Thursday, 30 August 2012

#positivetwitterday: Talking up Britishness for a day

I must admit that when I first heard about British Future I was sceptical. But over the last few months I’ve been gradually won over. Here’s a think tank with a clear progressive agenda, but one that refuses to be beholden to traditional boundaries. A think tank that’s begun to do something that successive late 20th century politicians tried to do and largely failed; create a real debate about what constitutes Britishness at the beginning of the 21st century. And today it’s asking us to take part in #positivetwitterday. To celebrate the Olympic and Paralympic spirit and be positive and civil for a day. And where better to start than with Britishness itself.
John Major’s much derided 1992 attempt at defining Britishness evoked the image of “cycling home from evensong, sipping warm beer on the village green while watching cricket.” At some level it was quite endearing, but it didn’t bear much scrutiny. Conjuring up a sense of whiteness and Englishness, it was absurdly nostalgic, narrow and exclusive. In 2006 Gordon Brown, in a speech to the Fabian Society, described British patriotism as “encompassing progressive ideas of liberty, fairness and responsibility.” In some respects this was much broader, and certainly laudable as an aspiration. But somehow it didn’t resonate. It felt theoretical, detached and bolted on.
The Major and Brown attempts at defining Britishness are some of the most memorable and explicit by British politicians in recent times. At other moments politicians have evoked a sense of Britishness in their responses to events. Thatcher’s post victory speech following the Falklands war spoke of the “real spirit of Britain”, of Britain having “found herself again.” In a far more subtle way, Blair’s “People’s Princess” speech immediately after the death of Diana appealed to a Britain in a state of shock and grief at her death. Earlier this year Blair was described by one commentator as the man “who more than any, tried to recreate a fuzzy sense of Britishness, post-Diana, all touchy-feely and shorn of any of ..harsh realities.”
These are just snippets of course and there have been many other attempts by politicians during recent years to capture a sense of British identity and Britishness. Some of these have been more successful, more appealing and more inclusive than others.  But none has really succeeded in creating a lasting and relevant sense of a new lived Britishness, genuinely and purposively representative of the Britain we’re in today.
British Future, it seems, has been designed to avoid those pitfalls. It’s clearly non partisan, but doesn’t shy away from challenging politics. It’s prepared to engage with and celebrate the past, while being firmly rooted in the present and committed to the future. And it is unashamedly open about diversity, and in particular wants us to talk about the one thing that so many politicians both court and fear: (im)migration, the issue behind one of the most embarrassing moments of the 2010 election, the Mrs Duffy moment. And specifically one of its aims is to create greater understanding of the positive impact of migration.
#positivetwitterday is on one level a chance for fun. It’s an opportunity to use social media to create a national conversation which celebrates the moment. It’s an antidote to those who are attached to a traditional British pessimism. It says there’s value in positivity for its own sake because it can make us feel better.
But it’s more than that. This is civic #postivetwitterday. So it’s about engendering a sense of belonging, of connectivity between individuals and the collective, however and where that’s expressed. That could be a geographic community or a community of interest or within in the overlapping spaces that bring them together. If the findings of NatCen Social Research's landmark British Social Attitudes Survey in recent years are anything to go by, that’s something we could all do with.
And so it’s challenging us to be part of a conversation which helps us create our own sense of Britishness, a Britishness which isn’t afraid to shy away from difficulty, but has a reason to believe; in opportunity and in the future. And that’s why I’m no longer a British Future sceptic. I get why it matters. I don’t know where it’s going but that’s what’s great about it. It’s serendipitous, spontaneous and audacious. It’s a kind of adventure.
It’s challenging us to recognise that there’s something precious within our grasp, to recognise as Sunder Katwala pointed out in his recent blog on Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, that Britishness has actually been staring us in the face all the time: it is Britain that makes us British.
And if we stop for a moment and take the opportunity to talk about it and celebrate it, we might learn something about it and ourselves which won’t just be for fun. It will help us create new ways of working and thinking together, of creating opportunities to be prosperous materially, emotionally and more. Unlike Major’s Britishness, it’s capable of being diverse and inclusive. Unlike Brown’s, it’s more rooted and practical.
British Future’s Britishness is us. In Britain. Today.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Cardinal O’Brien: time to practice what you preach

So Keith Patrick O’Brien isn’t talking to Alex Salmond, or at least not formally, because the First Minister intends to press ahead with plans to legalise equal marriage and the Cardinal doesn’t like not being listened to. Well I’m glad he knows what that feels like. As a gay Catholic I certainly do.

