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Identity politics

Tribal identity shouldn’t trump national unity

The King: entering “treacherous waters”. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP/Getty

Liberals like me spent the second half of the 20th century imagining people being “freed of their communal history and judged on the content of their character”, says Trevor Phillips in The Times. That’s why I was so disturbed to hear the King describe Britain as a “community of communities” in a speech last week. It is a phrase that, in my view, amounts to a “clarion call for permanent racial division in our society”. I also felt a pang of guilt. Some 23 years ago I was responsible for a report on the “future of multi-ethnic Britain” in which the phrase appeared.

I had persuaded Home Secretary Jack Straw to launch the publication, and he “shocked everyone” by laying into its central premise. He argued that a “community of communities” encouraged minority and majority groups to “retain their separateness”, and that any criticism of a community or its ancestral customs amounted to “bigotry”. In other words, whatever your particular religious or cultural group identity demanded should be permitted and respected, “no matter the damage it might do to community cohesion”. Straw was entirely correct, but over the past two decades it has become an orthodoxy among liberal people that “tribal identity should be privileged over national unity”. The irony of the King’s speech is that his charities have been some of the most “effective engines of racial integration and equality” in the country. It’s a pity his speechwriters have led him into such “treacherous waters”. We should pay attention to what he has done rather than what he now says.