Government ministers trying to encourage a sense of 'Britishness' make me deeply uncomfortable (with one or two exceptions), for many of the same reasons as government ministers meddling in religion. So yesterday's proposals from Liam Byrne and Ruth Kelly for a tougher citizenship test and a 'national British day' were calculated to make me squirm.
As with the religion issue, I'm sympathetic to the underlying intentions: in this case, to reduce alienation among some migrant groups and encourage them to identify with shared national values. But there are a number of problems. Shuggy suggests a couple: that celebrating Britishness is actually rather unBritish - and that the suggestions for a national day of celebration have a predominantly English rather than UK-wide flavour. Jonathan Freedland identifies another: that the proposed citizenship test expects more of incoming migrants than we do of native-born Britons.
I'd add to this my own sense that national identity is not something that can be imposed from above, and certainly not by ministerial fiat. As Freedland says, countries that successfully celebrate their national identities, such as the US and France, tend to focus their festivities on momentous political events. I like his suggestion here:
July 4 and Bastille day are celebrated because they mark great political upheavals. We can't just skip that awkward bit and jump straight to the barbecue and bunting. No, first we have to have a political change of our own. That doesn't mean bringing out the guillotine. It could be the bloodless drafting, at long last, of our own written constitution. If such a document established a British republic, so much the better. We could even pass it into law on June 15, the same day Magna Carta was enshrined in 1215. Then make June 15 British Day - and make sure we're all invited.
A British Republic day: I'd support that.
One further point: Kelly and Byrne want to make 'volunteering' part of the package both for intending citizens, and for the populace more generally. They even suggest that student loan repayments could be reduced in return for volunteer work. This is in line with other recent trends in New Labour policy, particularly youth policy, which has shown a similar desire to micro-manage citizens' lives and encourage young people especially to be what Nikolas Rose calls 'entrepreneurs of themselves'. Questions: how can 'volunteering' be compulsory, and doesn't 'incentivising' pro-social behaviour in this way deprive it of its very essence...?