have managed to become inclusive civic identities precisely because those countries have political institutions with which all citizens can identify.
So what do we do? The English left needs to reclaim English identity – otherwise there is a dangerous vacuum in which all sorts of resentments over devolution, and immigration get channelled through the prism of a reactionary and belligerent Englishness. We all know the signs of this – and ippr research has found that concerns about immigration are often articulated through a sense of aggrieved English nationalism.
This is not to argue for an English parliament, but rather for the left to re-discover its radical English heritage and defend our interpretation of our national history against that of the right. It is also a call for Labour in office to give some institutional or cultural recognition to England, so we can promote the same kind of shared civic identity that has been so successfully fostered in Scotland and Wales.
Rick Muir is a Senior Research Fellow at ippr and the co-author of The Power of Belonging. Identity, citizenship and community cohesion.