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Letwin: E pluribus unum - agreeing to differ

Speech on Conservative philosophy on race and religion

We are in the midst of war, alas it is a war that has brought to the nation's attention deep and striking differences of view. A society without differences would be a society without argument, without intellectual vitality, without passion - so far from being colourful, it would not even be black and white or Daguerrotype; it would be monochrome. I, for one, do not want to live in a monochrome Britain, a Britain without differences. But there is a paradox of difference. As it increases beyond a certain point, it fractures the society it has enriched.

To adopt a metaphor from music rather than the visual arts, one might say that social harmony is the desirable mean between a suffocatingly boring unison and an unbearable cacophony. The cacophony becomes unbearable when the different voices do not accept common limits, when one or more seeks to drown out the others in an effort to establish a particular uniformity. These voices - and there are some of them in Britain today - are the enemies of harmony.

For those of us who seek to live in harmony, avoiding equally the horrors of cacophony and the cultural extinction of an imposed uniformity, the question is this: how can we agree to differ? Unity from diversity was the underlying theme of the 2002 Dimbleby Lecture, delivered by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. It provoked a fierce counterblast from my opposite number, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary. We can learn a lot from this encounter. Dr Williams begins by asking a question of his own - why should we do what the government tells us? He asks his question because he believes that the good society can proceed only from a purposeful state. He believes that globalisation is undermining the capacity of the state to have any higher purpose than to service the needs of the individual within the marketplace.

In support of his argument he refers to The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt, a senior advisor in the Clinton administration. Bobbitt's analysis is that the authority of the nation state rests upon its ability to provide for its citizen's security and welfare, but that in an age of ICBMs, international terrorism, currency speculation and global markets, such provision is no longer possible. Thus the nation state is giving way to the market state in which governments, in Dr Williams's view, survive only by enhancing the power of consumers to buy their own security and welfare.

In the words of the Archbishop, the result is:"the 'franchising' of various sorts of provision - from private prisons to private pensions - and the withdrawal of the state from many of those areas where it used to bring some kind of moral pressure to bear."

The proposition that an amoral 'market state' is weakening the moral forces in society annoyed David Blunkett, who had this to say in an article for the Spectator: "Communities are portrayed as passive recipients of public services in which basic mutuality is dead. This is a travesty of the past and a misleading and selective view of the situation today... Historically, we should remember, the most deprived areas were those in which the most profound non-governmental mutuality developed in the 19th century. Ordinary people living in conditions of acute poverty, made real the values of interdependence which allowed them to survive. They created 'goose and burial clubs', friendly societies, penny-reading groups and the early insurance systems. These were the voluntary mutual precursors of the welfare state."

David Blunkett imagines this spirit of mutuality survives: "The advent of the welfare state throughout the first half of the 20th century replaced these institutions with state provision, but the spirit and practice of mutuality is alive and well in many of our poorest areas 100 years on."

But this is - as Dr Williams points out - a romantic illusion, which blithely ignores the facts. The ideal of mutuality has been all but driven out of welfare provision by an overbearing state, crushing community spirit. In Dr Williams's words:"In those environments where there is acute deprivation, including deprivation of everyday habits of mutuality and respect, a school bears an impossible burden of trying to create a 'culture' practically on its own, because the institutions that help you shape a story for your life are not around. Family continuity is rare; conventional religious practice is minimal; shared public activity is unusual. These are communities in which a school curriculum about 'values', however passionately believed, can yield heartbreakingly disappointing results."

The sad truth is that David Blunkett's hopes, are as unjustified as Dr Williams's fears. The state is not making room for other forms of social provision and it is not making way for other forms of social provision. In fact, the welfare state is more dominant than ever. Individuals and communities acting through the institutions of civil society are more disempowered than ever. The reason why this debate is relevant here is that the strength of relations within communities affects the harmony of relations between communities. By usurping the proper role of communities, the state attacks their pride, identity and cohesion. Communities that cannot define themselves by what they are, can define themselves only by what they are not.

But not content with the mere disempowerment of communities, the same top-down, we-know-best approach is applied to the communal tensions that arise as a result of disempowerment. Those at the top of the bureaucratic food chain employ all their usual weapons - committees, quangos, targets, initiatives, paperwork, tick boxes, codes, compacts and the rest of it - to try and manage these tensions out of existence. I don't doubt their good intentions, but whether any of this achieves real positive change is open to question.

After coming under pressure to apply for the top job at the Commission for Racial Equality, Yasmin Alibhai Brown expressed much the same doubts in an article for the Independent: "New Labour, like the BBC, loves managerial anti-racism, with monitoring forms, numbers, targets - all that tedious stuff that gives such a good impression of noble intent, while nothing changes in terms of real power and impact…"

She also asks whether organisations like the CRE are adaptable enough to reflect the changing nature of community relations. We have had our own experience of this. Last year we were approached by Sikh community leaders who felt aggrieved that the CRE code of practice on the monitoring of ethnic groups by local authorities, did not recognise Sikhs as a separate ethnic group. The CRE oppose ethnic monitoring of Sikhs because the code reflects the 2001 census, which included Sikhs as a religious grouping, but not as an ethnic grouping. This is despite the fact that the Sikh identity has both religious and ethnic components - in a way comparable to the Jewish identity. And yet while the CRE strenuously monitors other smaller ethnic groups, Britain's 600,000 Sikhs are rendered invisible.

Surely there is something very wrong with a system where entire communities pop in and out of existence at the stroke of bureaucrat's pen? What is the alternative? We won't find it in the Cantle report, the official response to the northern race riots of 2001. The report makes a number of recommendations, including: 'an inter-agency support group'; 'community cohesion plans'; 'various cross-community fora'; 'challenging and measurable targets'; 'extensive diversity education and training in all key agencies'; 'Local Services Partnerships communication strategies'; 'the development of a wide range of thematic bids'; 'a reconsideration of the impact of changes to ethnicity indicators'; 'individual capacity building programmes'; 'a review of the present arrangements for cross cultural joint working'; 'a good practice guide on communications systems'; and not forgetting 'a powerful task force to oversee development and implementation'.

The BNP must be quaking in their jackboots. As the leftwing writer Josie Appleton observed at the time: "Many of the proposed solutions involve subjecting local communities to bureaucratic control and procedures that are likely to increase their sense of disengagement from mainstream society… it seems that the government is trying build a common identity from the outside in - when it is obvious that common identity works from the inside out".

I have argued before that we must engage people at the local level and recreate the neighbourly society. We will do this only if we recognise that communities are networks of relationships that turn collections of people into responsible individuals. Active communities with strong relationships foster social trust - shared respect and decency between individuals.

To foster those relationships, to create that sense of community, we need to give impetus to every institution that makes it possible. We must give succour to every neighbourhood across the country which, instead of waiting for the state to solve a problem, is getting together to produce home-grown solutions.

Just one example is the Haillie Selassie Peace Project in Handsworth, Birmingham. In response to concerns about crime and communal relations, volunteers from the Rastafarian community go out on the beat with police officers twice a week. Known as Peace Officers, the volunteers not only participate in beat work, but also accompany the police during or after arrests, searches and interviews. The volunteers are trusted by their own community and well regarded by their police associates. They are privy to crime maps and figures, and even join the police on raids and other sensitive operations.

The Peace Officers wear a distinctive uniform, which they designed and paid for from their own funds. Consisting of a tan shirt and trousers, dread cap and bright yellow jacket, the uniform bears the Rastafarian flag on the left breast and the Union Jack on the right - an image of community and national identity to which I will return.

As well as building bridges between communities, the Peace Officers have established a virtuous circle within their own, encouraging their neighbours to set up other voluntary projects including mentoring schemes and youth activities. And yet there is the fear that this remarkable scheme may close due to a lack of funding. Yet what example could there be for a better use of funds?

We need a new infrastructure to support voluntary organisations such as this one. This will be a major theme of Conservative policy, on which I will make announcements in the near future. The reinvigoration of voluntary and community effort - and, with it, the reinvigoration of the neighbourly society - are indispensable pre-conditions for the establishment of social harmony. In the neighbourly society, neighbours of differing creeds and colours, backgrounds and aspirations, lifestyles and mores, can live together in harmony because they share the common enterprise of sustaining a neighbourhood, and the common enterprise of ensuring that their children are brought up to be law abiding and active citizens.

The continuous re-creation of active citizenship, from one generation to the next; the recapture of the streets for the honest citizen through neighbourhood policing; the lifting of young people off the conveyor belt to crime; the reinvigoration of communal institutions and of a common sense of purpose in the neighbourhood; all of these are part of what it takes to re-establish peace and harmony in conditions of disorder and civil strife.

But they are not the whole of what it takes. Attachment to the little platoon - to the family, to the school, to the club, to the neighbourhood is not enough. Each is part of - and can be sustained in peacefulness and harmony only by being part of - a greater whole. And this whole, too, demands its own sense of common purpose, its own identity.

I am speaking of an entity, an idea, even more under attack than the neighbourhood, an idea so unfashionable as to be - in certain quarters - almost unmentionable. I am speaking of the nation-state.

On every American coin is written the words, "e pluribus unum": from many, one. This is the most profound and concise expression of the point and purpose of the state - to draw out of many strands a single whole.

Each part of the proposition is as important as the other: the many matters much as the one, the one matters as much as the many. There is much to commend the American example: unparalleled diversity, unequalled strength, unsurpassed liberty. The American constitution, the American flag, the American dream, all that gathers together and unites, celebrates liberty.

Any comparison between America and Europe should tell us that there is no contradiction between strong communities and a strong nation. Like a string of pearls, each community - and the liberty of each community - is precious in its own right, but all the more valuable (and all the more free) for the common thread that holds them together.

What symbols could the communities of Britain unite around? Remember that image of the Peace Officer's uniform; the Rastafarian flag displayed along side the Union Jack? Our nation does not lack for symbols. But what do they symbolise? I would argue that, like America, they are symbols of liberty. But there are important differences. British symbols have emerged from a long history, a pattern of accident and reaction, not a recent and deliberate act of foundation. They are bound up with all the complications of history.

In particular, our symbols are permeated by a religious tradition. It used to be said "there ain't no black in the Union Jack". Well, there ain't no Crescent neither. Nor, for that matter, no Star of David nor any religious symbol, but the Cross. Does this mean that Britain needs entirely new symbols, in order to maintain unity in a multicultural, multiracial, multifaith society?

It's not just a matter of our flag. In England, and Scotland, there is an established church. The head of state is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Twenty-four Bishops of the established church sit in the House of Lords. Walk around the Palace of Westminster and you will see, embedded in the very fabric of our national parliament, multitudinous explicit and implicit references to the Christian faith, beginning with the prayers we say before the proceedings of the House of Commons begin each day.

We can expect an increasingly vociferous campaign to strip our constitution of its Christian heritage - indeed the campaign is already underway.

There are advocates of state secularism who propose a 'neutral' non-religious basis for the constitution and institutions of society. But can a non-religious worldview ever be neutral? Surely it must embrace values of some sort, otherwise our national symbols would symbolise nothing and provide no basis for unity. A truly secular constitution rests on the fundamental assumption either that there is no God, or that the concept of God is utterly irrelevant to public life. The secular worldview is therefore neither neutral nor inclusive. Like any religious view, it imposes a set of assumptions on everyone who plays a part in public life.

But there is a second line to the secular argument - which is that religion is dangerous. Religious people are seen as somehow subject to unique constraints of outlook that simply don't apply to others - the secularist believers - and that, as a result, religious people make a category of demands on society that are not made by others. It is a poor argument. The assumptions of the secular state certainly had implications in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, in Maoist China. If religion is dangerous, then the secular state can match that danger, corpse for corpse.

Of course, one would hope that such things could not happen in our time. And yet, state secularism still poses a real threat to genuine pluralism. This can happen in a few short philosophical steps. We start from the idea that different faiths have an equal right to co-exist. We move on to conflate this proposition with the claim that all faiths are equally valid. From this point it is argued that exclusive claims to the truth by any one faith undermine the validity of other faiths and thus their right to coexist. Finally, exclusive claims to truth are seen as a basis for intolerance, which, the power of the state should be used to counter, or at least discourage.Hence the attack on faith schools from those who speak as if Muslim schools had caused riots in places were no such schools exist; or as if Catholic schools were tearing Scotland apart; or as if parish schools could bring sectarian conflict to the English shires. That such attacks should continue in the face of all the facts, testifies to a prejudice that has no place in our constitution.

If state secularism has its own deficiencies and dangers, we are left by elimination with the status quo. But our existing arrangement is more than the least worst option; it has a great deal to be said for it.

Let me quote from a recent Guardian editorial: "This is a Christian country. Not in the sense that it has an established religion - although in England it has. Not in the sense that we might wish it to be so - it is not this newspaper's role to prescribe such matters of conscience for readers. This is a Christian country simply in the unanswerable sense that most of its citizens think of themselves as Christians. Earlier this month, in a report on the 2001 census, it was revealed that 42 million people in Britain - some 72% of the entire population - stated their religion as Christian. Enter what caveats you like about the figures - that this profession of Christianity may be mostly nominal, that the followers of other faiths must not be excluded, that the profession of any religion, or none, should be a purely private matter - but they are striking none the less. At the very least, they show that the church provides an extensive institutional and collective bond for many more people than we might otherwise imagine in what is often seen as an atomised and secular society."

Whether religious or secular, a constitution always embodies one worldview or another. The worldview embodied in our constitution is that of the majority, to change that would be perverse. But as someone who does not belong to that majority, I believe that such a change would also be to the disadvantage of other faiths. Again, let me quote from the pages of the Guardian. In a thought-provoking column, the historian Timothy Garton Ash compares Muslim immigrant communities on each side of the Atlantic. He asks why it is that the process of integration has been more successful in America, with its overtly religious culture, than in secular Europe. His answer is this:"The leap of imaginative sympathy from Christianity or Judaism to Islam is much smaller than that from evangelical secularism to any of them. That's why America, which has preserved the religious imagination it imported from Europe, may actually be better placed to accept the Islamic other."

