You have to admire his pluck. After his controversial intervention in the veil debate last year, Leader of the Commons Jack Straw has moved on to the thorny issue of British identity, and has met with a lot of predictable criticism. Today's Guardian leader, for example, linked his speech to a new report on poverty among minority communities, seeming to suggest that it was illegitimate to even raise the identity issue until economic inequalities were sorted out - as if a sense of Britishness would follow in a deterministic way from greater prosperity.
Straw is to be applauded for setting out the context for the identity debate in unequivocal terms:
Today the most fundamental world divide is between liberal democracy and certain narrow misinterpretations of religious belief. The most frightening expression of that is a brand of terrorism that uses religion to justify its evil. Democracy is incompatible with any such identity.
Straw argues that a shared British identity must be rooted in a belief in democracy, but he suggests that espousing such an identity need not mean groups and communities giving up 'distinctive cultural attributes', such as religion.
I'm always wary when politicans try to define 'Britishness' (Gordon Brown's recent intervention was particularly dire), but I think Straw makes a bold attempt. At least his version is free from the usual royalist sentimentality, faces up to the problematic legacy of imperialism, and is grounded in the story of the progressive struggle for liberty:
That means freedom through the narrative of the Magna Carta, the civil war, the Bill of Rights, through Adam Smith and the Scottish enlightenment, the fight for votes, for the emancipation of Catholics and nonconformists, of women and of the black community, the second world war, the fight for rights for minority groups, the fight now against unbridled terror.
Straw argues that Britain can learn a lot from countries that 'have a more developed sense of citizenship, and what goes with it: notably from the United States, Canada, Australia, and those in western Europe who have had to develop the idea of citizenship to survive as nations, or indeed, simply to be nations.' The difficulty for Britain is that many of these countries, notably the US, have a written constitution and/or bill of rights as a focus for common values. Without this kind of explicit statement of what we're about as a nation, Straw's narrative is open to dispute from others who may see Britain's 'story' in very different terms. I note that David Cameron's Conservatives have recently supported the introduction of a British Bill of Rights. Trouble is - would you trust them to write it?