Talking Politics

Being British is about more than just being different

Rescuing neighbours from flooding in canoes, the merits of a tae-kwon-do world champion and a Jewish Marxist father figure: the examples Ed Miliband has chosen for his speech on 'Englishness' are about as eclectic as they get.

But that is really the Labour leader's point: that our national identity is shaped around the fact we don't really have one. Britain is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures, Miliband argues. That, rather than a fixed obsession with a single point of view, is what makes this country great in the 20th century.

This is tricky intellectual ground, isn't it? The looseness of English ties are not a strong foundation on which to build the argument that this is a country which should stick together. Miliband faces a much stronger paradox than the one he refers to, about ordinary people being proud to be British but suspicious of any kind of nationalism. This risks being interpreted as a claim that the best reasons for the UK to stick together are that its constituent parts are so dissimilar.

"Having to say Scottish or British, Welsh or British, English or British - I don't accept any of that," Miliband said. "It's always a false choice." In fact it is exactly the choice which Scottish voters will be confronted with when they decide whether to remain in the union.

By rejecting the either/or question Miliband is being black and white about the issue. Yes, identity is usually pluralistic - a Scot first, a Brit second, perhaps. It's in the relative priorities of the individual that the issue becomes critical. How many Scots will decide they wouldn't mind at all being British as well as Scottish? Framing the issue in these terms is very dangerous.

It is the shared principles which unite the British that makes the country so important. Yet Miliband only mentioned the word 'values' once in his speech, in a brazenly ideological section on "great institutions saving us from the worst of the market".  Miliband's preoccupation with his own party's hang-ups is a big theme of his speech. He worries about Labour having become "reluctant" to talk about Englishness.

Making clear he opposes an English parliament doesn't help with this, but Miliband does make clear that the time for avoiding the issue is over. "Because if we stay silent," he warns, "the case for the United Kingdom in England will go by default".

Miliband has not been silent on the issue, but his speech is so empty of substance that he offers an even more dangerous substitute: waffle. The Labour leader's vision of Britishness is a set of attitudes which are very British in their obfuscation. We are a country of "quiet determination", with "generosity of spirit" thrown into the mix, he says. These characteristics are frustratingly downplayed. It feels a lot like the default option.

A more bombastic approach is needed if the campaign to save the union is to be won. In a terribly ironic twist, the way to stay British is to behave in an unusually un-British way: a lesson which Miliband, it is clear, has not yet learned.

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