Gordon Brown tells Matthew d’Ancona why he is so preoccupied with national identity. In the modern world, he says, we must be explicit about what being a Briton means

‘The problems will arise if you cannot say to a young person that there’s going to be a job after the training. We’ve got to make sure that we never return to the 1980s, when young people lost hope of ever getting jobs, and you had three-generation unemployment that created a situation where many people did become unemployable.’

The question I have posed to Gordon Brown is this: how does he impress upon a teenager from an ethnic minority, living in the inner city, that the sometimes abstract debate on ‘Britishness’ and national identity applies to him as much as to those in the seminar rooms and dinner tables of metropolitan London? The first half of the Prime Minister’s answer is vintage New Labour verbiage: ‘rights and responsibilities… post-school learning… a community that values their potential… the responsibilities of citizenship’ etc, etc.

But when Brown starts talking about the danger of a generation sinking into hopeless unemployment, with all the implications for social cohesion and national confidence, the verbiage vanishes and his voice changes. In the days leading up to the G20 summit, the PM is wrestling inwardly with the impact this deep recession will have upon the nation, and what it will mean in the coming years to be a young Briton. And he returns to the connection between Britishness and hard times later in our conversation.

‘This most recent financial crisis has brought home to people that the [British] values that govern our communities and societies, the values that people think important: rewarding and celebrating people who work hard, take responsibility, who are fair to other people, who show enterprise, people who work for their community — are the same values that should govern our economy as well.’

I am interviewing the Prime Minister at Number 10 for a two-part Radio 4 series on national identity (partly inspired by a forthcoming book on the same subject on which he and I have collaborated). If there is such a thing as Brownism, the apparently nebulous and oft-derided idea of ‘Britishness’ — its definition, celebration and proselytisation — is at its core. It is the prism through which he sees everything. It has got him into trouble occasionally, too, most notably with his ill-judged slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’. But it is not true that this career-long obsession is simply a defensive means of dealing with the fact that he is a Scot representing a Scottish constituency but governing the whole of the United Kingdom. That is too glib, I think. His fixation with Britishness, he reckons, has much more to do with America than with Scotland — preferring, as he does, the inspiration of the Founding Fathers to the orthodoxies of Whig historians.

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‘The first time I went to America I looked at [how] people thought of themselves as Americans, and went into bookshops in America and found there were so many books about the idea of America, the values of America, the identity of America, what America is and who Americans are. And then I looked at the debate in Britain, and found that we were so wedded to the idea of evolution that we had not considered that — actually — our national identity, more so than America, and earlier than America, was founded on our values.’

At the heart of those values, he insists, is a distinctly British brew of liberty and social solidarity, and in defence of his thesis he quotes a daunting list of thinkers from John Rawls and Orwell to the US conservative thinker Gertrude Himmelfarb. For now, the PM still speaks, as politicians do, of the need for ‘debate’. But it is clear that he believes that we must be stricter in enforcing what might be called ‘non-negotiable social norms’ and expecting minimum standards of English. ‘What are the responsibilities of citizenship in the modern world?’ he asks. ‘So should there be a citizenship test that is stronger for people who want to be part of this country? Should the rules that we apply for citizenship take more aspects of British culture, British history, [the English] language into account?’ Those are what I call rhetorical questions.

During this economic downturn, of course, Brown’s every other word in interviews and public declarations has been ‘global’, his political actions governed by the claim that only global action counts in the battle for economic recovery: we will hear much on the subject of planet-wide measures next week when the G20 gathers in east London. Why, then, does he remain so compelled by the idea of the nation and the question of allegiance to it?

‘I think everybody wants to be rooted. Everybody wants to feel a sense of belonging. Everybody wants to feel that they’re part of a community,’ he says. ‘Globalisation is something that is here to stay. It’s a fact, it’s not something that you can wish away even if you wanted to — and I don’t. But it actually forces countries to be far more explicit about what they are as, as nations. People want to feel that sense of belonging in what is an insecure and changing world, as well as a great world of opportunity… What I’m really saying is: being British is, in a sense, about subscribing to these values that have endured.’

Ah yes: values. The ‘V’ word became a live issue once again this week as Brown’s government, unveiling the latest tranche of its counterterrorism strategy, declared its intention to get tough on extremist groups which, though they stay within the letter of the law, threaten core British values (through ‘civil challenge’, in Jacqui Smith’s phrase). I agree with Brown that our national identity is in crisis — pulverised by globalisation, population mobility, constitutional change, social fragmentation. That said, I don’t share his faith in the binding force of ‘values’ or his belief that we need a new statement of British values. Aren’t such lists banal and woolly? I mean, which nation on earth would not claim tolerance and decency as defining characteristics?

‘Well, I think that’s where history comes in. Too much of our history is written as the history of individual people, or the history of institutions. But if you look at how the idea of tolerance has developed in Britain, it has developed in a different way from what happened in other countries. If you look at what we mean by ‘liberty’, go back to the historians — Macaulay and everybody writing in the 19th century. We had a very particular view of what we meant by British liberty. And then look at how in the 20th century the idea of ‘fairness’ has become more powerful as an idea. Whether it was Churchill talking about ‘fair play’, or whether it was the National Health Service that was seen as a peculiarly British way of being fair to people and taking care of everybody in your community. I think the relationship between tolerance, liberty, fairness and ideas of justice are not the same in every country.’

Which surely means more attention needs to be paid to traditional narrative British history in the classroom? ‘I think so,’ concedes the Prime Minister. ‘People think “Well, what is it that unites us?” And I do believe the British story is one of tolerance, leading to a very strong sense of liberty, expressed first in religious freedom, then freedom of assembly.’ Fair enough: but the test of his commitment to narrative British history should be what is actually taught in schools. This week’s disclosure that primary school pupils will be required to master Wikipedia and Twitter, but not study the Victorians or the seco
nd world war does not exactly inspire confidence.

A further objection to Brown’s preoccupation with Britishness has been that it is — well — rather unBritish. Hasn’t it always been our way in this country not to spell out what we stand for, but to allow institutions and custom to evolve? To cling to what the philosopher John Gray calls ‘the British makeshift’?

‘Well, the problem is, if it is not explicit in the modern world, then we give ourselves a false sense of who we are. We define ourselves by race or ethnicity — which would be a disaster for a country that has many people with different backgrounds as part of it. Or we just describe ourselves in terms of unchanging institutions, which would mean that we were frozen in the past. The most important thing in a year like 2009 — we tend to think of the financial crisis that we’re going through as an event. It is, in fact, the process of global change — a global financial system, global flows of people, global flows of capital, global sourcing of goods. And any nation faced with a bewildering amount of change — opportunity, yes, but also insecurity — needs a sense of national purpose. People need to feel that the country that they’re living in has a clear idea of what it’s becoming and what it needs to become for the future.’

And then he is off to resume the round of frantic negotiations, whistle-stop trips and phone calls that will culminate in the G20 summit. Isn’t all this ‘Britishness’ stuff just a distraction? No, because it is as intrinsic to Brown the politician as religion was to Blair. I have been a critic of this Prime Minister on a broad range of issues, sometimes vehemently so. But every time I hear someone sneer at his interest in this particular subject, I grow stronger in my hunch that, in this respect at least, he is on to something.

Britishness, produced by Helen Grady, is broadcast on Radio 4 on 31 March and 7 April at 9 a.m. and repeated at 9.30 p.m. on the same days. Being British, introduced by Gordon Brown and edited by Matthew d’Ancona, is published by Mainstream in May.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated