What has emerged from the long tidal flows of British history – from the 2,000 years of successive waves of invasion,
immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships; from the uniquely
rich, open and outward looking culture – is a distinctive set of values which influence British institutions.
Even before America made it its own, I think Britain can lay
claim to the idea of liberty. Out of the necessity of finding a way to
live together in a multinational state came the practice of toleration
and then the pursuit of liberty.
So, in what seem uncontroversial enough, begins the spin. "Toleration" and "the pursuit of liberty" were not English characteristics, but had emerged from the "necessity of finding a way to live together" with such others as the Scots and Welsh.
Voltaire said that Britain gave to the world the idea of
liberty. In the seventeenth century, Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’ put it
as "if not equal all, yet all equally free.” Think of Wordsworth’s
poetry about the “flood of British freedom”; then Hazlitt’s belief that we have and can have “no privilege
or advantage over other nations but liberty”; right through to Orwell’s
focus on justice, liberty and decency defining Britain. We can get a
Parliament from anywhere, said Henry Grattan, we can only get liberty
Thanks, Gordon, for that positive reference to England from an Irishman.
So there is, as I have argued, a golden thread which runs through British
history – that runs from that long ago day in Runnymede in 1215; on to
the Bill of Rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country to
successfully assert the power of Parliament over the King; to not just
one, but four great Reform Acts in less than a hundred years – of the
individual standing firm against tyranny and then – an even more
generous, expansive view of liberty – the idea of government
accountable to the people, evolving into the exciting idea of
empowering citizens to control their own lives.
A completely warped interpretation of history there; the State only enjoys the powers that citizens give it (where else can its power come from?) How then can it empower its masters? The State may only strengthen some citizens by weakening others. By the way, there was no "Britain" at the time of Magna Carta, Gordon.
Just as it was in the name of liberty (Actually, Gordon, and as a son of the manse we might have expected you to know it, it was in the name of Christianity) that in the 1800s Britain
led the world in abolishing the slave trade – something we celebrate in
2007 – so too in the 1940s in the name of liberty Britain stood firm
against fascism, which is why I would oppose those who say we should do
less to teach that period of our history in our schools.
It is true that our soldiers, sailors and airmen fought in the name of liberty, but the British State went to war under a treaty to protect Poland. So far did it fail in its war objectives that it "saved" Poles from one tyrant only to hand them to a worse one.
But (...he has gone on too long for his Statist tastes about Liberty. By now he really needs the disjunctive pleasure of a "but"...) woven also into that golden thread of liberty are countless
strands of common, continuing endeavour in our villages, towns and
cities – the efforts and popular achievements of ordinary men and
women, with one sentiment in common – a strong sense of duty and
responsibility: men and women who did not allow liberty to descend into
a selfish individualism or into a crude libertarianism; men and women
who, as is the essence of the labour movement, chose solidarity in
preference to selfishness; thus creating out of the idea of duty and
responsibility the Britain of civic responsibility, civic society and
the public realm.
...so, Gordon, no-one contributed to civic responsibility and the public realm in Britain, but that paragon of unselfishness, "the labour movement?" That is a vile slur on every non-socialist who ever served his country in public life.
And so the Britain we admire of thousands of voluntary
associations; the Britain of mutual societies, craft unions, insurance
and friendly societies and cooperatives; the Britain of churches and
faith groups; the Britain of municipal provision from libraries to
parks; and the Britain of public service. Mutuality, cooperation, civic
associations and social responsibility and a strong civic society – all
concepts that after a moment's thought (a moment's thought would allow us to see the precise opposite) we see clearly have always owed
most to progressive opinion in British life and thought. The British way always – as Jonathan Sachs has suggested – more than self interested individualism – at the core of British history, the very ideas of 'active citizenship', 'good neighbour', civic pride and the public realm.
Which is why two thirds of people are adamant that being British carries with it responsibilities for them as citizens as well as rights.
Dear God, I wonder that the other third think? And for whom they vote? I very much doubt that they include any libertarians or indeed any of Brown's political opponents.
But the 20th century has given special place also to the idea
that in a democracy where people have both political social and
economic rights and responsibilities, liberty and responsibility can
only fully come alive if there is a Britain not just of liberty for
all, and responsibility from all, but fairness to all.
Yes, the 20th Century was largely dedicated to such Socialist thought, Gordon. You may perhaps not have noticed how that ended?
Of course the appeal to fairness runs through British
history, from early opposition to the first poll tax in 1381 to the
second; fairness the theme from the civil war debates – where
Raineborough asserted that "the poorest he that is in England hath a
life to live as the greatest he”; to the 1940s when Orwell talked of a
Britain known to the world for its 'decency'
Passing reference to the Levellers there, not a notable political success.
Indeed a 2005 YouGov survey showed that as many as 90 per cent of British people thought that fairness and fair play were very important or fairly important in defining Britishness.
Indeed we do, Gordon. But not many of us think that there's anything "fair" about idle chavs having the Government fence them the proceeds of others' honest labour.
And of course this was the whole battle of 20th century politics
– whether fairness would be formal equality before the law or something
much more, a richer equality of opportunity.
Indeed it was, Gordon. And give me equality before the law any day in preference to your ersatz version.
You only need look at the slogan which dominated Live Aid 2005
to see how, even in the years from 1985 to 2005, fairness had moved to
become the central idea – the slogan in 2005 was 'from charity to
justice': not just donations for hand-outs, but, by making things
happen, forcing governments to deliver fairness.
As if Government could deliver anything so major, forced or unforced.
Take the NHS – like the monarchy, the army, the BBC – one of the great British institutions – what 90 per cent of British
people think portrays a positive symbol of the real Britain – founded
on the core value of fairness that all should have access to health
care founded on need, not ability to pay.
A moment’s consideration of the importance of the NHS would
tell us that you don't need to counterpose civic society to government
and assume that one can only flourish at the expense of the other or
vice versa. Britain does best when we have both a strong civic society
and a government committed to empowering people, acting on the
principle of fairness.
A further moment's consideration might suggest that the NHS is the world's best argument for keeping Government out of anything remotely important.
And according to one survey, more than 70 per cent of British people pride ourselves in all three qualities - our tolerance, responsibility and fairness together.
So in a modern progressive view of Britishness, as I set out in
a speech a few weeks ago, liberty does not retreat into self-interested
individualism, but leads to ideas of empowerment; responsibility does
not retreat into a form of paternalism, but is indeed a commitment to
the strongest possible civic society; and fairness is not simply a
formal equality before the law, but is in fact a modern belief in an
empowering equality of opportunity for all.
So in my view, the surest foundation upon which we can advance
economically, socially and culturally in this century will be to apply
to the challenges that we face, the values of liberty, responsibility and fairness – shared civic values which are not only the ties that bind us, but also give us patriotic purpose as a nation and sense of direction and destiny.
And so in this vision of a Britain of liberty for all,
responsibility from all and fairness to all we move a long way from the
old left’s embarrassed avoidance of an explicit patriotism."
In this last passage, you need to note use of loaded language discreetly to blacken the concepts Brown is attacking. Individualism is - of course - "self-interested", "responsbility" is "paternalism" unless it involves a commitment to the "strongest possible" civil society and equality before the law is merely "formal."
I doubt if Gordon Brown can even understand what it is like to be us. I doubt he ever shared our values in the first place. The man is a lethal psychological mixture of Scottish Socialism and religious paternalism. He has no sense of humour. He has no sense of fun. He takes himself too seriously and he always has.
Thinking about Brown reminded me of a verse poking fun at two stiff-necked pioneers of womens education in Britain;
When a narrow political fanatic who has devoted his whole life to gaining and wielding political power speaks of the "golden thread of liberty," can it be for any other reason than to dupe fools into giving him more?