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.