Britain's new prime minister set on putting 'B' back in British
As Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair Wednesday, he's focused on improving the country's social cohesion.
London — In the 10 long years he spent as Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown would pepper his speeches with favored words that seemed to sum up the man himself. "Prudence" was one, "stability" another, "opportunity" a third.
But in the run-up to succeeding Tony Blair as prime minister Wednesday, Mr. Brown has promoted a new abstract noun, a far broader notion more in keeping with the bigger role he is taking on: Britishness.
The London bombings two years ago and a succession of other terrorism-related arrests and trials since, most involving young British Muslims, have impressed on Britain's political elite the pressing need to better assimilate ethnic minorities and reinforce the British glue that binds society together.
"Lots of politicians are concerned with the cohesion of British society, how we are coping with a multicultural society," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland. "Americans have to demonstrate allegiance to the flag, but we have left all that behind. But there is particular concern about the integration of Muslims and we are looking for symbols of nationhood in the same way that America does."
Political insiders predict that a volley of measures designed to put the "B" back into British will be among Brown's first initiatives in office. As he took over Sunday as Labour Party leader, Brown – more traditional and mindful of Britain's heritage than his predecessor – hinted at a new "contract" between the British state and its people. "In return for opportunity for all ... we expect and demand responsibility from all: to learn English, and contribute to and respect the culture we build together." British values, he said, involved "liberty, civic duty, and fairness to all."
He's already hinted that he wants to institute a new public holiday – a "British day" – and that immigrants seeking citizenship should demonstrate their loyalty through voluntary community work.
"We do need a sense of identity in a changing world, and there is nothing wrong with saying if people come and make this country their home then there should be a sense of Britishness to which they must subscribe," says Bob Marshall-Andrews, a Labour parliamentarian.
Immigration has surged in recent years and persists above 100,000 a year. The number of people granted British citizenship has also risen sharply in recent years, from around 50,000 in the late 1990s to 161,000 in 2005.
Multiculturalism has flourished in Britain since the 1970s, but the fear now is that this has encouraged separation and segregation. Race riots in northern England six years ago painfully exposed this separateness, as has the struggle against domestic terrorism, which has focused on young, disaffected British-born Muslims.
"What we are looking at now is a more integrationist model, which is not saying people should conform to the white homogenous society, but recognizes that we all share the same space and certain values [such as respect, tolerance of other people's views, freedom of speech, and liberty] that we have in common," says Nick Johnson, director of policy and public sector at the Commission for Racial Equality. "Britishness can help draw the line about what is acceptable and what is not."
But not everyone subscribes to Brown's view of Britishness. Surveys have shown a small but significant proportion of Muslims feel more kinship with Iraqi, Palestinian, and Chechen "brothers" than with their fellow Britons. Meanwhile, in recent elections in Scotland, the independence-minded Scottish National Party won the largest bloc in the Edinburgh parliament. One Scottish MP, Pete Wishart, said recently that Brown did not understand "that many of us in these isles don't feel, or indeed desire to be labeled, as British." There may also be more delicate political reasons for Brown's British push. Brown himself is Scottish and represents a Scottish constituency. Emphasizing Britishness glosses over any problems he may have in appealing to English voters.
And appeal to them he must. Brown becomes prime minister by dint of being crowned Blair's successor as Labour Party leader. But he will at some point have to call an election – and some are predicting the vote could come as early as next year.
To demonstrate that he represents a new start, Brown is expected to announce a series of eye-catching plans on health, education, and overseas aid, as he turns the page on Blair's decade in office.
Brown is promising to turn Britain into the "education nation" by encouraging every secondary school to develop business sponsorship, so as to increase the nation's investment in education, science, and innovation to as much as 10 percent of national income.
He has also pledged further measures to improve healthcare, a program to help young people buy new homes, and a drive to get more poor people into university. Brown is also thought to want to total reform of the House of Lords.
But a clean break from the Blair era will be hard to achieve. As Blair's right-hand man, Brown was instrumental in many of the reforms and decisions of the Blair decade, and hence is unlikely to set about reversing them. Instead, the chief difference between him and his predecessor will be one of style. Blair leaves office with a reputation for dominating decisionmaking and putting presentation ahead of policy; Brown looks set to change all that.
"What we are going to see is a more traditional British prime minister, who believes in cabinet and parliamentary government," says Mr. Marshall-Andrews. "That is long overdue. The sort of neopresidential style is something which would not suit Gordon Brown." Tony Blair steps down Wednesday with the prospect of becoming the international community's Middle East negotiator.
Mr. Blair stopped short Tuesday of confirming that he'd been tapped to take up the vacant role as envoy of the so-called Middle East Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations, and Russia – who are mediating the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But officials and diplomats have signaled that an announcement is imminent, and Blair said Tuesday that he was ready to do "whatever I can" to help revive peace efforts.
The US lobbied strongly for his appointment, and both Israelis and the Fatah Palestinian faction are thought to have raised no strong objections.
Blair has significant experience dealing with antagonists in the region and plenty of contacts to draw from if he does accept the role. He can point to tireless efforts throughout his 10-year prime ministry to bring both sides together, and notable success in persuading President Bush to prioritize the peace process as the Iraq war was gathering steam.
But some are baffled at the prospect of Blair taking on the role because the Arab world is still incensed by his involvement in Iraq.
"This move will be interpreted as self-interest and Blair will be seen as acting in the services of Israel and Washington," says Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at London's Chatham House think tank. "He cannot rise above the labeling he has got as a result of the past eight years."
Michael Moore, a British parliamentarian, said: "An international envoy needs credibility with all the key players. After Iraq, who believes in Tony Blair?"