Speech by Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Annual Spectator/Allied Dunbar Lecture, QEII Conference Centre

Embargoed until 6.00 pm 4/11/1997

Check against delivery


In its 200 year history, the Spectator has always been renowned as a trenchant and original journal addressing issues of national importance in a fashion which illuminates as it provokes. That is its house style. It is therefore a great pleasure to be invited to deliver the "Spectator" lecture this evening and I intend to conform to the house style.

Indeed I am grateful to the editor and to Allied Dunbar for asking me to deliver this lecture.

Now as well as a reputation for its coverage of culture and literacy - and for humour for which I congratulate it, which has not always matched its left of centre weekly counterparts, the Spectator has a long distinguished and surprisingly varied history.

In its first years it offered vehement support for the first reform act in 1832..under a Scottish editor of course..but failed to support the next 3.

It vented liberal anger against Bulgarian atrocities fifty years later and against Suez 80 years after that.

In the 196os as I grew up I remember the Spectator's impassioned campaign against capital punishment.

And I remember too Ian Mcleod's appeal for an end to a Tory leadership chosen by the magic circle.

That was when the party was big enough to have a magic circle.

There was even a period when the Spectator was explicitly neutral between the political parties.

So of its various forms of conscience and successive constituencies I suppose this evening I am appealing to its early radicalism or at least to years past where political neutrality was the order of the day.

Throughout this history the magazine has always reflected the nation back to itself and this will be my theme tonight.

I want to talk about Britishness, about what Orwell called the British genius, and to suggest that the modernisations this government is undertaking are the modern way of reflecting and developing those qualities of our people that are essentially British.

I shall argue that, for all the changes wrought by globalisation, national identity is still a vital force; and that only by understanding our Britishness and the very things that bind our country together will we be able to meet the challenges of the future.

I shall suggest how qualities - being creative, adaptable, and outward looking, believing in liberty, duty and fair play - that taken together amount to a British genius can help us to tackle the biggest challenges we face and place modern Britain at the forefront of a new era.

I will argue, in particular, that the British way is not to retreat into a narrow insularity and defensive isolationism, but to be confidently outward-looking and to lead by example.

The British way is not to fear change but to embrace it, confident in the knowledge that the British people more than any other, have the practical creativity and innate adaptability to master change and turn it to our advantage.

The British way  is not to exalt self-interested individualism but, throughout the centuries, has been to foster a uniquely rich and continuously evolving relationship between individual, community and state. At its best it creates a vibrant civil society, one that is enterprising, cohesive and strong.

My conclusion will be that to lead as a country, and to achieve a modern society and constitution and build a role in the world, we need a stronger and more secure sense of ourselves.

The failures of post-war experiments in Britishness

The post-war period in Britain can be seen, in retrospect, as a period of soul searching and from the independence of India in 1947, to the Hong Kong handover half a century later, a fifty year quest to define a new identity for ourselves in the world in the face of profound changes around and affecting us.

Of course, all European nations had to embark on similar journeys after the apocalypse of the second world war. But with a larger empire to steer towards independence, and a past of historic power and greatness, it has, for Britain, been a more protracted and troubled journey.

In the 1950s, Harold Macmillan tried to give us a role as civilised Athens to the thrusting Rome of the United States.

In the 1960s, Harold Wilson tried to persuade us that we could transcend history as the white heat of the technological revolution would create a new modern Britain out of the ashes of the past.

By the 197os, it was clear that neither approach had succeeded in forging a new modern identity for Britain. And Margaret Thatcher arrived with the promise that she - and only she - could make us great again by stripping away the post-war accretions of corporatism to reveal the true Britain beneath.

To her great credit she recognised the need for Britain to reinvent itself and rediscover a new and vital self-confidence; and understood that we could gain strength from the glories of our past which could point the way to a glorious future.

In reaction to the failures of the post-war corporatist state, she argued for a full-blooded individualism as the British way, indeed that all that was needed was a rediscovery of "Victorian values" which she construed as a minimal state (no such thing as society ) and a culture of self-help. These things, she argued, had once made us great and would make us great once more.

But while the Thatcherites exalted individualism over collectivism, a moment's consideration tells us that even Victorian society was grounded in a more complex interplay between the claims of self interest, duty and fairness. In counterpoising self interest to collectivism without considering the importance British people attached to fair play and to belonging to a society, the Thatcherites mistook historical circumstances -the retreat from old- style collectivism-for eternal truths.

And, in response to the cold war, and in her attempt to rebuild Britainís post-imperial position, she believed our post-war status could be resurrected by being a junior partner, albeit one which, in her view, supplied ideological backbone, to the United States in a cold war crusade. Britain, it was argued, could afford to ignore Europe. For a time it seemed to many of her supporters that she had succeeded in reinventing Britain in this way. But once the communist threat evaporated, there was little left to validate our international position. And the attempts to replace the old threat from Moscow with a new kind of threat from Bonn found no long term resonance. While the Thatcherites were left telling us Britain did best when it stood alone, a little consideration of our history would find we have been -historically - outward looking internationalist and European.

So advances, achievements and important changes to Britain under the Thatcher government there were. But now in 1997, it is clear that its ideology left all the great questions about Britainís future unresolved: the relationship between the nations of the United Kingdom, the future of our constitution, our cohesiveness as a community, and our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.

The Thatcherites understood that Britain had to change. They knew that the answer lay in a modern idea of Britishness - understanding our roots and strengths as a nation. But in rebuilding the concept of Britishness from individual self-interest and mistrust of foreigners, a very narrow base indeed, they misunderstood what sort of nation Britain is and the source of our greatest strengths. In other words they learned wrong lessons from our past. They did not, in my view, appreciate that our most glorious achievements flowed from a Britishness that is far more complex and sophisticated than the one Mrs Thatcher and her supporters mythologised.

So what does being British mean to me?.

National uncertainty about national identify

First, we should be clear that our sense of being British matters as much as ever. Of course cultural and economic globalisation has had a profound effect on our sense of ourselves. When capital crosses national frontiers at the push of a key, air travel has made the outside world personally familiar to millions, television has brought it into the homes of millions more and supra-national organisations like the European union and the world trade organisation play an increasingly important role in the world, it is natural to look again at what it means to be British. For some global challenges the nation-state may be too small, hence the fashionable but in my view erroneous view that the concept of national identity has declining relevance. For some local challenges it may be too big hence the interest in and support for devolution and in particular, a Scottish parliament and the welsh assembly.

But the Scottish people, for the most part, have no difficulty in being Scottish and British. Indeed the lesson of devolution is that it is because national identity resides essentially in people that reform of institutions can take place without diminishing British national identity.

So what is the essence of Britishness for me? I believe that when we talk about the character of a country, we are not talking about some mystery of the blood or a pattern on a flag just as we are not talking only about its traditional institutions. We are talking about the qualities of a people, of the collective experience they have shared over time, qualities that are rooted in their geography and their history.

Britain's island position has, for some, been an excuse for insularity of mind, but it is precisely because we are a group of small islands, bounded by the sea, that we have always looked beyond our own horizons. As much as one quarter of our GDP arises from imports and exports - 25 per cent against Americaís 10 per cent. The open seas have always been for Britons more a highway to the wider world than a moat cutting us off from it.

Our history is not, as john major once famously - and erroneously - said, one of 1000 years of union between our peoples but - and this is the real historical point - of 2000 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships that have created a uniquely rich and diverse culture.

Through these 2000 years - out of these tidal flows of history - certain forces emerge again and again which make up a characteristically British set of qualities - qualities which, taken together, George Orwell once described as the British genius.

Because these islands have always been remarkably outward looking and open, this country has fostered a vigorously adaptable society and has given rise to a culture both creative and inventive. But an open and adapting society also needs to be rooted and Britainís roots are on the most solid foundation of all - a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to fair play.