I argue that Britain's religious imagination, though dimmed, is not dead. In particular, it is an imagination refreshed and inspired in the established church in its buildings, its rituals, its traditions. The established church embodies and transmits the religious imagination of the past and the present. It is noteworthy that I am not alone amongst non-Christians in believing this. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has described the Church of England as an umbrella under which all religions can contribute to public life. And the pre-eminent Muslim scholar, Dr Zaki Badawi, has defended the established church, because its very presence defends his community against sectarian and secular extremism.

Given Britain's tradition of tolerance, we should presume in favour of existing arrangements. Indeed the burden of proof should be placed on those seeking radical change - proof not only that existing arrangements somehow curtail freedom, but also that new arrangements would extend freedom.

Ours is an inheritance that has stood the test of time. If it is to stand the test of the future, it needs to be celebrated and taught in the media, in academe and in our schools. I wonder how many children are taught that Britain was the first nation to abolish the slave trade - and that for much of the nineteenth century the prime duty of the Royal Navy was to stop the slave trade of other nations?

I fear that, at present, it has become fashionable not to speak of such things. I fear it is more likely that our children will be shown the low points of our history than the high. It is more likely that they will take away a sense of shame, than of pride.

We will not build unity on a basis of guilt and grievance, but rather through an appreciation of the freedoms we all enjoy and a knowledge of how they came to be ours. It is strange that asylum seekers from the furthest reaches of the Earth should have a better understanding of the liberties of this land than those with the good fortune to be born and bred here.

Britain does not lack for symbols of liberty. But post-modern culture has so drained those symbols of meaning that their connection to our freedoms can no longer be seen.

It is time to mend these broken connections. How do we mend them? How do we reconnect the liberty of individuals and communities to the symbols of the nation to which we all belong?There may be several different ways of achieving this and we need to look at all possibilities. We do not need new symbols, institutions and freedoms; we have these already. They have come down to us through centuries of struggle for justice and liberty, not as one coherent whole, but as the scattered elements of an unwritten constitution, each with its own story, each having proved its worth. And together they have served us well, upholding liberty where other constitutions have crumbled.

But as Britain grows more diverse I increasingly believe we need a focal point; a means of tying our institutions and each of our freedoms to one another; a common thread for a nation of diverse, differing citizens - a central point that creates harmony out of liberty, in place of drab uniformity or unbearable cacophony.

In the last six years there has been an all but unseen revolution in our jurisprudence. Six hundred years of common and statute law, the law that has defined and upheld our liberty, has been subjected to the unpremeditated effects of the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights, through the Human Rights Act and its sequel - the de facto incorporation of a suite of international treaties signed by prerogative power. The interaction of this quiet revolution with the other revolutionary development - of European law - has begun to pose fundamental questions about the conceptual integrity of our legal system and about the relationship between our judiciary, our Parliament and our democracy.

Where once our freedoms were built up layer by layer through the subtle interpretation of the courts and the democratic deliberations of Parliament, they are now subject to the intricate overlay of treaty upon treaty, generality upon generality.

I fear that if we do not begin to act now, to re-establish a structure of constitutional law and a doctrine of rights consonant with our history, we may in the not too distant future find ourselves losing liberties that we presently enjoy.

I fear that, perhaps without the will of Parliament or people being expressed, we may find faith schools loosing the freedom to choose their pupils, orthodox synagogues being stripped of charitable status if they keep out female rabbis, mosques being fined if they employ only Muslims. And I wonder, if in ten years time, it will still be legal to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven, a proposition from which I dissent but which I wish to preserve the right of others to utter.

There are other threats to our liberties: the European Arrest Warrant; a restricted right to trial by jury; an end to the double jeopardy rule. Everywhere I look, I see around me the evidence of a need to enshrine our liberties, to delineate and protect the independence of our judiciary, to set out in some perspicuous form the constitutional relationships that protect us from tyranny.

We may not yet appreciate the freedoms we have today, but we will do if they are taken away from us. We may not yet appreciate the history of tolerance and respect - the history of agreeing to differ - that we have forged in this country. But if we begin to see it crumble, we will long for its return.

Let us begin to prevent now the need for such nostalgia and such longings in time to come. Let us reaffirm and enshrine in a new and more robust form the substance of our most precious inheritance - the inheritance of liberty under the rule of law.

And let us, in so doing, provide for the whole nation a means by which the many can become one without ceasing to be many. Let us build a nation that upholds the freedom of each community, so that in return each community may uphold the nation.

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