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Can we create a new national belonging? by Ben Rogers and Rick Muir, ippr

Jon Bright reviews: The Power of Belonging: Identity, citizenship and community cohesion by Ben Rogers and Rick Muir of ippr.

Ben Rogers and Rick Muir examine our nation's collective identities - what might be lost as they change or thin out, and what could be done to stregthen them.

ippr have launched an excellent new pamphlet - "The Power of Belonging: Identity, citizenship and community cohesion". The problems they have set out to tackle are very familiar for OurKingdom, so have challenged me to reflect a bit. Robert Putnam's thesis on the decline of 'social capital' in America is one part inspiration. The events of 7/7 and the subsequent debate over multiculturalism is another. Behind everything lies the problem of the meaning of Britishness, posed by both increasing immigration and the sharpness with which we are currently experiencing devolution.Rick Muir and Ben Rogers, the authors, argue for a "new identity politics" (a theme which Muir developed in an earlier pamphlet). They call for both local and national identity to be strengthened, and argue that multiculturalism can be successfully married to community cohesion. This is not a rupture from a tradition of leftism which has often shied away from ideas of national identity: tackling social and economic inequality is a big part of the agenda. Nor is it a call for moral relativism - we can be unified only around a decidedly liberal set of values and universal human rights. Among their many suggestions, they identify a new constitutional settlement as a potential starting point for a renewal of British identity - but only, crucially "if the process of reform is a genuinely participatory one" - a point made repeatedly by many of OurKingdom's contributors.

Reading it, I couldn't help but be reminded of something else I am reading at the moment: Kathryn Dean's Capitalism and Citizenship. Dean offers an interesting historical account of the changing face of capitalism, arguing that since the 1980s we have seen the development of 'disorganized capitalism' - a type of capitalism which is characterised by perpetual uncertainty for those who experience it (there is, for example, not really any such thing as a 'job for life' any more). Her argument, which contains vestiges of Ferdinand Tönnies 100+ year old lament for the community, is too wide ranging to paraphrase neatly here, but she is effectively saying that capitalism's current manifestation is simply incompatible with the idea of 'citizenship' as once was - the way we are working is instituting a way of relating to people that is inhospitable to the idea of a shared identity.

Underpinning both of these works is a feeling that we are, in a sense, only missing national identity now that it is thinning out - and that the public goods provided by a shared identity are ones worth having back. This is mirrored by a sense of longing felt amongst much of the political class to put the humpty of national identity back together again, to fix down once more what it means to be British (even in a non-regressive way). But I'm not sure this is possible.

Like Dean, I think we are entering an era of unprecedented 'uncertainty' - though I might spin it more positively as 'possibility'. And I think this means that it will prove very difficult to 'settle' the question of British identity once and for all, with any set of policies or conventions. Arguing that a citizens' convention should be allowed to deliberate and debate over constitutional reform - and therefore, implicitly, what it means to be British - will put this idea up for potential 'debate' forever. This ability, to constantly challenge what it means to be 'us', will prove corrosive to the abstract idea of a fixed nation - and I mean by this that I do not expect the word 'British' to ever have the type of thick meaning it used to have. But this does give us the possibility of thinking creatively about how humans relate to each other - and what new, flexible identities could form the basis of this relation. Above all, it is the philosophy of devolution of power to the local level - which Muir and Rogers espouse, but David Cameron has also strongly been putting forward - that seems to me to be the potential basis of building new communities - giving people themselves the power to decide who they are.


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