Taken together these qualities - being creative, adaptable and outward looking, our believing in liberty, duty and for fair play - add up to the British genius, a genius that has been manifest throughout our history.

First, a creativity and inventiveness from the first agricultural revolution to the pioneering work of Babbage and Turing that made possible the computer and information revolution; in science discoveries from Newton to DNA and cloning, in engineering from the steam engine to the TV and, in medicine from penicillin to interferon. An inventiveness that has ranged right across medicine and science to the arts and music. And now today British dynamism is leading the world in some of the most modern and creative industries - communications, fashion, film, popular music and art, architecture, and many areas of science and the environmental technologies.

Second, a willingness and ability to adapt that enabled Britain to embrace the opportunities of the industrial revolution with unprecedented vigour and success, and to mobilise from peace to war to survive and triumph in two world conflicts.

Thirdly, an outward looking internationalism that made us not just the workshop of the world but the greatest trading nation the world has ever seen.

Fourth, a passion for liberty matched by a strong sense of duty; a belief that rights and responsibilities go together; which made Britain lead the way in democratic reforms to restrict arbitrary power from 1689 and for 300 years.

Finally, a belief in fair play, a tolerance that has enabled us to welcome successive waves of immigrants - from Saxons and Normanís to Huguenots and Jews and Asians and African Caribbeans into what today is a thriving, multicultural nation. And a belief in treating people fairly: rewarding hard work, encouraging self improvement through education, for nearly half a century reflected in a cross party consensus in favour of equality of opportunity, all of this captured in George Orwellís word 'decency'

Now in highlighting an alternative view of British history, one which places intrinsically British qualities at its centre, I do not want to claim moral superiority for Britain or romanticise the past. Of course lots of abuses existed. Lots of men and even more women remained unfree and poor. No one should gloss over the dark sides of our past or its inequities. We have had our failures. All nations have.

But I believe these qualities, which together have been responsible for the best of our past and thus provide a unique insight into our history, must inform and guide any debate of the central questions for our future.

Creative by being adaptable and outward looking - with a strong sense of what is fair, grounded in liberty and duty.

These are the qualities of an old country with the strength to continuously renew itself.

It is our understanding of them that guide the modernisations now being undertaken by new labour.

That is why, for example, our budget sent the first important signals that we want to encourage creative talents in Britain and to do so by extending opportunities to develop them. The British way is not to neglect them in the interests of some crude free market dogma but to encourage and support them. Indeed in a world where capital raw materials can be bought from anywhere, the one indigenous national resource that remains - the creative talent of British people, from our scientists to our musicians - hold the key to future economic success. Future budgets will continue to encourage creative talent.

And in tackling the two biggest political challenges we face as a country - the settlement between individual, community and state within Britain and the relationship between Britain and the rest of the world - I believe we must now draw strength from our British qualities.

The domestic political settlement: individual, community, state

The British way: the individual and the community: not individualism

There is a golden thread which runs through British history of the individual standing firm against tyranny and the arbitrary use of power. It runs from that long ago day in Runnymede to the bill of rights in 1689 to, not just one, but four great reform acts within less than a hundred years. The great tradition of British liberty has, first and foremost, been rooted in the protection of the individual against the arbitrary power of the state.

But it is a golden thread which has also twined through it a story of common endeavour in villages, towns and cities, men and women with shared needs and common purposes, united by a strong sense of duty and often an even stronger sense of fair play. And their efforts together produced uniquely British settlements that, from generation to generation, have balanced the rights and responsibilities of individuals, communities and state.

The two ideologies that have dominated the histories of other countries have never taken root here. On the one hand an ideology of state power, which choked individual freedom making the individual slave to some arbitrarily defined collective interest, has found little or no favour in Britain. On the other hand an ideology of crude individualism - which leaves the individual isolated, stranded, on his own, detached from society around him - has no resonance for a Britain which has a rich tradition of voluntary organisations, local democracy and civic life.

So whenever rulers have tried to impose state control or a crude ideology of individualism, they have never for long enjoyed the support of the British people.

Instead, because of our sense of social obligation and fair play the British people never, for long, lost sight of a middle way: the good that can be done when the individual is empowered by the community around him or her, whether it be public health, welfare or education.

So the British way has always been more than self interested individualism, as even in the heyday of free market philosophy, writers like Adam Smith and Samuel smiles recognised. Victorian prosperity and improvement were founded on something more and something greater than harsh organised selfishness. Entrepreneurial vigour - the very creativity that I have singled out - went hand in hand with a spirit of responsibility and mutuality. Victorian Britain was successful when that creativity and economic drive which went with it were combined with the sense of social obligation - often infused with religious values - and a broad moral commitment to civic improvement.

If we want an emblem of real Victorian values, we only have to think of the great exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, the very first world trade fair. It was funded largely by private enterprise, yes, but it was also driven and supervised by government. It celebrated our creativity in British industry and innovation, yes, but it was in no way insular: it also welcomed exhibits and competitors from the rest of the world. Employers nationwide paid for their workers to travel to London to see what they had achieved. It trumpeted the achievements of British industry, yes, but contemporaries also called it a temple of labour. Self-help was not so much a belief in an ethic of self-interest which might benefit only a few but a commitment to an ethic of hard work and self improvement that could unite all.

And in this way Britain benefited not just from pioneering inventors, entrepreneurs and financiers, but from a pioneering commitment to education, and to municipal provision of public amenities from libraries to parks and the basic infrastructure of our towns and cities.

Long before the idea of national insurance was taken up by the state, individuals and communities were showing the way. Miners were forming self-insurance unions, docking part of their pay in order to provide some kind of security for each other in sickness, injury and death. From craft unions and credit unions, through collective contributions to hospitals and schools, right through to the great and unique achievement of a national health service and our welfare state, our society has evolved through this realisation that we can act more effectively in concert than we can ever do alone.

But it is not just the British commitment to liberty and mutual responsibility that have informed our political settlements. It is also our adaptability. For me, the remarkable lesson of British history is our bold and often fearless and imaginative ability to adapt to change. To have managed change for three hundred years without violent revolution is unique. I find it extraordinary that some appear to believe that it is somehow British to defend the idea of a constitution that never changes: it is precisely our ability to change our constitution that characterises the British way.

Stability in our society does not come from rigidity: it comes from the ability to accommodate (and master) change - as earlier conservatives recognised. As Benjamin Disraeli said in 1867 "change is inevitable in a progressive society. Change is constant,".

In the past this nation led the world in responding to political and economic change. And even conservatives celebrated that. "a state without the means of change" Edmund Burke famously declared "is without the means of its conservation".

So the British way is to embrace not fear constitutional reform. That is why the new labour government believes that our plans to modernise our constitution build upon our inheritance rather than threaten it.

The British way is to recognise when we need to renew the settlement between individual, community and state and act upon that recognition. Today, we recognise that power has become overcentralised and must be redistributed. And today also, we recognise that too many have been denied opportunity, and communities and government can do more to empower them.

The British way is thus to break up centralised institutions that are too remote and insensitive and so devolve power.

The British way is to restore and enhance local initiative and mutual responsibility in civic affairs and thus to strengthen local institutions.

The British way is to encourage and enhance the status of voluntary and community organisations - Burke's little platoons - in the service of their neighbourhoods.

The British way is to develop a strong cohesive society in which in return for responsibility there is opportunity for all. The British way is to examine how best in this generation we advance individual potential through a supportive community. This is what lies behind our programme for educational and employment opportunity and welfare to work.

This is one example of new ways and different methods in keeping with British traditions - our programme for modernising the welfare state, taking unemployed men and women from welfare to work.

