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Features

The identity election

Richard Harries

What does it mean to be British in 2015? The most robust response to that question could win the General Election and influence policy for a generation. Richard Harries believes an inclusive church can help influence the answer

The Way We Live Now is the title of Anthony Trollope's 1875 novel about financial scandals. When Trollope returned from abroad he was appalled by the greed and dishonesty that these scandals revealed. This reminds us that the present discontent with politics is nothing new, nor is the low esteem in which politicians are held. In his great dictionary Dr Johnson defined a politician as 'A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance' and Boswell records him saying that 'Politicks are now nothing more than means of rising in the world. With this sole view do men engage in politicks, and their whole conduct proceeds upon it.'1 Whatever view we take on whether the political scene in the 19th or 18th centuries was worse than it is now, our responsibility is with the present, and as we approach the 2015 General Election, we cannot be anything less than seriously disturbed, not just by the Westminster bubble, but the whole global politico- economic system and the corruption that seems so endemic in the world today. ALIENATION & IDENTITY During 2014 the underlying alienation of so many from our political system came together with issues of identity in two dramatic ways. The first was the European elections in May. UKIP came out top with 27 per cent beating Labour on 25 per cent, the Conservatives on 24 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 7 per cent. It was the first time in our lifetime that neither Labour nor Conservative topped a national election. Commenting on this result Sir Anthony Seldon wrote: 'When the earthquake subsides, what will be left is a deep distrust in Britain and across Europe of the EU, and a reassertion of national interest. This question of national sovereignty has been the biggest question in British politics for the past 50 years.'2 This is part of the truth. But the vote for UKIP is not just about national sovereignty; it is the expression of disenchantment with the prevailing political order, a feeling that the major parties are all part of an establishment which is not taking into account the feelings and interests of ordinary working people. This was further reinforced with the result of the bye-election held on 9 October 2014. Clapton, a formerly safe Conservative seat, fell to UKIP, who achieved a majority of nearly 60 percent of those voting. No less significant was the result of the other bye-election on that day, the former safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton. Labour retained the seat by only 617 votes, indicating that a number of Labour seats in the North of England will be vulnerable in the General Election. Overall it was predicted that in the light of these results UKIP are likely to win 5 seats at the General Election with another 25 possible. SCOTLAND'S EARTHQUAKE The second focus for this combination of nationalism and discontent was the Scottish Referendum on independence on 18 September, an event which aroused more genuine political passion than any other in living memory. Although the Scottish people voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent against independence to stay part of the United Kingdom, everyone is agreed that the referendum will act as a catalyst for the political reform which is so necessary for the whole of the UK. It will of course lead first to more devolved powers to Scotland and then to Wales. But in England there is a huge imbalance between London and the regions which needs to be addressed, as well as the issue of England itself in an increasingly federal United Kingdom. Not least there is the issue of local government whose powers have become increasingly attenuated over the years. All this will be difficult and controversial, but for the moment anyway, politics has come alive for many - though not for all. In Scotland although the turnout as a whole was a substantial 85 per cent there was the familiar contrast between areas where it was much higher and others where it was much lower, revealing a subclass still disenchanted even over a major issue like independence. STRUCTURAL CHANGES As a result of the promises made to the Scottish people by all major parties before the vote on the referendum, and the widespread realisation that this has huge implications not just for the four nations but for the whole political structure of the UK, there is likely to be a Commission on the Constitution in 2015. The kneejerk response to the referendum result has been to call for English votes for English laws (Evel). However the prospective imbalance of Scottish MPs being able to vote on English Laws whilst at the same time English MPs would not be able to vote on ones devolved to the Scottish Parliament is only one aspect of a much wider imbalance. This is caused by the fact that England provides 84 per cent of UK MPs, reflecting the size of the population, Scotland 8 per cent, Wales 5 per cent and Northern Ireland 3 per cent. If the UK is to remain united with those elected as MPs all having equal powers and status it will be necessary to consider something similar to that which operates in a number of countries where voting power does not simply reflect the size of the constituency. For example California has 2 members of the US senate to represent its 38 million citizens, the same number as Wyoming, which only has 583,000 people. A similar principle operates in Australia regarding the relation between New South Wales and Tasmania. To achieve lasting unity special arrangements have been made to recognise the needs of minorities. GLOBAL CURRENTS One key reason why many people believe it is crucial for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to stay together, and for the whole of the United Kingdom to be a strong player in Europe, is because of the devastating power of globalisation, especially its economic consequences. Individual nations are increasingly helpless before an international financial elite who can move money and industry round the world at will. The only way in which international capitalism can be ordered for the good of both the individual nation and the whole is by intensive cooperation between states and the building of strong continental and worldwide institutions. As Gordon Brown put it in an article before the Scottish referendum: 'In years to come getting control of your economic destiny will involve new, more intense relationships with your neighbours, your geographical region, your continent and the wider world, and will inevitably mean layer on layer of cooperation with regional and global institutions, recognising that there are global problems - such as climate change, open trade and development - that need global solutions. One example suffices: no country today can secure its tax base without international cooperation to root out tax havens.'3 STRONGER EUROPE One implication of this is that the euro scepticism so favoured in some quarters needs to be resisted. A stronger Europe, not a weaker one, is the only way the individual nations of Europe make their proper contribution in a globalised world. This applies in every area of life, not just the economic sphere, but no less on climate change and foreign policy. In all the forthcoming talk about a new constitutional settlement in the United Kingdom this European dimension must not be lost sight of. We need a 'federal Britain in a