Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's New Prime Minister Set on Putting 'B' Back in British

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's New Prime Minister Set on Putting 'B' Back in British

Article excerpt

In the 10 long years he spent as Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown would pepper his speeches with favored words that seemed to sum up the man himself. "Prudence" was one, "stability" another, "opportunity" a third.

But in the run-up to succeeding Tony Blair as prime minister Wednesday, Mr. Brown has promoted a new abstract noun, a far broader notion more in keeping with the bigger role he is taking on: Britishness.

The London bombings two years ago and a succession of other terrorism-related arrests and trials since, most involving young British Muslims, have impressed on Britain's political elite the pressing need to better assimilate ethnic minorities and reinforce the British glue that binds society together.

"Lots of politicians are concerned with the cohesion of British society, how we are coping with a multicultural society," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland. "Americans have to demonstrate allegiance to the flag, but we have left all that behind. But there is particular concern about the integration of Muslims and we are looking for symbols of nationhood in the same way that America does."

Political insiders predict that a volley of measures designed to put the "B" back into British will be among Brown's first initiatives in office. As he took over Sunday as Labour Party leader, Brown - more traditional and mindful of Britain's heritage than his predecessor - hinted at a new "contract" between the British state and its people. "In return for opportunity for all ... we expect and demand responsibility from all: to learn English, and contribute to and respect the culture we build together." British values, he said, involved "liberty, civic duty, and fairness to all."

He's already hinted that he wants to institute a new public holiday - a "British day" - and that immigrants seeking citizenship should demonstrate their loyalty through voluntary community work.

"We do need a sense of identity in a changing world, and there is nothing wrong with saying if people come and make this country their home then there should be a sense of Britishness to which they must subscribe," says Bob Marshall-Andrews, a Labour parliamentarian.

Immigration has surged in recent years and persists above 100,000 a year. The number of people granted British citizenship has also risen sharply in recent years, from around 50,000 in the late 1990s to 161,000 in 2005.

Multiculturalism has flourished in Britain since the 1970s, but the fear now is that this has encouraged separation and segregation. Race riots in northern England six years ago painfully exposed this separateness, as has the struggle against domestic terrorism, which has focused on young, disaffected British-born Muslims.

"What we are looking at now is a more integrationist model, which is not saying people should conform to the white homogenous society, but recognizes that we all share the same space and certain values [such as respect, tolerance of other people's views, freedom of speech, and liberty] that we have in common," says Nick Johnson, director of policy and public sector at the Commission for Racial Equality. "Britishness can help draw the line about what is acceptable and what is not."

But not everyone subscribes to Brown's view of Britishness. Surveys have shown a small but significant proportion of Muslims feel more kinship with Iraqi, Palestinian, and Chechen "brothers" than with their fellow Britons. Meanwhile, in recent elections in Scotland, the independence-minded Scottish National Party won the largest bloc in the Edinburgh parliament. One Scottish MP, Pete Wishart, said recently that Brown did not understand "that many of us in these isles don't feel, or indeed desire to be labeled, as British. …

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