Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Britain Is Great: We're Called upon to Stand Firm and Defend Our Core Values. but What Are Those Values? in the 21st Century, What Defines Us, What Makes Britain Great for Us? This Is Often Seen as Right-Wing, Jingoist Territory, but as the Historian Tristram Hunt Makes Clear, the Left Too Is Proud to Be British, and This Is the Moment to Show It

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Britain Is Great: We're Called upon to Stand Firm and Defend Our Core Values. but What Are Those Values? in the 21st Century, What Defines Us, What Makes Britain Great for Us? This Is Often Seen as Right-Wing, Jingoist Territory, but as the Historian Tristram Hunt Makes Clear, the Left Too Is Proud to Be British, and This Is the Moment to Show It

Article excerpt

As I write, highly educated if wholly uncivilised human beings are travelling underground, trying to kill me. But their aim is to murder more than just me, or you. Despite the appeasing rationalisations of John Pilger--that it wouldn't happen if only we cut and run from Iraq, or if we stopped supporting Israel--these terrorists are engaged in an assault on our way of life. As the Prime Minister has rightly suggested, British values are the true target of the terrorists. So, what exactly are we fighting for?

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It was, of course, George Orwell who famously pointed out the prevarications of British intellectuals over patriotism. In his essays he ridiculed their embarrassed avoidance of nationalism while he revelled in England's invincible suburbs, its old maids, its pillar boxes and pigeon-fanciers. Fifty years on, the left's hesitations about national identity remain, not least because left-wingers have an instinctive reluctance towards aligning themselves with the Great Britain camp. For few right-thinking people today are comfortable with the sub-G K Chesterton guff of Simon Heffer or Peter Hitchens: that staid conception of a Britain rooted in mirages of nuclear families, hallowed authority, stultifying tradition and the cultural flotsam of empire. In effect, we have been put off patriotism by the conservative codification of it. Yet with Islamo-fascism claiming lives in London, Madrid, Amsterdam and elsewhere, it is increasingly unsustainable to maintain this refusal to engage with the virtues of nationhood.

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Part of the problem for the left has been the curious nature of the British state. We are a monarchy not a republic, so while French and American liberals are happy to sign up to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and celebrate the ideals of the founding fathers, British progressives have been slightly less enthusiastic about swearing fealty to the heirs and successors of the House of Windsor. But there is another story of Britishness beyond the conservative trinity of royalty, church and army which we need desperately to defend from the bastardised theology of the terrorists.

Gordon Brown has long argued that Britishness is about values rather than institutions, and he is right, up to a point. Those values, moreover, are intrinsically hateful to the medieval mindset of al-Qaeda. Like other western and non-western nations, we have a history of promoting the type of gender, racial and sexual equality reviled by misogynistic mujahids. From the Married Women's Property Act 1882 to the Race Relations Act 1976, Britain has progressively advanced the cause of personal equality--something apparently forgotten by Ken Livingstone, who happily promotes Gay Pride marches, but at the same time invites sexist, homophobic (and inevitably anti-Semitic) clerics to lecture London on interfaith harmony.

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Britain can also boast a superb record of political liberalism and intellectual inquiry, giving us a public sphere open to ideas, religions and philosophy from across the world. Again, this is something which infuriates the fundamentalist mindset and which British authorities have been far too willing to compromise. When the history of Islamic terrorism in this country is written, the dreadful failure of nerve by the political establishment during the Rushdie affair will surely feature prominently. How did Britain--home to the iconoclasm of Milton, Marx and the Sex Pistols--allow book-burning and fatwas to be decreed openly, in the streets of south Yorkshire?

(Here, a brief diversion. It is often suggested that a central component of Britain's history is its openness to radicals and insurgents. Turning the capital into "Londonistan" during the 1990s was, we are assured, no different from Victorian London welcoming in Marx and Engels. But the critical difference was that both of those men adored England. …

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