The Politics of Identity

British politicians have been led astray by matters of identity and other fringe issues, alienating voters to the extent where many are abandoning lifelong party loyalties. Members of Parliament ought to address what matters to their constituents by reconnecting with fundamental British values.

Police officers watch as opponents and supporters of Brexit demonstrate in London
A recent poll by ComRes found almost eight in 10 British citizens believe Parliament is in need of reform. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Most British voters now believe that their Parliament does not reflect the nation’s views
  • This loss of trust points to a growing divide between the concerns of the political classes and those of British citizens
  • Political elites would do well to consider the forgotten communities who struggle with crippling debt

There is a story about an ardent and rather self-important member of Parliament who, chasing after every vote he can get, visits a home for the elderly in his constituency.  Many of the residents have experienced memory loss. One confused elderly lady tells him to go away: “But don’t you know who I am?” he asks. “No, I don’t,” she replies, “but if you ask the head nurse, she may be able to tell you.”

Notwithstanding the well-deserved deflation of an overly self-important MP, memory loss is a shocking thing.

In the United Kingdom some 850,000 people have conditions associated with memory loss and the number will rise to over 1 million by 2025. Every three minutes someone else joins their number. And no one has yet come up with a cure.

Anyone who has experienced the sadness of a loved one failing to recognize them knows how shattering it can be. But collective, communal, memory loss is an acute condition too.

King Croesus reputedly asked the Oracle at Delphi what is the most important thing that a man should know, and the Oracle told him “know who you are.” True for us as individuals but true for whole nations too.

The realities of identity loss have been cruelly exposed to the light during the excruciatingly painful battles around Brexit. Divided families, communities, regions and nations have been bewildered by the spectacle of their Parliament, of which they were once fiercely proud, being reduced to chaos.

In the face of this alienation, and rather than searching for a cure, the United Kingdom’s political classes are in danger of behaving like the self-important MP in my story. For our self-regarding political classes to simply ask the public, “But don’t you know who we are?” will not suffice.

The breakdown in trust between the political classes and the public has never been greater.

Loss of trust

A recent poll by market research consultancy ComRes found that seven in 10 Britons think that Parliament fails to reflect the nation’s views and three-quarters believe that, overseas, the behavior of British politicians damages the country’s reputation. Almost eight in 10 believe Parliament is in desperate need of reform with 74 percent believing it is not fit for the 21st century.

I am no great fan of referenda and old-fashioned enough to believe that representative democracy is better than plebiscitary democracy; that parliamentary representatives have a duty to consider complex issues and to use their judgment and wisdom in resolving those challenges. Yes/no referenda do not do this and can become a convenient device to shirk responsibility. By contrast, if an MP fails to act wisely and justly, their constituents can evict them at the following General Election.

If, however, like David Cameron, you are rash enough to set in motion the juggernaut of a referendum, there is little choice but to abide by its outcome. To do otherwise is to inflict a mortal blow on the trust which is central to government by consent. As someone who voted Remain, this grieves me, but for the political classes who set these events in motion to try and ignore a majority decision grieves me even more.

This loss of trust points to a more fundamental alienation – one which has been fed by the obsessions of the political classes with fringe issues and by their unwillingness to hear alternative views. Working people are far more interested in work, their families, economic justice, their locality, social cohesion, their country, rather than gender ideology and the like. The failure to address those core concerns simply adds to the sense of alienation

The political elites should take a walk away from the self-serving and self-important Westminster Village.

That alienation is fed by the no-platforming of speakers in universities who question today’s received wisdom. It borders on oppression when the feminist writer Germaine Greer is accused of being “transphobic” for challenging gender ideology. Where does virtue-signaling leave academic freedom or the independence of academia to explore social and ethical issues? Where does it leave the search for truth and the testing of alternative views? How does all this play into how people see themselves and those who govern them?

The political elites should take a walk away from the self-serving and self-important Westminster Village, where smoke and mirrors and political theater have replaced leadership and the national interest, and, instead, take a walk through a “rust-belt” town in the north of England, pervaded by hopelessness and despair, lived in by people who say no one is interested in them or the challenges they face.

We have burdened these communities with crippling debts. The average household debt stands at GBP 58,540 while, overall in the United Kingdom, people owe nearly GBP 1.6 trillion – almost as big as the GBP 1.786 trillion of national debt (85.2 percent of GDP). Future generations will call this “intergenerational theft.”

