Our diverging national conversations

Social solidarity, multiculturalism and convivial cosmopolitanism are central to identity debates taking place across Britain

I was in Swansea University last night for the first of this year’s O’Donnell lectures* being delivered by the political sociologist Professor Christopher Bryant, of Salford University. His enticing theme, to be repeated next week in Bangor University and the week after at Aberystwyth University, was The Reconfiguration of Britain. Professor Bryant is the author of a 2006 volume The Nations of Britain, in which he argues that today’s asymmetrical devolution is more likely to evolve into asymmetrical federalism rather than break-up. However, his most interesting theme last night was his observations on the different ‘national conversations’ he said were taking place at the moment in Scotland, Wales, and England.

The SNP government’s White Paper on holding a referendum on Scottish independence is actually called A National Conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future. In Wales Professor Bryant described the conversation that is underway as being about whether a cultural nation can be transformed into a political nation. As he put it, “There is a need to transform civil society in Wales into Welsh civil society.”

In many ways the most interesting national conversation is taking place in England, between what Bryant called cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. This can be seen in the salience of immigration in the current general election campaign in England. Until the early years of this century the idea of multiculturalism was promoted by thinkers on the progressive left of politics as a way of celebrating the diversity of cultural groups in England.

However, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the rise of Islamic extremism the view has gained ground that multiculturalism has entailed England sleepwalking its way to segregation. Writers like David Goodhart, Editor of Prospect magazine have argued that the volume of immigration and asylum seekers is threatening to undermine social solidarity, what he describes as a progressive dilemma.

One answer is convivial cosmopolitanism, an idea promulgated by the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy. According to Bryant, the most optimistic experience of this in practice is to be found in London where 41.6 per cent of the population is made up of non-white groups (2004 census report). This may have reached a critical mass allowing the notion of convivial cosmopolitanism to become possible. Professor Bryant quoted polls reporting Londoners saying that the diversity of its communities make the city a better place to live.

However, elsewhere in England the non-white population is only 14.7 per cent. This might still be thought quite high, but nowhere near the critical mass found in London. And its very minority status tends to militate against cosmopolitanism. Instead, there is an emphasis on the ‘other’, resulting in racial tension and a breeding ground for the BNP.

For Professor Bryant this encapsulates the existential national conversation currently underway in England, between the polarities of multiculturalism and segregation and the conviviality of cosmopolitanism. His main point, however, was this:

“The national conversation taking place in England is crucially different from that taking place in Wales or Scotland.”

And, further, what is missing, despite Gordon brown’s best efforts, is any ‘national conversation’ taking place in the context of wider Britain. Professor Bryant wants one to take place, around the idea of a welfare social solidarity in which all the citizens of Britain can share regardless of the cultural and constitutional distinctiveness of their home nations. For this to happen, he says, an urgent requirement is for reform of the distribution of funds within England, and via the Barnett formula, to the devolved nations.

This should be done on the basis of need rather than population so that greater social solidarity can come about. If we are to share in roughly the same standards of NHS provision, welfare payments, and social care, especially for the elderly, there needs to be a more equitable spread of funding across the nations of Britain.

Yet here Professor Bryant puts his finger on devolution’s most tender spot. Over the first decade of devolution its inflammation has been stayed by the continuing largesse of rising public expenditure. This has kept the differences in welfare provision between the different parts of Britain largely hidden from public gaze. For instance, free personal care for the elderly in Scotland or universally available free prescriptions in Wales have been accepted without much comment in England where the same provisions do not apply.

It is unlikely that this can continue in the coming era of greater austerity. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are all, in different ways, committed to revisiting the Barnett formula and replacing it with an alternative more attuned to need. Will they grasp that commitment when, whichever way the numbers are crunched, the Scottish budget is sure to lose out? Like so much else the outcome of the general election, in which many of the fundamental issues raised in Professor Bryant’s thoughtful lecture have been barely aired, will have a good deal of influence on what transpires.

*In 1934 Charles James O’Donnell, an Irish colonial administrator and MP for Wandsworth, London, between 1906-10, left a bequest to ensure annual lectures are held on Celtic themes in Universities in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Oxford and London.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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