confederal Europe' to use Timothy Garton Ash's phrase.4 Whilst there are compelling economic arguments for this future, I believe it also carries a moral and Christian imperative. For nationalism, on a Christian perspective, and even when not distorted, is only a partial, limited, and finite good. From a Christian point of view we find our identity first and foremost as members of the body of Christ and within the family of humanity. THE HUMAN FAMILY In recent years I have been privileged to be a member of a new Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, convened by the Woolf Institution. This 2014 and is due to publish its final report after the 2015 Election. This has enabled me to think further about the relationship between religion and identity not only from a Christian point of view, but from the perspective of living in a multi-faith society, albeit one still with an Established Church. Indeed, the Church of England has a duty to protect the free practise of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the church has helped to build a better society -more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths. This process has in fact been going on for many years. During recent decades the public good has been served by initiatives, usually taken by the Church of England and working through the good relationships built up with other faith leaders. For example it was such relationships that helped to quieten the unrest in Northern cities in 2001. DEFENDER OF FAITHS Civic authorities have a role in this evolution by ensuring that all faiths are properly represented on civic occasions, but because of its historic position, so does the Church of England. The Mayoral service for example, in most communities, still takes place in the major Anglican Church, and this can be so designed as to reflect the religious make-up of the area. In the autumn of 2013 I had to preach at the service marking the beginning of the legal year for the Western Division in Bristol Cathedral. A similar service for judges, lawyers, magistrates and civic authorities takes place in every part of the country at this time of the year. In Bristol both the High Sheriff and the Mayor were Muslims, the High Sheriff being very devout. She asked that passages from the Qur'an be read, including the opening verse. The Bishop of Bristol acceded to her request, and it was arranged that they be read in the Cathedral, when everyone had been seated and welcomed but before the actual Christian service began. It was a brilliant decision that made the Muslim High Sheriff feel, as she said, embraced, but did not alienate the core congregation or indeed Muslims, by any blurring of boundaries. I believe that starting where we are, but seeing how this can evolve in an ever more inclusive way, is the one best suited to our nation, and the one most likely to achieve the goal we desire. CIVIC NATIONALISM It has been argued that being British is one of the most successful examples of inclusive civic nationalism in the world.5 This is borne out by opinion polls in which people are asked about the importance of different aspects of being British. The replies indicate that to speak English, being a British citizen and respect for law and institutions associated with it are key, all scoring over 80 per cent. Sharing customs and traditions rated only 52 per cent and being Christian a mere 31 per cent.6 This suggests that being British is indeed primarily a civic identity, and that people are very happy for this to co-exist with a variety of religions, customs and traditions. In so far as being British involves more than this, it means fleshing out those values of fair mindedness, tolerance and openness, which are implicit in our institutions and common life with a multi-faith undergirding. It also means identifying, affirming and developing the unifying symbols connected with our National institutions in a multi-faith direction. Beyond this, what it means to be British is a matter of organic growth, and this cannot be forced. A GNARLED OAK I believe that the Church of England (but not only the Church of England) is helping to facilitate that evolution in an inclusive way. At the moment in England we have an established Church, which as many leaders of other faiths have said, is a help to them in taking their place in public life. Perhaps we should see the Church of England as a gnarled old oak, maybe no longer with the strength and vigour of its youth, but still standing and able to support the rambling roses growing up all over its leaves and branches. Cut the oak down, and what do you have? Vigorous growth perhaps, but a scramble for the light, and nothing to hold onto. Like all analogies this one is not exact. But my point is that a broadly tolerant religious body like the Church of England can play a significant role in shaping an evolving narrative for our society that is more inclusive of other faiths. Other identities should be subordinate to this broad inclusivity. The emergence of nationalism, racism and right wing policies seen all over Europe in recent years is a reflection of the alienation felt by so many with the political process, and this is in turn fuelled by the economic consequences of globalisation. GLOBAL INEQUALITY Globalisation is a fundamental feature of our time, and if it is to serve and not just devastate local and national economies, active co-operation between nations is crucial. A book which made huge waves in 2014 was Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty which analysed the growth of inequality in our times. He wrote, 'If democracy is some day to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognising that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.'7 This for me points to the desperate need not just for political reform within the UK but for much stronger intergovernmental institutions and organisations working across continents and internationally. I don't see how else the money now rapidly circulating round the globe can be controlled and channelled to serve people as a whole, and make the world more a reflection of that universal banquet in which everyone has a place. My vision for this society is one in which individuals and communities: • Feel part of an ongoing national story • In which they are free to practise their religion and express their beliefs • In which they are treated with equal concern and respect by the state • In which their culture and religion are respected as part of a continuing process of mutual enrichment • In which their contribution to the texture of our common life is valued • In which they are confident in helping to shape public policy • In which they are challenged to respond to the many manifest ills in the society itself and the world as a whole. In short, a society in which they feel at home and to which they want to contribute. This article is an edited extract from the new introduction to FAITH IN POLITICS? Rediscovering the Christian Roots of our Political Values by Richard Harries, re-issued this year by DLT Lord Richard Harries was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. Since 2006 he has been a life peer in the House of Lords (crossbench). He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology. NOTES 1 Boswell's Life of Johnson, Everyman,1960, Vol I,p.561 2 Anthony Seldon, Evening Standard, 27May2014 3 Gordon Brown, The Guardian Review, 13 September 2014 4 Guardian, 22 September 2014 5 David Cameron, speech in Edinburgh, 10 Dec 2007 6 James Tilley et al (eds.) 21 st Century British Social Attitudes Survey in 2003 7 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard, 2014).