English and free

Mar 11th, 2008 | By | Category: Cross Channel

Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane has a line that would cheer the heart of any libertarian, “This is England”, she said. “You can do whatever you like”. It encapsulates the belief in freedom and individual dignity that runs through the novel.

The freedom celebrated in Brick Lane is only possible by consent, we are free if people allow us to be free. Freedom is about being allowed to form our own opinions and make our own choices, without duress. It would be something taken for granted by people a generation ago. There was an assumption that new arrivals in the country would become part of a liberal culture where tolerance and individual freedom were cherished. The England I knew in the 1970s frowned upon religious excess; Ian Paisley and the attitudes of many Ulster Protestants caused complete bafflement in the English community in which I grew up.

A BBC report this morning on forced marriages shows that significant numbers of people in Britain never bought into the concept of individual freedom, particularly freedom for women. The report says that the British Government’s forced marriage unit “investigates about 300 cases a year, sometimes conducting clandestine rescue operations. However, a separate Home Office-funded study suggests that sort of number may be happening every year in the town of Luton alone”.

Multiculturalism has allowed communities freedom to shape their own lives, but it has not allowed the sort of freedom sought in Brick Lane. Freedom demands some sort of consensus as to what is acceptable and what is unacceptable; a consensus which is clearly absent if a thirteen year old girl is forced into marriage.

Perhaps it is because Ireland was forced into an exercise in state building in the twentieth century, but there seem much clearer ideas here about what national identity means. Both my children did CSPE for their Junior Certificate; I had to inquire as to what the letters stood for! Civic, social and political education teaches about the state, about the way government is conducted, about the constitution, about the president and the parliament; perhaps it helps create a consensus as to what being Irish is about. Back in primary school days they were taught the words of the national anthem, in the Irish language which they were taught every day. It would be difficult to imagine such overtly “nationalist” activities being acceptable in England.

In Britain even the most basic attempts at creating a concept of citizenship are dismissed by the Left, yet there needs to be some attempt at nation building if the very things that the Left cherish, liberty and freedom, are to be protected. There must be a point where being liberal demands being illiberal.

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  1. Is there a law that only allows ‘citizens’ to vote, claim social security etc like there is here? Whilst we encourage people to become ‘citizens’, we also make it very difficult especially for poor English speakers. Although even as a slightly left of centre person, I agree . . becoming a member of a particular community requires a degree of assimilation, retain the best of your culture by all means but leave that which is negative behind!

    Australia day is a big celebration alright and a public holiday but I think most of us enjoy the Ferry Races and fireworks more than adopting a feeling of nationalism and belonging. It does mark the invasion of the country by Capt. Cook after all.

    You know what brought our country together of all things? The 2000 Olympic Games! I’ve never seen such palpable pride in a nation (well Sydney anyway)

  2. Don’t know if you’d seen any British news before you came north today but there is to be a drive to bolster citizenship within the uk. I do not think this will have any effect because until we overcome the lack of care and respect many young people have for their own comunitites and neighbourhoods I don’t think it is possible to develop a wider respect. They need to start at local level and from the home. I’m not sure how this can be accomplished. I find it all too depressing at times.

  3. Paula

    It is because there is no discipline any more instilled in children in the home and school we have become a namby pamby nation who have lost our identity and pride at being British.


    I wish CSPE was taught over here, I dont care what part of the world the kids come from first and foremost they are living in my country and they learn English and our customs and learn to live by our laws. Then there is a place for their customs and language. I dont care if I’m not one of the P/C namby pamby conformists. I’m just glad I live in the South West. (rant over)

  4. Some years ago Sir Gerald Nabarro due to his position and wealth ststed that justice was what you could afford, perhaps the same should be said of freedom. but then again what is freedom.

  5. Freedom in a liberal society is very much the sort of freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill in the Nineteenth Century; it is the freedom to conduct your own life as you wish, insofar as that freedom does not impinge upon the freedom of another person; it is the freedom achieved at the end of “Brick Lane”.

    Individual freedom is challenged by religious groups who wish to enforce their own codes (including the church) and by political groups, who find liberty a challenge.

    It is not enough for people to trash Lord Goldsmith’s ideas – they need to suggest how to build a cohesive society because multiculturalism isn’t working.

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