We see here the equivalent of the censorship of heresy in religious communities. The heretic threatens the community by undermining an assumption on which membership depends. He has to be silenced for the community’s sake. In the community of non-membership, in which every identity is freely chosen, the heretic who believes in objective distinctions is just as much a threat as the Shi’ite in a Sunni shrine. He must be exposed, punished and, if possible, silenced.
If you wish to understand why our freedoms are today under assault, therefore, you must first understand that they are under assault from within, and from the very concept of freedom, used in that way to affirm an identity politics whose effect is fragmentation. This affects not only universities and their courses in “gender studies” and the like. The disease spreads through the whole of society, since it becomes absorbed into the imperatives of political correctness, by which I mean a kind of superstitious fear of betraying some traditional attachment in the face of any attack on it from the champions of this or that alternative.
We have an important recent case of this in the scandal at Rotherham in Yorkshire. As in so many of our cities today, Rotherham has been in the habit of taking children from dysfunctional families where they are at risk into Council care, usually as the result of a court order. The vulnerable children are in need of help and protection and are also often targeted by sexual predators. Girls in the care of Rotherham Council were regularly targeted in that way by men from the local Muslim community and essentially treated as sex slaves, even sold into prostitution abroad or in other parts of the kingdom. The police refused to investigate complaints made by the parents for fear of being judged to be “racist,” and the Council likewise decided that it would be politically incorrect to do anything save turn a blind eye. Any other course of action would raise the feared question of identity: namely, the question whether we, as British citizens, are free to condemn a way of treating young women which certain immigrant communities see as normal or even praiseworthy. Are we entitled to hold on to an attitude that has hitherto been fundamental to our conception of who we are, or must we renounce it in order to make room for a rival identity that conflicts with it?
The case is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates the way in which the new identity politics erodes individual freedom by attacking the preconceptions of a free society. My parents told me that I live in a free country, one whose freedom they had defended in the war against Hitler. In saying this, they were referring to a tangible feature of public life. They had in mind an openness, ease, and civic responsibility that were everywhere apparent, even if never explicitly mentioned. In trouble, they told me, I could trust the forces of law and order to protect me and passing strangers to take steps to help. I should never fear to tell the truth, since the truth would prevail in any case, and all around me were people accustomed to prefer truth to falsehood and to live by relations of trust.
The girls in Rotherham did not belong to such a country. It so happened that two of them were courageous enough to force the authorities to take note of their predicament, though not before their lives had been irreparably damaged. Their case shows the way in which political correctness can be an assault on freedom, by taking away the shared identity that creates a public culture of obedience to the rule of law. The Council Officers and the police force in Rotherham had been emasculated (to use a politically incorrect word) by Political Correctness. They feared to honour their duties as protectors of our freedoms. They feared to act according to the identity that underpinned their duties as public servants. Instead, they protected criminal organisations that could beleaguer them with a rival identity that no one dared to criticize.
There is another reason for the importance of the case, however, which is that the two identities that came to the fore in this case are in conflict in the wider world. On the one hand there is the old British sense of belonging to a place governed by law, where people live side by side as strangers and trust to the rules that protect them. On the other hand is a certain kind of Muslim identity in which family, not nation, is the source of obligation and in which women are divided into the pure (who are hidden) and the impure (who are publicly exposed, and exposed therefore to predation). It may be a minority view among Muslims that the world is to be organised in this way. But radical Islam of the Sunni kind is forcing this social identity upon us and inviting us thereby to a belated but necessary consciousness of who we are.
It is this “who we are” that is in question in cases such as that witnessed in Rotherham. It is because we share a national identity which subsumes institutions, customs, and laws that we can share – without any other cost than that of belonging – that our individual freedoms are something more than paper documents. This national identity is the foundation of social trust, the thing on which we have always relied, and on which the girls in Rotherham could not rely. It is something that exists only so long as we protect it, and the demand that we do so underlay the surprising result of the recent referendum – surprising because the result expressed the feelings of people who have been most affected by the culture of repudiation and the political correctness of our governing elite.
Here, in summary, is what I believe we should be affirming, as teachers, as public intellectuals and as people with responsibilities in public life:
We should recognize that freedom is nothing if we cannot protect it from the predators. Protection comes about only in conditions of trust, in which institutions command obedience and define the public standards of conduct and responsibility which we are to honour, and which can be called upon against the threats.
We are heirs to a society governed by law, in which the people themselves make and adjust the law through their representatives. Ours is a secular law which we can change as circumstances change, and which we obey because it expresses the commitment that we all share to the first person plural of our national identity. Unlike the Shari’a our law is not laid down for all time by God (a belief that has made it almost impossible for people to agree on what the Shari’a actually says in matters relating to the changed circumstances in which Muslims find themselves today). Our law is adjusted and amended in the interests of reconciliation and peace within the historical community over which it stands in judgment.
This law-governed society is made possible because we know who we are and define our identity – not by our religion, our tribe, or our race – but by our country, the place where our man-made law prevails, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life that we share.
This sovereign territory is our home and it is in terms of it that our public duties are defined. We may have religious and family duties too, but they are private duties, not incumbent on the citizenry as a whole. Our public duties are defined by the secular law, and by the customs and institutions that have grown alongside it.
We could put the point in another way. Our freedom as individuals is predicated on our membership of a political society. This society consists of people assembled in the sovereign territory to which they owe allegiance, under parliamentary institutions designed to represent and reconcile their many interests.
It is in that way that we should define the “first person plural,” the “we” of the modern nation state. And in my view this “we” is much to be preferred to the “we” of the tribe, the “we” of the ruling oligarchy, or the “we” of religion. Yet those rival “we” identifications are at this very moment eying our assets with a view to imposing themselves, and it is time for us to wake up to what we have – to the blessing of a national identity and a shared homeland, within whose borders we are freely governed.
It has become politically incorrect to affirm one’s loyalty in such terms. The EU insists that to think in this way is to commit the heinous sins of racism and xenophobia. Similar things were said during the American presidential election, condemning those voters who saw mass immigration or the global outsourcing of labour as the crucial issues. Let it be said that the regime of censorship and intimidation under which we now live is so powerful that no voter will confess to national feelings when they have been told that to do so is proof of racism, xenophobia or, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “you name it.” That is why the opinion polls were so wrong, both in the matter of Brexit and in that of the American election. National loyalty has been branded as a sin, even though there is no other loyalty that could be called upon to protect us in the likely emergencies that we now confront.
It seems to me that the national identity that I, as an Englishman, have inherited – the identity of a nation joined in a union of like-minded nations in a single sovereign territory – is far more robust than its detractors assume, and that it has, like the American identity, a remarkable capacity to absorb incomers and to integrate them by a process of mutual adaptation. But we can adapt to the effects of inward migration only if migration is controlled, and only if we are allowed to affirm our identity in the face of it, so as to renew our obedience to the institutions and customs that define us.
In other words, the global processes that challenge us now are reasons to affirm national sovereignty and not to repudiate it. For national sovereignty defines what we are.