Paul Vallely: How do we make Britain great again?

21 February 2020

Paul Vallely suggests that avoiding a bias to the English would be a start

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WHAT does it mean to be British after Brexit? Most of the arguments produced for remaining in the European Union were economic. But most of the arguments for Leave concerned themselves with identity. Now is the time, post-Brexit, the winners conclude, to make Britain great again.

The Revd Diarmaid MacCulloch, sometime Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford, cast doubt on this con­ven­­­tional wisdom at a lecture in St Martin-in-the-Fields to launch the Religion Media Centre this week. Britishness, he suggested, was essentially a Protestant construct — one that was bolstered by the whole project of the British Empire. But the Empire is gone, and Protestantism has lost its grip on our modern pluralist secular society; so, what is the point of Britishness now?

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he united two Protestant kingdoms in his person. But he failed to make them a political and constitutional union. That happened only in 1707, when Scotland was going bankrupt. One of the tools used to unify the two Protestant nations was the developing concept of Britishness. The Empire then used both as a kind of Protestantism International. But the imperial project has van­ished into the mists of history, and Protestantism was now a private hobby, the historian said.

Some might argue about the latter point. But, certainly, the glue of Britishness has dissolved. That is clear from observing the way in which many Brexiteers confuse Britishness with English­ness. As Boris Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Agree­ment showed, Northern Ireland hardly figured in the thinking of the politicians who lead what they continue to call, without evident irony, the Con­servative and Unionist Party. And they have been happy to disregard the views of the majority in Scotland who voted Remain. As a result, the re­­uni­fication of Ireland within the next decade is clearly on the cards. So is Scottish independence.

This is a rum way to make Britain great again, but it is a self-evident reinforcement of the para­mountcy of England and Englishness. For tactical reasons, it is necessary to keep waving the Union flag. But pressing the interests of the 52 per cent, and ignoring the sensibilities of the 48 per cent, of our divided population is the reality. For all the talk about healing the nation, we are witnessing a hardening of the political arteries.

Canon Sam Wells, the Vicar of the church in which Professor MacCulloch spoke, did his best to offer an alternative. In response to the historian, Canon Wells suggested a six-point Manifesto for a United Kingdom, which, he hoped, would make healing a reality rather than a piece of political rhetoric. It involved telling a truthful story about our past, and seeing ourselves as others see us: not always the good guys.

We now need to lament what was bad, celeb­rate what was good, and then rededicate ourselves with a commitment to a shared future rather than wallow in the nostalgia of a golden era that never was. Only in that way can we re­­lease the talents
of all our people, and seize a future that is bigger and better than either the real or the imagined past.

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