God, the Queen and Tony Blair

The British are uncomfortable with a politician who "does God", but don't mind when the monarch does

When Tony Blair expressed a desire to end a broadcast at the time of the Iraq War with the phrase "God Bless Britain", consternation ensued. Committees were convened, aides (we must imagine) shuffled uncomfortably and looked at their shoes, and a "po-faced" civil servant -- we have Blair's own word for this -- reminded the PM in a very disapproving tone that "this is not America."

And indeed this is not America.  It may be customary for US presidents to call upon God to bless America on every conceivable occasion -- the phrase has become a mere vacancy, with no more theological significance than an automatic "bless you" uttered in response to a sneeze -- but in the mouth of a British prime minister it would sound jarring, unexpected, un-British.  This is not so much a reflection of the greater religiosity of Americans as one of culture and history.  God, in Britain, has not been usually been requested to bless the nation.  Rather, He has traditionally been required to Save the Queen.

If Blair had chosen to conclude his broadcast with that formulation, he would probably have avoided the disapproving stares of his civil servants (although Alastair Campbell might have been unimpressed).  It would not have sounded hammy or pious or overly theological.  It would, on the other hand, have struck many as jingoistic, not to mention helplessly old-fashioned.  That Blair (presumably) never even considered using the phrase says more about the prejudice against nationalism in modern Britain than it does about the eclipse of religion or even about New Labour's somewhat ambiguous relationship with the monarchy.  For both "God Bless America" and "God Save the Queen" are linguistic expressions of national solidarity rather than of religious faith.

In the USA the country; in the UK the monarch.  In a similar way, prosecutions in America are brought in the name of "the people", while in Britain criminals are charged in the name of the Queen (and, if convicted, sent down to reside at Her Majesty's Pleasure).  Our shops are now full of patriotic tat in advance of the Diamond Jubilee.  Americans come out to celebrate Americanness every Fourth of July (and many don't seem to need even that excuse).  For us Brits, however, only the irregular occurrence of a Jubilee or a big Royal Wedding permits a patriotic blow-out.  (England winning the World Cup or Euro 2012 would, I suppose, provide another, though even rarer, opportunity.)  We have no national day.  We are condemned to celebrate our nationhood by proxy, by pretending to celebrate an hereditary ruler or her heirs.

This also helps explain, I think, why according to a new opinion poll almost three quarters of the public believe that the Queen should continue to sport her traditional (originally and ironically papal) title of "Defender of the Faith".  For a President to say "God Bless America" is for him to speak in his capacity as priest-king.  To invoke divine blessings on the nation is part of the symbolic function of a head of state, as it has been since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs.  For a British prime minister to do so would be a usurpation.  It's not his job.  God, like the Queen, is supposed to be above politics.  Therefore only the Queen is allowed to "do God" -- as she often does, for example, in her Christmas broadcasts.

Today's poll, which also found that almost 80 per cent of respondents agreed that the Queen still had an important "faith role", failed to impress Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. He believes that the monarch's close relationship with the Church of England "renders everyone who is not of that religion to be less than full citizens."  But this rather misses the point.  Sanderson apparently thinks that Prince Charles's stated wish to be "Defender of Faith" rather than of "the Faith" would be "a step forward".  On the contrary, it would be divisive: it would imply the monarch's active participation the increasingly ugly battle between secularists and the religious, on the side of "faith" rather than of "no-faith".

I would suggest that public support for the Queen's continuing, if attenuated, "faith role" is part of the same national psychology that has long been uncomfortable with politicians "doing God" and that now looks on aghast as religious and secularist pressure groups take each other to court with claims of discrimination or offence.  The majority of people in this country are vaguely spiritual rather than actively religious or anti-religious.  Faith belongs to the private sphere rather than (as in the US) to the sphere of active citizenship.  Institutional religion exists for big personal occasions -- weddings and funerals -- rather in the same way that overt expressions of national pride are best confined to intermittent royal Jubilees.

For this reason, unenthusiastic about the monarchy as I am, I say God Save the Queen.
 

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.