I was intrigued by Chris Bowers’ recent post A slogan you might not expect from the Lib Dems and by the comments on it. It revolves around the question of whether a national identity is or can be compatible with liberalism. Some clearly think not, but the comments thread reveals some blockages in debate that we need to clear up before an answer to the question can properly be made.
The first is that in many instances of the debate people speak past one another instead of to one another. What some people see as a statement of legitimacy, others see as a pitch for superiority. If I wave my St George’s flag, I will inevitably be seen by many as being chauvinistic. “Inevitably” means that that is what the current climate presupposes. It is not inherently so, as many liberals show when they say they want their flag back.
The second is that a claim to patriotism is in common discourse confused with nationalism – a belief in the superiority, the exceptionalism of the native race. This is mixed with the discourse of pride. One of the commentators wrote “I am not proud to be English – I am just English”. And another observed that being properly patriotic includes an ability to acknowledge one’s country’s flaws. Space for that acknowledgement seems to be remarkably small in the current climate. But again, that is the current climate. It is possible to argue that the British Empire was “A Bad Thing” and be patriotic.
The third is a question as to whether identity and diversity can co-exist, a question often asked rhetorically, to indicate that it cannot. In my view it can, but you need a confident identity to be able to accept diversity as an opportunity rather than as a threat. One might say that the most effective kind of confidence is a quintessentially English quiet confidence, not a brash assertion which often covers a lack of self belief.
This leads to the fourth blockage, which is the current historical coincidence of identity with powerlessness. Much assertion of British identity is felt among sections of our country who feel they have lost something over the last generation or more, and this feeling is preyed upon by UKIP and the like. As one commentator put it “identity is a consolation prize for those with power”. This is so, and powerfully so, but it is not the be all and end all of national identity.
Leaving aside the clutter caused by these blockages, my answer is yes, you can have a liberal national identity. In fact I think it is eminently possible to pitch Liberal Democrat values as English values. I do not spell out why here. It was more a question of laying the groundwork for beginning an answer to that question.
* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk