Sunday, February 06, 2005

Identity politics

[Health warning: this posting, too, may upset many of our readers.]

Undoubtedly our readers have noticed that identity politics is all the rage. Nobody knows exactly what it means but there is a great deal of discussion about it.

During European Week, organized by King’s College, London, my role was to take part in the discussion about European identity. There were to be four of us but one, the MP Gisela Stuart dropped out at the last minute as she was ill.

One other member of the panel was the First Secretary of the American Embassy, who explained that he could not really comment on European identity, being American but did a good enough job explaining to an audience of young must-be-anti-Americans that actually the Yanks were human beings just like everyone else.

Finally, there was the Bishop of London, whose beautiful voice and delivery charmed everyone and who tried to be nice to everyone. He did say that he hated the new constitution and was very disappointed in the way the EU was going and, at one point, made it clear that in his opinion European identity had to involve an understanding of God.

My role, as ever, was to play the bad cop. Or, to be precise, to pour cold water on the whole concept of a European identity, as opposed to national identity, that should not preclude knowledge and understanding of others.

During the informal discussion after the conclusion of the formal part of the evening, several of the students wondered aloud why we should even be discussing a subject that best resembled the burning question of the number of angels on the head of a pin.

My flippant response was that academics like setting problems like that as few of them have managed to recover from the ending of the old scholastic discourses.

More seriously, I pointed out that the question of European identity has been raised by the ideologues of the European Union for two reasons. One is the obvious one and they freely admit to it:

The project has been created and pushed through entirely by the various European elites with as little reference to the people of Europe as possible. As it reaches the final stages of completion, there has been a rather panicky understanding of an absence of popular support, which may well destroy the whole structure. Therefore, the concept of a European identity had to be produced to be discussed and, if needs be, constructed.

So far, this has been unsuccessful. Even among my audience only one girl insisted that she felt European rather than anything else. But then, she also thought that it was right and proper that the constitution should be written by experts and no democratic changes should be allowed; that regulations were there to help people who needed guidance; and that the idea of a war between France and Germany was entirely credible. I think we can all guess at her future career.

The other young people and not so young people from many parts of Europe and outside it, were largely bemused by the whole problem and certainly open to persuasion about the wrongness of the system’s unaccountability.

The other reason for the sudden appearance of the “European identity” and identity politics in general is a somewhat more sinister one. It is really a way of directing energy and discussion away from ordinary politics and to ensure that the latter is left to those in charge, the experts, the various transnational organizations and their representatives on earth.

There were several revolts or uprisings of varying severity against the Communist system in Eastern Europe. After each suppression, 1956, 1968, 1980, the people in those countries retreated into private life. Not that they had no private life before, but as the Soviet tanks rolled, it was understood that there can be nothing but private life. Public life became so circumscribed and besmirched that no reasonable person could seriously participate in it. And if one did, as one had to, it was to be done as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The rulers and their various spokespersons in the media bemoaned this fact but were not unduly bothered. A society full of people who spend their time in their home and discussing bothersome problems of identity was no danger to its political masters.

Identity politics is a denial of politics, an acknowledgement that it is no longer something individuals should be involved in.

This is of some importance to us, as there has been a tendency in this country for people to retreat from politics and political activity in its widest sense of the word. It is, of course, always somebody else’s fault why it happened.

The politicians lied to us, other people are stupid, the government should do something about it, politics should be taken out of whatever subject is under discussion, and so on. But the net result is the same: people are turning away from any discussion of what should be done, how their lives should be led.

On the other hand, there is a good deal of talk about identity and what it means to be British, English, Scottish, European, what have you. There is considerably less talk about how to make sure that one’s child learns things.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the political system we have found ourselves in. (There I go: found ourselves in. Of course, we did not find ourselves in it, we were part of its creation.) The European project has destroyed most of the meaning of politics.

As Mark Leonard of the Centre for European Reform explained: the politicians we elect, the civil servants who are supposed to work for us, the lawyers who are supposed to administer our law, have really become agents of the European Union.

They are our masters and they are unaccountable to us. Those who are supposedly accountable, the elected politicians, have no power.

But long before we had reached this stage, there had been a withdrawal from political decisions on any level. It is, as we know, one of Robert Kioroy-Silk’s boasts that his party, Veritas, will tell people the whole truth and nothing but the truth as that is what the British people want and deserve.

They may well deserve it, but I do wonder whether they want it. Do they want to hear that the gap between the people and the political elites is the fault of both? The elites may have lied and refused to listen, but what of the people who have refused to participate? Democratic politics is not a spectator sport.

In my other life, a.k.a. day job, I talk to many people who bemoan the fact that children know nothing about proper food, how it is produced or to be prepared. There are many proposals of compulsory lessons, projects, all sorts of enterprises in schools. The sad truth is that by the time children go to school it is too late – they must learn about food and about most other things at home. Schools are there to provide education not life skills and they do not really do either.

Politics is really about all decisions that have some application outside one’s immediate life. It is not just about government, though that is an important part of it. It is, to a very great extent, about the limitation of government, the idea of private life within a public sphere.

Politics has to be about participation in the various structures and processes; it has to be about immediate and far-reaching decisions and it has to be about taking charge of one’s life.

I have already expressed the view that Veritas could start by proclaiming that they want to see a free people in a free country. I hope they will take this idea on board and abandon the bar-room politics they indulge in at the moment, as that is simply another step towards identity politics. And despite various rather dismissive comments about it, I do think that there will be a response to that slogan.

If I am wrong, and there is no response, then we may as well stop complaining and retreat into endless discussions of identity politics, for we are not to be trusted with the real thing.

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