What Cameron can learn from Labour about identity

We need to develop an inclusive statement of the values that bind us together.

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Mehdi Hasan's critique of David Cameron's blundering into the sensitive politics of identity and Labour's timid response overlooks the approach that Labour developed in government, which could indicate a healthier way forward.

Identity matters in politics. Democratic politics can only take place within a framework of common purpose and a sense of shared destiny between voters, creating a moral community, defined not necessarily by geography or class, but by shared sentiments of mutual and reciprocal respect and obligation, which can only take place where there is some sense of some shared identity.

For most of us, our identity is plural. It derives from our personal history, our family and our friendships and where we live. Gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity can all shape identity. Few of us feel any one of these characteristics defines us exclusively. And their relative importance will ebb and flow over time in response to changing circumstances. And so, too, our sense of the moral community to which we belong will ebb and flow. At one time, we will feel most intensely our obligation to a parent or partner. At others, it will be to victims of a tsunami or famine.

But politically, the nation state remains the anchor of belonging. So much of what roots us, politically, economically and culturally, flows from the nation state – our systems of education and justice and our public services of health and broadcasting. And so national identity is a central issue for politics and many of the concerns that excite public discourse are driven by questions of national identity.

Our national identity is essentially plural. The nation state is the United Kingdom, a union of different nations, joined since the end of the Second World War by distinctive cultures from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. It is this pluralism that distinguishes our British identity from the other allegiances we feel to one or other of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

As an institution, the Union is important in shaping and defining much of what is important about being British. The union of nations over hundreds of years has demanded a tolerance and openness to others, accustoming us to the plural identities that lie at the heart of being British. It is intrinsic in the nature of the Union that we have multiple political allegiances. Our British identity is different from an English or Scottish identity or a Bengali or Cornish identity, because it is quintessentially plural. And therefore inherently inclusive.

Research has consistently shown how comfortable the British people are, too, with such plural allegiances. In 2008, a Ministry of Justice/Ipsos-MORI survey showed that more people felt a stronger sense of belonging to Britain than to a religion or faith, their ethnic group, their own age group or to their local area. And the strength of a British identity as a source of belonging was true across age, gender, region and ethnicity. Seventy-five per cent of black and minority ethnic respondents, for example, said they felt a strong sense of belonging to Britain.

None of this necessarily has implications for public policy. It might be an argument for leaving well alone. But, for two main reasons, the last Labour government believed there was a case for developing an inclusive statement of the values that bind us together and reflect our sense of national identity and, crucially, for exploring what uses such a statement might have.

First, if we don't do it together, as a country, in an inclusive process, there's a risk that others will do it for us, in a divisive and destructive way. National identity matters to people. If there isn't a national process to discuss it, in ways that include everyone on these islands, a vacuum will be left in public discourse and there is a danger that it will be filled by sectarian views, poisonous ones.

Second, the profound changes we are living through, with great global migrations of people and capital, social and economic transformation and cultural flux, all, inevitably, create pressures on identity and our sense of ourselves. These are likely to intensify. At such a time, it is important we do everything we can to support cohesion and assert what binds us, rather than focus on what differentiates us.

But the last government also took the view that any such statement of values should not be imposed by government and that unless the process was driven by the people themselves, it would never take root. So it launched an independently run deliberative process, involving hundreds of people, in demographically representative samples, who discussed at length over a period of months whether there should be such a statement of values, and if so what it should contain and how it should be used.

The results can be found here.

I hope that readers and the journalists who write about these things will take the time to look at them. Apart from anything else, they testify to the value of such deliberative processes involving the public, which ought to be central to the new politics that politicians keep promising us. David Cameron would have been better served if someone had suggested he look at what his predecessors did before he made his ill-judged comments.

Michael Wills was the MP (Labour) for Swindon North from 1997 to 2010. He served as justice minister from 2007-2010.