David Cameron on Muscular Britishness

Henry St. John


In the wake of Operation Trojan Horse, the plot to Islamicise Britain by co-oping schools and then running them according to Islamist ideas an beliefs, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has now written an article for The Daily Mail, expressing his commitment to promoting “muscular” Britishness in schools.

Muscular Britishness? This sounds very similar to Cameron’s call for “muscular liberalism”, made in 2010, when he concluded, decades too late, that “multiculturalism has failed”.

With such an antecedent, readers could certainly justify a measure of scepticism. And, indeed, when one analyses Cameron’s piece, there is much to comment on.

His central thesis is that “we”—an inclusive euphemism for “the British political establishment”—have been far too tolerant, effectively saying that if you don’t like democracy, or can’t get excited about equality, or would rather not be tolerant, it’s all good, nothing to worry about, we’re happy to live and let live. And this, he says, has got to stop. Particularly since it has led to division, extremism, and violence. Instead, the British government should use the system of education to promote British values and pride in Britishness, so that the “diverse nation” can be unified.

Notice how Cameron defines Britishness: democracy, equality, and tolerance.

Notice also the strange contradiction, right from the outset, between tolerance being a British value and his call to be intolerant of non-British values in order to promote Britishness.

So he’s effectively asking Britons to be unBritish in order to be more British.

Nor only that, but he is also asking for that to be done with pride. But then, if equality is British, how can a Briton feel pride? Does not pride derive from a sense of superiority? And would that not be incompatible with equality—no better and no worse than anybody else?

I suppose the response to that is that it is British to value equality before the law and to see everyone as being equal in human dignity and rights, and that that in itself is what makes the British superior. That would, however, mean that those who do not subscribe to these ideas are not only not British, but also necessarily inferior, leaving us again with a contradiction.

There is another problem with Cameron’s conception of pride in Britishness. He claims that democracy, equality, and tolerance are “as British as the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips”. One cannot help but find the comparison degrading—degrading of the values that allegedly define Britishness as well as Britishness itself, however one defines it, with Cameron eliciting images of jingoism, hooligans, and fast food. Is that—the worst clichés and caricature of things British—really what gives dignity to the British nation?

I feel tempted to be unkind and say that jingoism, hooligans, and fast food come to Cameron’s mind as immediately comparable to democracy, equality, and tolerance, because those things are all on the same (base) level. Personally, I set my sights a little higher, but then, I am an elitist, and he a democratically elected politician.

That Cameron sets the bar so low, and values most highly that which is most base, is an interesting question. He degrades the nation and calls for pride in it at the same time.

Cameron continues, asserting that,

Of course, people will say that these values are vital to other people in other countries. And, of course, they’re right.

This shows an amazing degree of cultural arrogance, particularly by a man who views tolerance central to Britishness. No, David, democracy, equality, and tolerance are not vital to people in other countries. Historically, and around the world, democracy has been the exception rather than the rule; equality has not been enthroned anywhere else the way it has in all Western countries—much the opposite; and tolerance is very rare, which is why ethnic and religious conflicts are so common and the most reliable sources of violence, destruction, and death on the planet. If these values were vital, they would certainly be far more common, since all nations would actively strive to uphold them.

Also, if democracy, equality, and tolerance are vital for “other people in other countries”, how can they be quintessentially British values? If they are vital to other people in other countries, the correct way to view them is as universal human values.

Yet, for Cameron, they are integral in constituting the “bedrock of Britishness”. He says it is those values, plus “respect for the history that helped deliver them and the institutions that uphold them” that are the building blocks of this bedrock.

Note how Cameron here implies a teleological narrative, subordinating history and tradition to the attainment of democracy, equality, and tolerance. By the logic of this narrative, then, in the past Britain was less British. The reasons would be as follows:

Firstly, there was a lot less democracy. The first Parliament to include elected members was De Montfort’s Parliament of 1265, and lasted only 26 days. It was not until the 19th century that the electoral franchise, tiny since 1432 and in the hands of wealthy families, was gradually widened, beginning with the Reform Act 1832.

Secondly, there was certainly no equality. The Americans took John Locke to heart, but in the British Isles it was a different story. The class system that prevailed is well-known, inequalities were sharp, and then there was also legislation like the Popery Act of 1698, designed to put Catholics at a disadvantage.

And thirdly, there was an aversion to tolerance, particularly religious, since it was actively legislated against. The Act of Uniformity, the Act of Settlement 1701, were anti-Catholic; any one taking public or church office in England was required to swear an Oath of Supremacy—a nice, tolerant name for a legally binding act. In turn, Queen Mary I (a.k.a., “Bloody Mary”), a fervent Catholic, vigorously persecuted protestants, causing 800 to flee and nearly 300 to burn at the stake. The legal basis was the Heresy Act 1382 and the Suppression of Heresy Act 1414, which she revived in 1554, within months of ascending to the throne.

