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The Report : Part One - A Vision for Britain

Rethinking the National Story
The future of Britain lies in the hands of … descendants of slave owners and slaves, of indentured labourers, of feudal landlords and serfs, of industrialists and factory workers, of lairds and crofters, of refugees and asylum-seekers.

From a response to the Commission

A state is not only a territorial and political entity, but also an ‘imagined community’. What is Britain’s understanding of itself? How are the histories of England, Scotland and Wales understood by their people? What do the separate countries stand for, and what does Britain stand for? Of what may citizens be justly proud?

How has the imagined nation stood the test of time? What should be preserved, what jettisoned, what revised or reworked? How can everyone have a recognised place within the larger picture?

These are questions about Britain as an imagined community, and about how a genuinely multicultural Britain urgently needs to reimagine itself. Among other things, such re-imagining must take account of the inescapable changes of the last 30 years – not only postwar migration but also devolution, globalisation, the end of empire, Britain’s long-term decline as a world power, moral and cultural pluralism, and closer integration with Europe.

Identities in Transition
The young participants, school and college pupils, stated that they were proud to be Scottish. ‘I want to be Scots not English. I want to be Scottish and British, but not if people assume that being British means being English. Too often people talk about England when they mean Britain and they forget Scotland.’ But they also asked a number of pointed questions. Why should it be a problem to be Scottish, born in England, of French nationality and part Indian? Or to be from the north-east of England, although born in Scotland …How late it is, how late to be asking these questions.

From an article about the Commission, December 1998

All communities are changing and all are complex, with internal diversity and disagreements, linked to differences of gender, generation, religion and language, and to different stances in relation to wider society. Also, there are many overlaps, borrowings and two-way influences – no community is or can be insulated from all others.

Increasingly people have the capacity to manoeuvre between distinct areas of life and to be ‘cross-cultural navigators’. Hybrid cultural forms have emerged, especially in music and the arts. In this context, ­does ‘Britishness’ have a future? Or have devolution, globalisation and the new cultural diversity undermined it irretrievably?

Cohesion, Equality and Difference
… I still think of that scene at the end of A Passage to India, where two characters discuss relations between English and Indian people and say ‘Not yet, not yet’ with regard to full understanding. I think one could say the same about relationships between all the communities in Great Britain and do not think we can hope for anything more than a distant mutual toleration.

From a response to the Commission, 1998

The government has stated that it is committed ‘to creating One Nation’, a country where ‘every colour is a good colour … every member of every part of society is able to fulfil their potential ... racism is unacceptable and counteracted … everyone is treated according to their needs and rights... everyone recognises their responsibilities … racial diversity is celebrated’.

The statement invites several searching questions. What values and loyalties must be shared by communities and individuals in One Nation? How should disputes and incompatible values between different communities be handled? How is a balance to be struck between the need to treat people equally, the need to treat people differently, and the need to maintain shared values and social cohesion?

Most theoretical debates on such questions in Britain have been between what may be called nationalist and liberal theories of society. However, this chapter argues that the need now is for debates between liberal and pluralist theories. Britain should develop both as a community of citizens (the liberal view) and as a community of communities (the pluralist view).

Dealing with Racisms
The Rule Britannia mindset, given full-blown expression at the Last Night of the Proms and until recently at the start of programming each day on BBC Radio 4, is a major part of the problem of Britain. In the same way that it continues to fight the Second World War … Britain seems incapable of shaking off its imperialist identity. The Brits do appear to believe that ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ … [But] it is impossible to colonise three-fifths of the world ... without enslaving oneself. Our problem has been that Britain has never understood itself and has steadfastly refused to see and understand itself through the prism of our experience of it, here and in its coloniser mode.

From a presentation to the Commission

In other European Union countries it is customary to use the phrase ‘racism, xenophobia and antisemitism’ as a way of summarising the issues to be addressed.

The term is cumbersome and is unlikely to become widespread in Britain. It is, however, helpful, for it stresses that hostility which uses skin colour and physical appearance as markers of supposed difference does not represent the whole picture. There is also hostility using markers connected with culture, language and religion. The plural term ‘racisms’ is sometimes used to highlight such complexity.

A distinction needs also to be drawn between overt racism and institutional racism. This chapter discusses the history and development of racism and reviews and expands on the definition of institutional racism in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report. Tabulation of the interacting components of institutional racism is provided.

Reducing Inequalities
Rather than concentrate on minorities based on ethnicity or religion, should we not urge Government increasingly to counter the emergence of an underclass, whose deepening exclusion – known to every youth magistrate – is a matter of shame to the whole nation? Of course this underclass has black, Asian (mainly Muslim) and white minorities within it – but it is the pains, injustices and problems of the underclass as a whole which require fundamental action. It is here that the questions of racism, equalities etc. take on their sharpest edge.

A correspondent in Birmingham

Three main approaches to combating social exclusion must be combined: (a) improving physical infrastructure; (b) using welfare-based measures; and (c) pursuing labour market strategies to improve underlying economic potential and performance. A single-pronged attack will not work.

Within this framework key tasks include securing long-term financial and political support for projects in specific local areas; achieving and sustaining inter-agency working; empowering local communities; maintaining local commitment and avoiding activist burn-out; redirecting main programmes and resources; providing access to credit; hitting the right balance between area-based projects and conurbation-level measures; hitting the right balance also between central government initiative and local responsibility; and engaging the private sector.

Further, and essentially, measures should not be colour-blind or culture-blind.

Building a Human Rights Culture
Human rights, being universal by definition, are not the privileges of citizens but the entitlement of all individuals … It is not a shared passport which motivates individuals to respect human rights and the corresponding responsibilities but a shared humanity.

From a submission to the Commission

Negotiations over contested issues – for example, the content of the national curriculum, sensitivity to cultural diversity in the health service, the wearing of religious clothing at work, equality for women in the home – cannot take place in an ethical vacuum. They require ground rules that provide a minimum guarantee of protection for individuals and a framework for handling conflicts of interest.

The argument in this chapter is that such ground rules are provided in part by international human rights standards, for example those enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Home Secretary has said of the new Human Rights Act, which brings the ECHR into domestic law, that it is ‘an ethical language we can all recognise and sign up to, a … language which doesn’t belong to any particular group or creed but to all of us. One that is based on principles of common humanity.’

Summary of the Vision
This chapter summarises key points made in the report so far. The fundamental need, both practical and theoretical, is to treat people both equally and with due respect for difference; to treasure the rights and freedoms of individuals; and to cherish belonging, cohesion and solidarity.

Neither equality nor respect for difference is a sufficient value in itself. The two must be held together, mutually challenging and supportive. Similarly, neither personal liberty nor social cohesion is sufficient on its own. They too must be held together, qualifying and challenging each other, yet also mutually informing and enriching.