Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Giddens: My Lords, let me join the rapidly forming queue to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on initiating this debate. It is always a pleasure to debate with esteemed colleagues from the LSE, of whom there are no fewer than three in this debate. The subject is, manifestly, highly important; but, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, briefly remarked, it would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that the debate is limited to our country. In fact, nations all round the world are troubled by their identity and are trying to invent a new sense of their purpose in the world.

The reasons for that are, fairly clearly, related to the new global age in which we live. As the American social and political thinker Daniel Bell so famously said, the nation state in the global age becomes too small to solve the big problems, yet is too big to solve the small ones. That does not mean that the nation or the nation state disappears; far from it. One could say that the nation state becomes, as it were, the universal form of the state in the 20th century. However, it means that nations have to rethink their identity—and to some extent the notion of sovereignty, which was a kind of anchor of nations' past identity.

I take it that these changes are the backdrop to the Chancellor's recent interventions. In his recent speech, which has already been alluded to, the Chancellor said that what Britain needs is a codified sense of purpose and, as he put it, an explicit mission statement. He suggested various rituals and innovations which might help sustain a renewed sense of purpose for the nation. In spite of what has already been said so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the Chancellor has been widely ridiculed for his pains.
 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 352
 

I recall reading an article, which I think was in the Times, where the journalist dismissed Gordon Brown's speech as tendentious tosh. I am not completely sure that tosh can be tendentious, but the Chancellor was right to say that a sense of patriotism is compatible with progressive politics. I remind those on the opposition Benches that we are all progressives now.

It is right to question a notion of national identity which, until recently, held a lot of currency. That was a backward-looking notion of an isolated nation, with the belief that sovereignty can be retrieved by going back to a largely mythical past. Sovereignty must now be defended in conjunction with other nations, not alone, so it is right to question that. It is also right to suggest that we need to hold Britain together as a nation state by belief. I am a believer in what I would call the cosmopolitan nation; that is, one in which a diversity of cultures can co-exist. I am therefore strongly against Scottish nationalism, because we need larger nations. We do not need an endless fragmentation of nations, especially along quasi-ethnic lines. The Chancellor was right in his stated intentions, but there are questions we should ask of both him and ourselves—or some observations, which I shall make.

First, I suggest that we drop the dead donkey; that is, drop the idea of Britishness. The very term "Britishness" is odd. I do not know of anyone who speaks of Frenchness, or Americanness. They speak of American values, or the French civilising mission. I believe, along with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that we should speak of Britain as a citizenship nation. That is what holds the nation together and gives us a coherent identity. If you speak of Britishness, you are looking for an elusive, essential identity which does not really exist.

Secondly, it is right to celebrate our ambiguous pluralism. All the debates about British identity contain an endless series of questions about being English, British, Scottish or Welsh and so forth, with the implication that we somehow have to sort all these things out. I do not think so. It is a strength of British identity to be pluralist. In the contemporary world, we must all have several identities. It is not simply a weakness that allows us to be a more cosmopolitan state.

Thirdly, we must strongly resist the temptation to distort history. We must recognise, for example, that the British Empire had a noxious history in some parts, along with its achievements. We must teach history as it was, but that does not mean that we cannot pick out and celebrate achievements, such as the freeing of the slaves. It does not mean that we cannot invent rituals around democracy and freedom, but it means that we cannot pretend that these are unique to us, or that they are the only strands of British history, because they are not.

Finally, we must avoid what I would call the Cool Britannia syndrome. Why did Cool Britannia fail? As any advertising person could have told the people who initiated it, it is no good selling a product purely on the
 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 353
 
basis of image; you must have, behind the product, something to deliver. It was an ad man's empty notion. That means that, to reinvent Britishness and reconstruct a sense of purpose for the 21st century, there must be something substantial behind it. For example, achievements of citizenship must be celebrated. Why not also celebrate some anticipatory goals? For example, Linda Colley, in her lecture as part of the Prime Minister's lecture series, suggested the goal of eliminating child poverty as a forward-looking ambition of a democratic and egalitarian society. Also, why not include the lead-up to the Olympic Games in 2012, which is bound to be a unifying force?

As individuals, we would find it hard to live without a sense of ambition. We would find it hard to live without a sense of purpose. Why should nations be any different?

2.43 pm

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for raising the topical but important, and evidently controversial, subject of Britishness.

We are all, of course, British citizens within the United Kingdom. Yet the word "Britishness" comes a little uneasily and self-consciously to the lips of many of us in these post-imperial days. Our sense of Britishness has been forged gradually over the centuries out of three nations—one larger and two smaller—living on a middle-sized offshore island of Europe, and enjoying a remarkable degree of insulation from external aggression.

The parliamentary and political integration of England, Wales and Scotland was completed by the start of the 18th century, and was followed by the economic integration of the three nations in the industrial revolution, in which Britain led the world. History has therefore given us the priceless asset of lively and diverse national cultures within a firm political and economic framework of integration. The English, Scots and Welsh are now inextricably mixed up with each other. Speaking as a Scot, this enables the Scots—and, I think, the Welsh—to enjoy the best of both worlds; we can vigorously deploy our Scottishness and Welshness alongside, and perhaps because of, the more numerous but fortunately more easygoing English, who take their nationalism less seriously than we tend to do in Scotland or Wales.

Years ago, before we joined the European Union, I remember leading a team of British ministers to Dublin for a regular review of our trading relationships. We had ministers from the Treasury, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. By curious coincidence, we were all either Scottish or Welsh. It was not a particularly successful meeting, because the Irish were seeking concessions which we did not think it in the British interest to make. After two hours of abortive discussions with the Irish, I remember the formidable Mr Haughey—or it
 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 354
 
may have been the even more formidable Mr Blaney—saying, "Where are the English? We'd far rather negotiate with them! Let's go and have some lunch".

We are all a mixed-up lot on our island, and are becoming more so with the immigration that has been taking place. The sense of being British, however, goes all the deeper and is all the more real in the 21st century for not being expressed stridently or in a jingoistic manner. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, on this. We need to adapt our sense of being British to take account of some dramatic changes since the Second World War, both in the world around us and inside the United Kingdom itself.

One of these major changes has been the arrival of the United Kingdom in the European Union. I recall a debate in your Lordships' Chamber, quite a number of years ago now, in which the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and I took part. By curious coincidence, we came to the same conclusion: we agreed that we were Scottish by birth and culture, British by citizenship and, now, European by conviction. We saw no contradiction in any of these positions.

The European Union faces many challenges, but the fear that it was going to destroy our national characteristics in a drab Euro-identity has largely dissolved. There is no sign that the French are becoming less French, the Dutch less Dutch or the British less British. Today, the pressures on our British sense of identity come not from Brussels but from within our own borders. The historic development of devolved government to Scotland and Wales has brought about a healthy decentralisation of decision-making, and a liberation of democratic energies. At the same time, the significant immigration from the third world, and the search for political asylum in this country, has expanded our working populations and enriched our cultural diversity. It has also, however, created new tensions and pressures for special and divisive provisions being sought in both education and social policy.

Without vigorous, positive action, the present benefits of devolution could easily degenerate into narrow nationalism. The positive aspects of religious and ethnic diversity and mutual tolerance could equally easily give way to divisive, communal bigotry. For these reasons, I think this debate has been a timely one, and I strongly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has said about the role of the Government, and the importance of giving priority to promoting a sense of British citizenship, defining a British identity which new immigrants can be proud to seek and accept, and creating a shared sense of British history. I feel that the best interests of people in all parts of Britain lay in making a success story of a truly United Kingdom in the 21st century.

2.50 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page