In our age of outrage, identity is a much used but little understood idea. Online and increasingly in the streets of Britain and beyond, people are put in narrow categories of sex, race, age or some other “protected characteristic” that defines us. Identities are either individualised or reduced to exclusive groups – ethno-religious tribes such as Hamas or ethno-nationalist parties like the Sweden Democrats and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France.
The irony is that identitarian groups are little more than individuals writ large. They extol the “virtue of nationalism” (in the words of Yoram Hazony, often seen as the founder of the National Conservative movement) and autonomy. But they simultaneously claim entitlement to absolute rights and pit each group against all others – nationalists against globalists, oppressed against oppressors. Much of the discourse on identity wallows in the victimhood of individuals and groups who purport to be casualties of collective forces. For the revolutionary left, Western imperialism is to blame for all the ills of the world while the national-populist right rails against woke warriors who have corrupted our culture.
For all the political polarisation and growing cultural conflict, countries – like citizens – have a certain character that is often shared by a majority of people – though you wouldn’t know it from echo chambers online. In a recent speech at Mansion House in the City of London, King Charles described the UK as a “community of communities” – “an island nation in which our shared values are the force which holds us together, reminding us that there is far, far more that unites us than divides us”. Having “more in common” was a phrase frequently used by the Labour MP Jo Cox before she was murdered by a far-right activist days before the Brexit referendum.
Charles’ appeal to civility, tolerance and mutual respect may sound hollow in times of volatility and violence. But he believes they’re “deep wells on which we can draw”, that they are “never more vital than at times of international turmoil and heartbreaking loss of life”.
In response to the King’s speech, the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, accused him of fanning the flames of inter-ethnic conflict at a time when a vision of national unity is required. “Community of communities,” claims Phillips, is “a phrase that in my view amounted to a clarion call for permanent racial division in our society”. But Phillips is entirely mistaken. The notion “community of communities”, which was coined by the Anglican thinker JN Figgis and has been used by figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, implies the very opposite of a society segregated by race or religion.
Rather, it denotes a pluralist conception of the country in which society is made up of overlapping groups, especially families, communities and intermediary institutions such as trade unions – centred on the dignity of the person and free association. For the King, this vision encompasses the idea that together with the state religious communities and other corporate bodies constitute the UK’s multinational polity. We’re neither isolated individuals living in gated communities nor cogs in a collective wheel, but rather members of different tribes bound together by social virtues.
Does all this matter? Yes – it reflects a deeper reality about the UK. Unlike the Hobbesian vision of a modern nation-state made up of the sovereign ruler and subordinate citizens who owe their freedom to Leviathan, we are more like an ancient and medieval polity. The UK has four nations, and our constitutional settlement with Crown and Church in parliament implies multiple overlapping identities. It includes the public recognition of religion – which differentiates us from the French laicité, which separates religion from public life. This is also unlike US civil religion which is really a fusion of Lockean individual property with the debased Calvinist idea that only an elect few are destined to prevail. Hence the quintessential American creed: wealth is a sign of divine blessing and to be successful in the US requires that people, whether indigenous or immigrant, buy into the American dream of limitless riches. That this dream has turned into a nightmare of low-wage precarity and opioid addiction among the working classes is a significant part of why the US is so fractured.
Of course the UK suffers from racial discrimination and deep socio-economic and other inequalities. Yet the British “community of communities” can help bridge the gap between different sections of society, especially in times of political polarisation and the clash of groups over the Israel-Palestinian war. We should celebrate this legacy while renewing its promise, which today is under serious threat from vocal yet numerically small groups on the far right and the revolutionary left who seek to impose their ideology of hatred and demonisation.
Yes we need to do far more for new citizens to learn and speak English, understand and respect the common law and customs – to embrace and embody what George Orwell called “common decency”. But overwhelmingly, we have a civic identity grounded in real, existing communities living together. But with strength of character and resolve, we might just defeat the ideologues of identity and renew the shared bonds of belonging.
[See also: Why are men so scared of robots?]