This is another manifestation of a rift which I referred to in my recent blog following the Archbishop of Glasgow’s outrageous remarks on the death of the late David Cairns, subsequently reinforced by the Catholic media office spokesperson Peter Kearney’s assertion that being gay leads to early death. Those remarks were so offensive and hurtful to David’s partner and family that I’d prefer not to mention them, let alone draw attention to them. But it’s necessary to because they expose the deep rooted prejudice and ignorance which lie at the heart of the Catholic establishment’s opposition to equal marriage. And that’s why it’s hard to take what Keith Patrick O’Brien and Peter Kearney say with anything other than a pinch of salt.

The Catholic establishment is snubbing Salmond because it’s upset that it isn’t being listened to. It also advances the very weak argument that apparently two thirds of those who responded to the Scottish Government’s recent consultation were opposed to gay marriage. This sounds like a petulant child that can’t get its own way and gets its friends to join in the shouting. The thing about petulant children is that they have to grow up. They have to accept that ‘I want never gets’. The world doesn’t come to you just because you stamp your feet. Welcome to modern democratic life Cardinal O’Brien.
As any of us with any experience knows, sometimes consultation goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. It might actually be more helpful to focus on the consensus which does exist. There were very few respondents who considered that religious bodies or celebrants should be required to undertake ceremonies which they were not comfortable with. And although approaching the basic proposals from very different starting points, many respondents were united in their insistence that Scotland must remain a country in which freedom of religious conscience is treated with the utmost respect.
But just to be clear, public consultation isn’t a referendum or a vote. Rather it’s an opportunity for public input on matters of policy. It’s more qualitative than quantitative, because its real value is to understand the range of perspectives held by the public, both individually and expressed through collective institutions, and the arguments which inform those perspectives. Its value in quantitative terms is negligible because it’s not designed to be representative. And it isn’t designed to be binding. However, the unavoidable truth is that research shows that attitudes in Scotland are changing: the Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows that support for same sex marriage increased from 41% in 2002 to 61% in 2010.

My interest in this debate is on the record. I’m a gay Catholic who strongly supports gay marriage. I didn’t, however, respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation. Sometimes, perhaps not surprisingly, consultation will attract a higher proportion of opponents than supporters because, entirely reasonably, such opportunities to make voices heard are exploited by those who wish to lobby decision makers. I had a choice about whether to respond to the consultation. I chose not to, not because I didn’t have a point of view or because I didn’t care, but because in truth I had a lot of other things on. And perhaps more importantly, on the basis of what I’d heard, I trusted the Scottish Government to do the right thing.

But there’s a contradiction at play here. I didn’t respond to the Catholic church’s consultation on gay marriage either because there hasn’t been any. Ordinary Catholics haven’t been asked for their views. They’ve simply been asked to shore up the establishment’s perspective. On one level I won’t lose too much sleep about this because had we been asked for our views I suspect I’d have been in a minority. But nonetheless the plain fact is, and the church establishment knows it, that there’s no shortage of opposition, or at least ambivalence, to their point of view amongst Catholics. Some of it is from gay Catholics like me, some from straight supporters of gay marriage, and some simply from those who think the church could make better use of its influence in a Scotland facing real social problems like poverty. Fair play to the Church of Scotland on this one. At least it’s openly debated this issue in the full glare of media scrutiny.

