Maybe it was my being reared on a diet of ‘The Daily Mail’ that ‘put me off’ patriotism. The nauseating plethora of tales chronicling dubious abuses of the Human Rights Act, and the daily litany of questionable statistics on the implications of immigration, all made pretty dull reading. Equally, perhaps my Catholic Irish background contributed to my aversion to deifying an unelected monarchy. Perhaps being born and bred in a diverse, modern, cosmopolitan city, made it hard to associate with the archaic sentimentality of ‘traditional patriots’, who to this day seek to justify stubborn colonialism (Gibraltar, The Falklands).
A myriad of contradiction underpins the modern British state. Over recent decades British society has really taken to the notion of ‘progressive politics’. Where Blairites quivered at the labelling of their party with the tags ‘left wing’ and ‘socialist’, they soon swarmed to this softer umbrella brand that indicated an ambition for positive reform, and liberalisation. Although relatively ambiguous, the implication of the word is positive, and all the Westminster parties have gradually latched onto the notion. An example might be found in Labour’s ‘innovation’ of ‘One Nation’ that brings connotations of a collective responsibility and unity – strikingly similar to Cameron’s botched ‘Big Society’.
Thus the passing this year of a gay marriage bill is symbolic of this tide of ‘progress’, and conducive to Britain’s pursuit to become a bastion of democracy and a champion of its citizens rights. The offering of asylum to the Pakistani heroin of women’s rights and education, Malala Yousafza, is surely indicative of a noble progressive social agenda at the heart of both government, and society.
Yet this belies a pervading rot at the heart of British politics. Amidst the headline grabbing populist passing of gay marriage, there is an undeniable, potentially unstoppable, emergence of a bland cross party consensus on issues fundamental. Recent Miliband wrangling with the unions has only further fuelled fears that party politics is rapidly descending into a centrist monotony. Elections will be won not on policies, but on spin alone.
For too long the primacy of tackling fiscal ill health, and the getting back into the black of UK Plc. has led to constitutional debate being hijacked by superficial token gestures like the AV referendum. Parliamentary wrangling has long been more concerned with Number 11 and the Chancellor. Even the opposition has of late drifted reluctantly toward Coalition fiscal policy, with red-faced backtracking on the few existing party distinguishing policies. The failure of the opposition to clarify their own stance on Coalition cuts affirms this farcical state of affairs.
Finance aside, puppet liberalisation has failed to challenge the status quo. Core institutions to the national identity go unchecked by the political elite, with no party willing to openly challenge the overtly archaic and outdated features of the Crown and Commonwealth. The sheer hypocrisy is damning – there exists a cafeteria approach where, celebrating antiquated ideas of Empire, the Establishment simultaneously acts as a ‘just’ authority on issues international.
Recent wrangling over the rock of Gibraltar epitomises the hollow diplomacy characteristic of modern Britain. Flying in the face of all of the pragmatism of 21st century ‘enlightened’ foreign policy, a cultural encoding of the defence (at all diplomatic cost) of Her Majesty’s territories is both unreasonable and illogical. Bellicose comments from senior British politicians only further underlines the shallowness of our proclaimed progressiveness – not a single (sitting) Westminster party would dare to challenge the outdated British line.
The recent birth of the third in line to the throne, and rather the press reaction to it, was further evidence of this systematic disjointedness. The epitome of privilege and antonymous to the meritocracy widely championed in greater society, the media circus surrounding the heir’s birth was bittersweet. Whilst column after column rapidly exhausted any meaningful information, press attention was concentrated upon a private hospital wing charging £6265 a night. The irony of such lavish expense, at a time of unprecedented NHS cuts, whilst avoided by many of the right wing media outlets, was surely not lost on the British public altogether.
Perhaps we can hope that one party will seize the initiative, and challenge the ‘yes-man’ politics of today. A diverse Britain needs to rediscover itself – and this can only come from a frank re-appraisal of the institutions that reign over it. Political consensus can be a tool for progress, yet the danger lies in a convergence of political parties that is contrary to the varying opinions that characterise democracy. Meaningful debate should not be shied away from; it should be embraced. Genuine progress will be found in questioning the unquestionable.