The British way is to encourage the creative talents of all and in the interests of fair play to offer the unemployed new opportunities as we are doing. It is to offer these rights in return for the duty to take up the rights as we are doing. It is to move from centrally imposed schemes and construct a programme based on local initiative with community and voluntary organisations and private companies at its forefront as we are doing. And it is to adapt the welfare state to new needs around the work ethic it is reinventing the idea of welfare for the modern age as we are doing.

This in my view is the British way: modernising Britainís institutions and society to meet new challenges in line with the British qualities we have always demonstrated in our past .

Britain in the world after the cold war.

I turn to the second central issue facing our country: relations between great Britain and the wider world.

The end of the cold war inevitably intensified the uncertainty about our role in the world.

Up till 1989 we had seen ourselves as partners with the us fighting the cold war - an assessment that postponed any real creation of a post imperial role. The end of the cold war has sparked off calls to reassess our whole relationship with Europe as part of a wider rethinking of our role in the world.

The questioning of our role in Europe did not therefore start with Maastricht. It started with the end of empire and intensified with the end of the cold war. In other words, the starting point is not Europe but our view of ourselves in the world. The European question can only be answered properly after we have addressed the British question.

As I said earlier, one view of Britishness starts from the proposition that Britain does best when we stand alone, free of long-term continental attachments. Indeed, recently there has been a wholesale rewriting of history to suggest that joining Europe was one of many wrong turnings in our 20th century history, that Britainís traditional way of life and sovereignty are in danger of being submerged, and that Britain s future lies outside Europe.

Of course, Britainís relationship with Europe has neither been exclusive nor constant.

Any study of the history of Britain in Europe shows we have always taken a pragmatic rather than dogmatic view of the best relationship with Europe. Indeed we have always been European; from waves of settlers who came to these islands from Europe - whether Celts, Romans, Anglo Saxons, Viking and Normanís, to our central role in the dynastic struggles where we sought a stable balance of power in Europe to counteract any one nation's ascendancy.

When a new world role came in the 17th and 18th century as maritime power became imperial power, this did not replace our European role, but was added to it.

In the mid 19th century Palmerston was preoccupied, not with India but with Europe. In the 19th century this pragmatism became formalised as the balance of power thesis. Hence Palmerston said we had no eternal allies, no perpetual enemies. Our aim was always to moderate extremes in the interests of stability.

In British foreign policy no less than in our domestic settlements British qualities of openness and adaptability have held sway.

Our history shows not just that we have always been a European power but that Britain has been European for good pragmatic reasons. So we should dismiss the notion that our history suggests being British is synonymous with being anti-European.

As the experience of the first half of this century showed - in two world wars - Britain did not and would not relinquish our role in Europe or abdicate responsibility for the progress of the continent.

Europe, by virtue of history as well as geography, is where we are.

And our approach must be guided by, as always, a common sense engagement in pursuit of our national interest. Rigid and inflexible ideology has never been the British way and under this government will never be.

The idea that we could withdraw from Europe or be outside Europeís mainstream and instead become a Hong Kong of Europe - a low wage competitor with the far east-or a tax haven servicing major trading blocs - the idea of a greater Guernsey - only needs a minute's consideration to be rejected. Britain, which has been a European first rank power for several centuries, often holding the balance of power within Europe, would become a spectator in Europeís future development.

That, in my view, is not the British way.

Of course, the nation state is and will remain the focus of our British identity and our loyalty. It is entirely right that the test of whether we want to be part of any future European venture is whether it is good for Britainís national interest. The nation state will and must continue to represent our national interest. That is why we reject federalism. But I believe that it is through a close constructive relationship with our European partners that Britain will not only enjoy greater prosperity but continue to have influence and continue to make a positive contribution on the world stage. The more influence we have in Paris and Bonn, the more influence we have in Washington.

Equally the less influence we have in the European capitals the less influence we have around the world. Our Atlantic alliance is not in contradiction with our European commitments. British interests are best served by being strong in Europe.