There are some obvious lessons for the Catholic establishment in all of this. First, not talking to people just because you disagree with them isn’t very grown up. Second, participating in consultation in a modern democracy can’t guarantee that things will go your way. Third, if you really believe in the value of consultation and open debate, then let’s have some in the church itself. Fourth, it’s time to stop running away with the idea that Catholics have only one point of view on this issue. And finally, if you do want anyone to take you remotely seriously on the issue of gay marriage, ditch the bigotry.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The legacy of London 2012: Endeavour, emotion and equality

Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympics draws to a close. It’s magic and I don’t want it to end. I’ve cried and laughed at everything from my first love, athletics, to judo which I wouldn’t usually watch. With the news that 17 million people tuned into the BBC on Saturday night and 19 million to watch the men’s 100 metres final, it’s clear I’m not alone. Why? Well sadly sport doesn’t alter the course of civil wars or the weather so it can’t change what’s happening in Syria or prevent flooding in Britain. And London 2012 can’t hide the reality that the underlying social problems which led to riots across English towns and cities just 12 months ago are all still with us.

But sport can inspire, it can unite and it can help us believe that we’ve got what it takes to make the world a better place. ‘Unbelievable’ has become the byword of British medal winners at these games. The crowds, the support, the atmosphere and the performances have all been unbelievable apparently. And I’m sure that for those competitors it has felt pretty extraordinary. But wouldn’t it be great if we could harness those things into a force for good, if we could turn the disbelief into belief.

As the British medal tally pushes 50, the Games post mortem has already begun in earnest. And the moment they end, there'll be saturation coverage. After years of wrangling about legacy so brilliantly captured in the satire, 2012, it will be game on. Some will argue that it’s too late before it’s even started. Others will jump on the bandwagon before it really is too late. At a micro level it will be about investment in sport, lottery funding, regeneration projects; the list goes on. Rows about the sale of schools sports fields are already up and running.

But as some commentators have already pointed out, it’s about the bigger picture too. The stuff of dreams and legends might be hyperbole, but it would be more than a shame if we lost sight of what’s united so many of us over the past few days, confounding all that glass half empty talk of failure that preceded the Games. For me, three things stand out: endeavour, emotion and equality.

Endeavour stands out because it underpins so much of what we’ve witnessed. Years of sacrifice by athletes, heroic efforts by parents, support from coaches, families and friends all speak to the power of endeavour. It’s not rocket science. If you make the effort, some good will come of it. If you try harder, it can make a difference. But far too much of our national psyche has got wrapped up into a something for nothing culture, the power of consumerism, the allure of fame. We’d do well to learn something from the likes of Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah. Endeavour of the sort they’ve shown is surely a more powerful force for good than any amount of X Factor.

Emotion stands out because it speaks to a new more open and honest Britain. Who could fail to be moved by the emotion shown by Hoy in victory and Adlington in defeat? The outpouring of emotion from winners and losers, spectators and competitors alike has been a moment of national catharsis in stark contrast to the doom mongering that infected so much of the pre Games coverage. When we cry and laugh, we let go and we open up. We show that we can all be vulnerable, we’re all human. The serious side to this is that too much of the feelings we see displayed public life are manufactured and contrived. Rather than claim the tears they’ve witnessed as their own achievements, politicians would do well to think about how they can be more open and honest. They don't need to cry every day. But a degree of humility and honesty; that would be great wouldn’t it? Sorry doesn’t have to the hardest word. Pride doesn’t have to be all stiff upper lip. Remember Diana?

Equality is trickier. For many the Olympics smacks of big business, privilege, even elitism. But taking part means being prepared to be equal. And Britain has one of the most diverse teams at the Games. Whether you’re the Queen’s grand daughter or someone who grew up a stone’s throw from the stadium, once you’re on the starting line, you’re only as good as your last race. Money will have helped you get there, be it inherited wealth or lottery funding. But what will really count is how much talent you have and how much effort you’ve made to exploit it. So when decision makers ponder on how we can create a lasting legacy from 2012, they’d do well to put equality of opportunity high on their list.

Endeavour, emotion and equality don’t amount to a political manifesto. And they aren’t the preserve of one political party. But together they can be a powerful force for good. Motherhood and apple pie? Maybe. But just imagine how it would be if it felt like this in Britain every week. Now that would be unbelievable.