Yet, since he says he wants the Magna Carta taught in schools, it seems probable that Cameron would regard the Britain of even prior to 1215, the year that document came into being, as still British, so it would be fascinating to discover how he squares that circle.

Cameron next proceeds to enumerate the advantages of that bedrock of Britishness:

Without it, we wouldn’t be able to walk down the street freely, to say what we think, to be who we are, or do what we want.

Now, that would be wonderful if it were true. It is true for many things, granted, but there are very strict prohibitions in key areas, including the ones enumerated.

Firstly, one can walk down the street freely in many places, true, but in the large towns one is constantly under CCTV surveillance, and there are other many areas in those large towns where it is not safe to walk, particularly after dark, not in spite of equality and tolerance, but because of it: the policies of successive governments, particularly in regards to immigration, which Cameron admitted has been excessive, and multiculturalism, which Cameron decided has failed. If it is not safe to walk down the street, one cannot say that one can do so freely.

Secondly, in the things that really seem to matter, including Britishness, one is not free to say what one thinks. In relation to Britishness, one can speak one’s mind provided it fits the definition of Britishness advanced by Cameron, but alternative definitions, and particularly traditionalist definitions, are strictly forbidden and criminalised in law. The law and government policy are very clear about this: Britishness must be inclusive, and any kind of non-inclusion, any kind of monoculturalism, is identified by official bodies as areas that need action, particularly in schools.

Worse still, as many readers will be aware, there have been Britons with “erroneous” definitions of Britishness that have been rewarded with custodial sentences. There are many more who, out of fear of falling foul of the law, or fear of being thought scum, dare not publicly define Britishness as they deem fit.

Thirdly, the point above impacts on the ability of British people to be themselves. They can individually, of course, but not collectively—and yet, it is in collectivity that any Britishness would arise. How can, then, the British be British if they are not allowed to define Britishness is as they wish, and if the only definitions that are allowed are those that are fully inclusive? Isn’t the process of defining something by force an exclusionary one? Because you cannot be something if you are everything, or all things to everybody.

This sentiment is aired in the reader’s comments section below Cameron’s article. One says,

In recent times we are not allowed to say what we think, be who we are or do what we want.

While another elaborates a bit further:

I am English,….I don’t recognise my country from my teenage days and don’t have any Idea of Britishness, I see a magnitude of cultures mixed together, the concept of Britishness has been destroyed and in my mind lost forever. The leaders of Britain mostly non English have destroyed our culture in the drive to create a United States of Europe.

To get to the root of the matter, we need to examine the following statement by Cameron, which appears further down in his piece:

we should teach history with warts and all. But we should be proud of what Britain has done to defend freedom and develop these institutions – parliamentary democracy, a free press, the rule of law – that are so essential for people all over the world.

When we take this in, in the context of Cameron’s previous statements, it seems clear he is conflating Britishness with liberalism. Now, liberalism can be described fairly as a British invention. Yet, it is but one expression of Britishness out a possible many, and a recent one.

If we are going to define Britishness in such crassly political terms, wouldn’t Toryism (traditional conservatism, favouring hierarchy over utopian egalitarianism) have an equal, if not greater, claim to Britishness, since it is no less autochthonous? However, it would appear as if Cameron, the muscular liberal politician, would consider Toryism to be unBritish, alien, perhaps even treasonous.

That Cameron’s conception of Britishness is highly ideological can be seen in the things he lists as reasons to be proud of the British nation:

This is the country that helped fight fascism, topple communism and abolish slavery;

Once again, equality is at the centre of Cameron’s narrative. The constant iteration of this value seems to give it special importance as a source of Britishness, despite the various contradictions outlined above.

Ultimately, it would seem that Cameron’s “muscular” Britishness is a phrase without any real meaning. In reality, anything goes:

They should help to ensure Britain not only brings together people from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, but also ensures that, together, we build a common home.

Therefore, beneath the fine words, Britishness seems ultimately to be about living in Britain. A geographical circumstance. Nothing more.

The lack of substance, however, does not end there. Even Cameron, the muscular liberal, exposes it as a sham. He claims,

That’s what a genuinely liberal country does: it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. It says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society. . . . They’re not optional; they’re the core of what it is to live in Britain.

Note the words, “not optional”. In other words, what a liberal country does is not tolerate anything that isn’t liberal. A liberal country demands total conformity. Now, if tolerance is at the core of being British, how can the intolerance demanded by liberalism be British? It would seem to be, rather, anti-British.

And if so, would practicing liberalism not be the same as engaging in a hostile act against the nation? Some would, and do, equate this with treason, but I am reluctant to go that far, as it is clear Cameron means to say the opposite at the same time, and I am sure Cameron means well, despite his muddled thinking on these vital issues.

After all these reflections, one thing is clear: his muddled thinking suggests he is right to call for an overhaul in education.

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