But they will probably forgive their indebtedness when they compare it with what they have lost through our destruction of the once strong communities and families that held those places together.

The urban landscape is littered with the consequences of 800,000 children who have no contact with their fathers and feel abandoned and robbed of a more fundamental security. We have to live with the consequences of women being forced into abortions by men, which some doctors say may be much more common than we think. In Britain that is one every three minutes. 

In every respect, we have created a de-Christianized throwaway culture.

Abandoned values

Everything from a human life to precious food can be chucked away because we have a “right” to do it. Never mind that 30 percent of food produced globally is currently dumped (accounting for up to 10 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions) and that it could feed all 800 million people in the world whom the World Bank says are smitten by starvation or do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. And that is to say nothing of another 1 billion who could be fed if we tackled the obesity and overeating affecting 2 billion of the world’s population

If people in developing nations suffer through our irresponsibility and greed, those living in material prosperity have lives too often blighted by the trauma of family breakdown, mental illness, drugs and despair. National life has been marred by outrageous misappropriation of money in huge bonuses, by misselling and illegal dealing by banks – which brought our economy to its knees. It is tainted by the neglect of the elderly, by institutional corruption, by too much inequality, by hateful and scapegoating language and by the politicization of judges.

Take the trouble to ask people what they think of the political classes and a clue would emerge as to why they voted as they did in the EU referendum. As much as anything it was a chance to kick the elites who have ceased to govern them: elites who look remote and out of touch.

A chasm has long been opening between the populace and the politicians.

A chasm has long been opening between the populace and the politicians but those who govern them have been too busy with their obsessions to have even noticed.

The same people who can spend 700 hours of parliamentary time arguing about the rights of foxes would be better employed worrying about why millions of people have shed their political identities and allegiances, deserted mainline political parties, and abandoned lifelong political loyalties, sometimes embraced by their families for generations.

If the politicians were to ask the right questions, they would be confronted by a far more significant identity crisis than gender identity or animal rights. They need to put right the relationship between them and their constituents and remember the high calling of political life.

It is still the case that in those same communities that, if you scratch the surface, you will find millions of British people who still affirm the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law – with its origins in the 800-year-old Magna Carta – freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live without fear of persecution.

These values did not come out of nowhere and British people are well aware that our history, culture, and identity have all been shaped by Judeo-Christian beliefs and honed by continuous struggle – evidenced in everything from the role of Christians in ending the slave trade; in upholding the right to conscience; the creation of myriad schools, universities, hospitals and charities. They did all these things because they believed in a generous and loving society: a culture of giving. 

They did all this recognizing the importance of Prophet Isaiah’s injunction to “remember the rock from which you are hewn; remember the quarry from which you were dug.”

That rock, on which our societies have traditionally been built, upheld the sanctity of human life; the central place of our families in giving cohesion to society; the role of parents in caring for their children; the community’s duty toward the vulnerable, the needy, the widow, the orphan and the stranger within your land. It emphasized the importance of cultivating virtue; of public duty; of seeking the common good rather than merely elevating personal gain; of accepting social responsibilities.

Religious faith can animate a society when it teaches that we are not made for ourselves but for others, sharing with that great sage, Hillel, the belief that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?”

Universal values

The delicate balance between the individual and the civic groups which constitute our society is crucial to its identity and efficacy and is as vital to its survival as a body’s need for oxygen. We do not lose identity by engaging in civic and community life – quite the reverse. When we are secure in our identities, we can imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes and have the confidence to consider how they might see the world.

But our survival also depends on trust.

Whether in the market, or in our relationships, it was once understood that our word is our bond and that other words, like courtesy, compassion, reliability, honesty and interdependence, gave meaning to a virtuous society – ideas which had their origins in Aquinas and Aristotle. These are all foundational values, fundamental to the health of our culture, but which, in the de-Christianizing of the United Kingdom’s identity, have been foolishly airbrushed out of our national discourse.

Pope John Paul II blessing spectators in the city of Essen, Germany in 1987
St. John Paul II believed that “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” © dpa

I am with G.K. Chesterton who, while reflecting on attempts to eradicate Christian identity, wrote that, “According to most philosophers, God, in making the world, enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free.”

That love of freedom is to be found wherever you find Judeo-Christian fingerprints. And, depressingly, every time secular humanism takes another step away from its Judeo-Christian roots the more illiberal and the more intolerant it becomes.

