It is time for Britons to pitch their tabernacle

March 12, 2005
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 12th March 2005

 There has been much debate in recent months about Britain as a multicultural society. The head of the Commission for Racial Equality has argued that we have gone too far. We need now to reaffirm a national identity — inclusive of all groups, to be sure, but British, not just a cacophony of different voices. He is right.

Our once monochrome society has been hugely enriched by Britain’s new religious and ethnic minorities: Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Baha’í. Most of them want nothing more than to integrate into British society. That is why they came here. But what are they supposed to integrate into? A culture of moral relativism and disrespect for traditions of all kinds? How are they to admire Britain’s institutions — politicians, Parliament, the Royal Family, the established Church — when they see them treated with disdain by the British media? How can you love a society that has fallen out of love with itself?

My parents wanted to be British. They wanted us to absorb British values and make them our own. Jews sought to contribute to British society — and they did. That did not mean they wanted no longer to be Jewish. Quite the contrary. Indeed, the greatness of Britain in those days was that it was not an either/or choice.

Already in 1884 The Times published a leader in praise of the great Victorian-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. It ended by noting that he had shown that “fervent Judaism and patriotic citizenship are absolutely compatible with one another”.

Victorian Britain, seen today as a bastion of high-minded hypocrisy, was actually open to outsiders. Those who know who they are, welcome the stranger. Those who don’t, become insular and insecure. “Love your neighbour as yourself” presupposes that you love yourself. If you don’t, you won’t love others either.

The Bible is eloquent on the subject — 36 times the Mosaic books command us to love the stranger. At the same time, Moses endlessly instructs his people never to forget their history. That is what we do on Passover and in all our prayers. We endlessly remind ourselves of who we are and why. Identity is like a home. If you feel safe, you offer hospitality to others. If you are afraid, you keep the doors locked. Only a confident society is an inclusive society.

Moses was faced with a problem not unlike ours. How do you turn a group of people — in his case, liberated slaves — into a nation with a collective identity? His answer — God’s answer — was dazzling in its brilliance. You get them to build something together. What they built was the Tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Normally when we read this story (told in the book of Exodus) we think of its religious dimension: how you build a home for God. But it also has a political dimension. It is about how you create a sense of national belonging. The best way of making people feel “I belong” is to enlist them in a shared project so they can say: “I helped build this”.

The Tabernacle is a symbol of society, made out of the contributions of many individuals. What they gave was unimportant; that they gave was essential. Society is what we build together — and the more different types of people there are, the more complex and beautiful will be the structure we create. A national culture can grow without losing its identity, just as an ancient building — Windsor Castle, for example — can be enlarged by additions made in different ages, different styles. It changes, but stays the same. It is always Windsor Castle — not a supermarket or an office block.

The important thing is that we build together. A nation is made by contributions, not claims; active citizenship, not rights; what we give, not what we demand. Britain can become a country in which many ethnic minorities feel at home — without making Middle England feel that they no longer recognise the place where they were born. A national identity can be made out of the contributions of many cultures, many faiths. What matters is that together we build something none of us could make alone.