A modest proposal for our Lords

The Tribes of Britain
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Ester Hernandez and Rosa Gonzalez work in a tiny insurance office in Amarillo, Texas, in a district where many customers speak Spanish. For the company's boss, and no doubt his customers, the presence of Spanish speakers is a considerable commercial advantage. So far so good. However, after some months, the two women were sacked for the same reason as they were hired. The firm's owner wanted them to speak to customers in the appropriate language, but wanted the conversations between staff to be in English; otherwise, said his wife, who also worked in the office, it was as though "they were whispering to each other behind our backs. It was very rude."

The women were told that they had to sign a contract to speak only English in the office; they refused, claiming that the boss was "telling us to deny who we are, forget our heritage". The state of Texas has in effect backed the firm's boss, by refusing the women unemployment benefits; the Texas Workforce Commission has concluded that they left the firm voluntarily by refusing to sign the demand to speak English to each other.

It is the sort of dispute that is terrifying America. This is not just about race; group rights of all sorts are being heavily disputed all over the United States, whether based on religion, geography, gender, language or any other marker of difference.

Our new instinct, on the other hand, is to offer more people more opportunities to be different. When a Tory toff like Alan Clark - who thinks that the way to deal with Irish terrorism is to unleash a wave of state terror - accepts that Gerry Adams should be allowed to flout the most fundamental act of national loyalty (by taking his seat as an MP without swearing allegiance to the Queen) something odd is going on.

This week a conference of Americans and Brits, held, appropriately enough, in Scotland showed little meeting of minds on the issue of political identity. This was especially odd, given the nature of the group concerned. Each year since 1985, 40 or so young professionals from a variety of backgrounds gather in either the US or the UK to discuss some great topic of the day. Half are Americans, half Brits; the delegates each year are nominated by previous attendees.

The British-American Project,as it is called, is an exceptionally powerful network. On this side of the pond, it includes several leading politicians, including a cabinet minister, and several frontbenchers from other parties; trades unionists, business leaders, a couple of national newspaper editors, artists, and the bosses of perhaps a dozen important pressure groups and quangos. There is a spread of regions, races and religions represented. On the American side, the same is true, with the additional factor that they are richer and more important, as is true in most things. In theory, the discussions should be free of national bias.

Yet we do see these things very differently. For the Americans, political identity has come to be code for race, language and creed. Their great fear is that what they regard as a people united under one flag, and one constitution, could fall apart under the assault of disparate groups of people all claiming to be Americans. We, on the other hand, seem determined to break down the idea that there is any one single way of being British, and are striving to reassert the standing of the many tribes that make up the British nation. They fear disintegration; we seek disaggregation. They worry about their diversity; we trumpet ours.

All of this is, of course, partly a reaction to history. The Brits have a thousand or more years of nation-building behind them and, historically speaking, we have had ripples rather than waves of immigration; change has been incremental. Americans, on the other hand, have had to construct an idea of their nation from huge groups of people who had barely heard of each other before landing on American soil. Inevitably, the way they chose to do so was to establish tests of citizenship and loyalty which could be written down.

According to Gunnar Myrdal, the American Creed rests on a set of universal principles and ideas - liberty, equality, democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism, limited government and private enterprise. To be American does not mean being born or living there; it means living its values. According to Harvard's Samuel Huntington, "It has been [America's] fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one."

This appeals to me. I dislike the idea that identity is so intimately tied up with a piece of land and water that those who do not live there now but might have done so in the past are excluded from the tribe. As rehearsed in these pages before, the basis of my concern about Scottish devolution is that it promises Braveheart but will actually deliver The Brittas Empire.

As ever, we Brits are in a rare old muddle, not sure whether we are British, European, or perhaps just a collection of thousand-year-old tribes. Or are we all those things? And if so do our political institutions reflect the fact in any way? The answers are, of course, yes we are, and no, they don't.

Our political system is ludicrously one-dimensional. Currently, for most of us, the only aspect of our identity that is represented at Westminster is defined purely by geography. It doesn't matter if you are young or old, black or white, Christian, Jew or Muslim, the only person who can speak for you within the system is someone whose constituency is defined by lines on a map.That is, unless you happen to be a Church of England Bishop, or an hereditary peer, in which case you can represent yourself in Parliament.

But we can do better. The new government is probably thinking hard about its plans for a new second chamber to replace the House of Lords. Should we not say now that the job of the second chamber is precisely to do what geography cannot - to ensure that our political system gives voice to the many other identities and tribes that make up the British people, and who cannot, by definition, find a place in the House of Commons?