At an international level, some of the most important benchmarks for civilized behavior – from Raphael Lamkin’s Genocide Convention to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – have their inspiration in Judeo-Christian ideals. 

At the heart of the UDHR were principles that rely on a notion of universal truth: that humanity has a shared dignity in simply being human; that we are both dependent and autonomous rational subjects; that at the heart of a thriving society, comprised of flourishing individuals, is the liberty to express those religious and spiritual capacities; that we must uphold just laws and defend the vulnerable and weak  – and that we are bound, as Rabbi Lord Sacks says, to uphold “the dignity of difference.” 

Those who crafted the UDHR were not constructing a declaration for the majority or the powerful – but creating the conditions in which both justice and diversity can thrive.

Some 70 years later, many in contemporary political life now draw their inspiration from Machiavelli rather than Aquinas and have taken The Prince as their handbook. Machiavelli tells us that the ruler should not hesitate to deceive and be prepared to choose evil as the price of power, believing that real virtue emanated from the pursuit of ambition, glory and power.

After the fall of Communism, in his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Latin: Splendor of the Truth), published in 1993, the great Polish pope, St. John Paul II, who had experienced both the terrors of Nazism and Marxism, warned that the pursuit of naked power and materialism carried new risks; reflecting that the ending of murderous totalitarian ideologies had not eliminated the threat of “grave dangers” to our societies.

He said that the absence of Judeo-Christian values “to guide and direct political activity” leads to a vacuum: “then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” Elsewhere, he vividly described “a culture of death.”

As we have discarded our identity, squandered our capital, and plundered our treasure house, we have created a toxic, fragile and uncertain world, a democracy without values. The insecurity is economic and social, political and cultural. Material prosperity and technological advances have left people scratching their heads, and wondering, what was it all for? Too many share the pessimism of Somerset Maugham who wrote, “There is no reason for life and life has no meaning.” 

It was in this climate that a people, unsure of who they are, cynical about our politicians and institutions and doubtful about the very purpose of life itself, were given a binary choice about whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union.

But, like the people who were being asked to vote, this institution had also lost its way and forgotten on what basis it had been founded.

European family

From their Fascist and Nazi prison cells, Alcide De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer – inspired by Jacques Maritain – created a postwar endeavor which would put into practice their Judeo-Christian beliefs in reconciliation and respectful coexistence.

Earlier this year, that endeavor was given great poignancy by the 75th-anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings which claimed the lives of 10,000 Allied soldiers who died on Normandy’s beaches in June 1944. We have also been marking the battle of Monte Cassino, in which my late father fought – always deeply admiring, especially, of the bravery and sacrifice of Polish regiments – and which claimed 55,000 lives.  

In the aftermath of those events, Winston Churchill called for “the recreation of the European family.”   

Robert Schuman, who had been in hiding with the French Resistance and would become President of the European Parliamentary Assembly, also used the metaphor of the family, writing that “The European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others.”  The European Union’s determination to march unwilling people out of a cultural family into the uniformity of a single state has been just as much to blame for the repudiation of their new Europe as the sometimes insecure and resentful xenophobia which has characterized the Brexit debate. 

Little wonder that the liberal world – devoid of its bedrock values – is facing its greatest crisis since the 1930s.

All this has been aided and abetted by the fear engendered by the mass movement of people, by new authoritarian ideology – in evidence all over the world – and by the rise of Islamist extremism. Little wonder that the liberal world – devoid of its bedrock values – is facing its greatest crisis since the 1930s. 

When did we lose our sense of historical perspective about the terrible price which had been paid? 

When did we lose a belief in reconciliation and replace it with flaccid arguments about backstops and customs duties? 

When did our parliamentarians cease to believe in the patriotic and optimistic case for cross-cultural friendship in a cultural family and become trapped in the barbed wire of intolerant and disrespectful catcalling in Brussels and the House of Commons?  

When did we forget the long shadow cast across Europe by Hitler’s mass murders and allow anti-Semitism, and new hateful ideologies to rise again? Why did we allow identity politics – which repudiates shared values and shared identity – to supersede the search for the common life; to elevate victimhood and protest politics, while simultaneously failing to recognize the role of social media in inciting culture wars and the superficial status of celebrities in defining national conversations – on everything from euthanasia to the use of drugs? 

The tortuous debate about Brexit has thrown up these and many other defining questions about who we are and about our place in the world. Time will tell if we have discovered any of the answers or whether, like the MP in my story, we are left searching for the head nurse to discover our identity – who we are.

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