Wednesday 6 June 2007
Deborah Orr: Now they seek to micro-manage our lives in the name of patriotism and freedom
The idea of a National British Day sounds like a piece of idiocy that needs to be avoided at all costs
Sometimes, it becomes apparent that it is people like me who are the problem. I am clearly not properly integrated, because the idea of a National British Day sounds to me like a fake, embarrassing piece of idiocy to be avoided at all costs. All I can hope is that it is not designated a bank holiday, so that my only contribution can be to dress my children in red, white and blue, drop them at school, and tell them to try not to snigger too much if anyone quotes Blair's resignation speech at them.
I'm just too British to stand around saying: "The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth." It's not that I don't count my lucky stars that I was born here. It's not that I don't understand why people born abroad would want to come here. I would. It's just that I'm not a joiner. I'd observe the activities of National British Day with a certain degree of anthropological interest. But only on the telly.
Anyway, one wouldn't mind if there was any substance to the concept. But there isn't. Nobody is saying: "That's it, we're going for it. We're formulating a British constitution, it's going to be a work of beauty, perfection and genius, and we will all want a day each year in which to consider it and treasure it, because it will tell us sonorously the tale of who we are."
The whole notion is just a big empty tent, like the Dome, that it is assumed will somehow make everyone feel uplifted and included in some alchemical act of unspecified but wholesome folk wonder. Happy smiles, waving flags, street parties... the whole of Britain transformed into one big multicultural village fête, by us, the British. So simple, in every sense of the word.
The two groups that have so far been named as particular motors of this flurry of integration PR are Muslim extremists and the British National Party. The very fact that the former are most likely to want to hijack the event entirely literally, while the latter is more likely to be organising the street parties, suggests that this tent is not even being pitched on a suitable site, which no one disputed that the Dome at least was. The problem with both of these groups is that integration is the last thing they want.
There is plenty of evidence that Muslim extremists in Britain all too often act in reaction to their integration. A widespread pattern is for young men to be highly westernised, adrift from the values of their families, and quickly subsumed into radical Islam precisely because they have little understanding of how Islam can adapt fairly comfortably to liberal democratic mores.
On this matter, it is Blair's recent comments, rather than some of those of communities minister Ruth Kelly and immigration minister Liam Byrne, that make most sense. His call for British imams to be trained in British institutions rather than brought over from Pakistan is not to be ignored.
Likewise, when Kelly and Byrne suggest that local councils should spend less on translation services and more on English classes, they are on the right track. I'm tempted to suggest that if volunteering is to be championed, then volunteer translators might be a good start, which would be one way of slashing the budget. The point is that you educate people towards integration rather than simply hoping for inspiration to strike.
As for the BNP, its we're-just-being-sensible brand of extremism merely emphasises the wider political disarray that dogs the issue of immigration, and which even the highly educated seem quite unable to grasp or to admit. The left, typically, champions immigration, even though it puts pressure on the services most used by the people who are supposed to form its natural constituency. The right, typically, abhors the loss of control of Britain's borders, while simultaneously insisting that state protectionism is wrong (unless it suits them).
What wealthy neo-liberal countries such as ours are presently wrestling with is the difficulty of how to control the market in people. We want the wealthy and the skilled and we don't want the poor and the unskilled. Amid all the flim-flam being peddled by Kelly and Byrne about volunteers, community, and diversity's "critical risk", is a chunk of actual policy that, in the traditional fashion, was first announced a couple of years ago. Kelly and Byrne's "new points system" for immigration sounds very similar to the "new points system" that was announced by the then home secretary Charles Clarke in February 2005 in order to simplify the 80 different routes into the country, and was supposed to be coming into operation about now.
It's also quite similar to the "new points system" that is busying the US Senate at the moment, which aims to award points for skills and thereby restrict unskilled immigration while still attracting highly trained workers. (We'll wring our hands about the developing world after we've imported their educated elites and deported their huddled masses.)
The Democratic nomination contender Barack Obama wants to limit the system to five years. Various Republicans want the removal of clauses that would award points to flourishing illegal immigrants (rather like the Strangers Into Citizens controversy over amnesty for illegal immigrants here). It took a Democratic senator, Zoe Lofgren, to point out the following: "The points system is like the Soviet Union. The government is saying, in effect, 'We have a five-year plan for the economy, and we will decide with this point system what mix of skills is needed.' That is not the way a market-based capitalist economy works best."
I'm not entirely applauding these comments. They are politically motivated, like much else in this debate, rather than practically useful. But they make a point about the mess that we're in, whereby the government seeks to micro-manage our lives in the name of freedom. This latest idea, whereby somehow we are all micro-managed into spontaneous community acts of nationalistic pride and fervour, is just another waste of time and money in the making. It is an insult. The very notion, for example, that 18-year-olds all need a pack telling them what democracy is, and what jury service is, speaks of a state that has no confidence at all in the ability of its citizens to understand where they live. If you need such a pack at 18, you're already lost. How you are going to move from that to empowering your community, I can't imagine.
People do need to understand the way their country operates. They need to understand strengths and weaknesses, truths and contradictions, successes and failures. But the indications are that even the people who are running the country have little real grasp of just how complicated the scenario is, within these borders, and across the world. They are too complicated for the one-size-fits-all solutions so bafflingly beloved of this administration. One suspects that's because they have no real understanding of how totally paradoxical their own various, endless, sentimental, patronising policies really are.
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