And those who say there is a constitutional objection to a single currency have failed to take on board that where a pooling of political and economic sovereignty has been in the British interest - as in Nato and indeed in the existing single market of the European union - we have been willing and sufficiently adaptable to embrace it is in the British interest. Just as before the test of the single currency will be pragmatic; clear and unambiguous economic benefits in the national interest.  

Of course Europe needs to modernise as Britain is modernising. We want Europe to be more open, more competitive, more flexible, to set its sights as we have done on higher growth and employment, moving beyond the sterile debate between regulation and deregulation with a new emphasis on skills productivity and employment opportunity. Europe needs structural economic reforms alongside its enlargement.

But I believe that British values have much to offer Europe as it develops. Being in and leading in Europe means we contribute British ideas to the development of the European union. Our British qualities that will help Europe are openness to trade and our outward looking and internationalist instincts and connections which stretch across the world; our creativity as a nation and our adaptability; our insistence on the importance of public service and openness in the running of institutions; and other values we share with others which stress the importance of hard work, self improvement through education and fair play and opportunity for all.

These are all British qualities - qualities many of which we share with other countries, qualities that I want to bring to British engagement in Europe. These are the very qualities that can help the nations of Europe go forward together into a more prosperous 21st century. So to those who say that the future means Britain submerged in Europe, I say the opposite: with an emphasis on these qualities Europe can learn from Britain, just as we in Britain can learn from the rest of Europe.

It is strange therefore that the conservative party which has normally taken a pragmatic view of British national interest should now tell us that even if the economic arguments for joining a single currency were compelling they would not necessarily support it. And that the national economic interests may now come second to their ideological objections. If they believe a single currency wrong in principle why do they not oppose it for 100 years. If they believe the test is whether it is good for the economy why do they rule it out, without any economic rationale for ten years

Previous conservative governments have sensibly supported the pooling of sovereignty not just in Nato but in the single market, where it is in the British interest to do so. My conclusion is that anti Europeanism in the conservative party rather than concern for the constitution is now precluding a more sensible position. Dogma is triumphing over the national interest.

History suggests to me - and I have explained this evening why it does so - that there are no grounds for believing that to be pro British it is necessary to be anti European. Indeed, history suggests that far from being isolationist Britain has always thrived when it is outward looking and internationalist.

So I believe the right wing view-that to be pro British you have to be anti European-is not only wrong but increasingly irrelevant to the debate about how best we pursue Britainís economic interest. And it is increasingly out of touch with the pro-European mainstream national consensus about the single currency that we are now building.

This is where the debate must lie.

For years now the right have claimed they are the only patriotic party, the British party, and in every election I have fought they have scorned the left and patriotic people on the left, who are proud of their Britishness, for being anti British. Today as I suggest this old and bogus dividing line in British politics has been swept aside. The old caricature - patriotic right versus disloyal left - is exposed as hollow, a card that can never be played again .

Our patriotism - outward looking and internationalist- reflects British traditions and British qualities. Just as this has been the traditional British way it is the modern British way. Indeed it is only if, as a country, we retreat into our shell - into a narrow minded isolationism-that people will conclude that Britain has had its day. And it is because I believe that isolationism will never, for long, be anything other than a marginal influence in British politics that I consider that a new consensus that is outward looking and internationalist and European is not only the British way forward but can and will be built in this country. A national consensus that can stretch across the country, and throughout business and industry.

So from our past we find our future, the key to the modernisation of Britainís institutions and our role in the world.

And starting from what I have called the British genius - to be creative by being outward looking and adaptable, with a strong sense of fair play founded on liberty and duty - we find the way to the new Britain.

Our history teaches us the British way is not to fear change but to embrace and master it.

The British way  is not a self-interested individualism but to build a strong cohesive society where there is opportunity for all.

The British way is not to retreat into a narrow insularity and defensive isolationism, but to be open, confidently outward-looking and to lead by example.

The British way, the way forward, the way ahead to a modern Britain in which we all can have pride.

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