A response to Cameron’s Christian Country – Who Owns Britain?
by Josh Kutchinsky
“We are a Christian Country”
His speech was fairly vague in line with what he said of his commitment to the Church of England, the established Church, “I am a committed – but I have to say vaguely practicing – Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith…”
So where does this leave me, a UK citizen, born in England
My parents were Jewish. After they were married they set up home in Antwerp, Belgium. World War Two began less than a year later. My mother, a pessimist, feared for their safety. My father, an optimist, thought the Germans would not repeat the mistakes of World War One and invade again. As we know my father was wrong. Fortunately and with only moments to spare they escaped and crossed the Channel to England, the land of my father’s birth.
I was born a few years later. The older I get the more I realise that certain events, just before my birth, have had an enormous influence. I think of these events as historical black holes. They are so massive in their significance that they distort the very fabric of all our lives, whether we realise it or not. In astronomy black holes are events that distort space and time and anything that gets close to them cannot escape. Even light is pulled into the vortex of a black hole. It is as if the black hole were the enemy of light. Mechanised warfare and the industrialised concentration death camps extinguished many millions of lives and blighted countless millions of families and friends. Some of those people considered themselves Jewish, some as assimilated, Christian or non-religious, some were too young to have religious or belief convictions, others were political enemies, or belonged to one of the other target groups; homosexuals, gypsies, people with physical or learning disabilities or mental illness or simply those who resisted or were unlucky. They were chosen for extermination and for elimination from the family of humanity. The seeds for this were developed within a civilised continent, within a country of culture, of democracy, of the rule of law. All qualities possessed by this country.
The realisation of the horror of these events provided the impetus, even before the end of the war, for the creation of the United Nations and for discussions about the necessity for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the way next year will be the 65th anniversary of that Declaration. In my opinion every home should have a copy somewhere, particularly homes with young children. The Holocaust and other genocides are open wounds in the body of humanity. This Declaration and the Covenants and Conventions that followed are part of an ongoing attempt to resist infection and where it occurs to treat it and prevent its spread.
Who can know exactly why my life in this country, and those of so many others of my generation, have been so charmed, so fortunate.
We have never been required to hold a gun.
That is a remarkable fact
This narrow window of comparative tranquility is an unnatural state of affairs. Many of the factors which have contributed to this peace and stability are now taken for granted. I am disturbed by the complacency of so many; their lack of interest or even outright hostility to internationally agreed principles of human rights; their disillusionment with politics. Cynicism may have some excuse when we see these agreed principles of international law ignored or over-ruled by states and individuals. But this is all the more reason to demand that they be taken seriously. Human rights are not set in stone. They are a part of a developing code of conduct based on many sources of values and principles. We must both improve them and defend them. We need to talk. We need to talk about our future. We need to take our responsibilities seriously.
So, “who owns Britain?”
Well what do I mean by ownership?
I would like to consider three qualities of ownership; access, entitlement and responsibility.
Ownership allows enjoyment of the thing owned. However, if you are like me then for example many of the features of your mobile phone and other gadgetry are mysteries indeed. To have the full benefits of ownership we may have to spend some time exploring their features, possibly with an instruction booklet, or preferably with a young expert.
You need also for the enjoyment of your property confidence that it won’t be taken away from you. This is critical. So a system has been developed over many years whereby ownership is established and the rights of ownership and the entitlements that flow from it are acknowledged and if necessary defended. In this country we take this system of legal entitlement for granted.
However, often the enjoyment and usefulness of private goods requires more than just public acceptance of this right. It also usually depends on the use of shared property to realise the private pleasure. The person sitting in a car has nowhere to go without public roads. We all depend to some considerable extent on shared public amenities and services in order to enjoy our private possessions. Roads, or rights of way, can, I believe, provide some further valuable insights into the qualities of ownership. Where roads go is determined by many different factors. The reasons why they go straight to one place and avoid another may be lost in the mists of time, but there will have been reasons.
For a moment let’s imagine a time before established tracks and rights of way, many thousands of years ago. We find ourselves surrounded by trees. There are rivers, valleys, mountains and there are other animals. So how much of this territory can we call our own? Well, in the imagination, we can own it all, but in practice where can we actually go? How much does it cost us in terms of time and risk and effort?
These questions were probably answered not by sitting and thinking, but by acting in response to need and circumstance. Once we have established access to important places – safe places to eat and sleep, we may have spare time to explore. Again theoretically we can go anywhere in the land; we can climb some trees, we can visit some caves, but we are best served by carefully extending our access; venturing from the known to the unknown with considerable caution. These explorations will inevitably influence our children and future generations in their travels; for the opening up of roads and other means of transportation enable certain paths to be travelled more easily and with greater safety. Some will become well chosen paths.
There are more than just physical pathways there are also mental ones. These mental routes, these neural pathways, must also have been explored for many thousands of years and for most of this time these ways of thinking, were communicated to the following generations through stories and deeds. The stories made the deeds possible and gave confidence to action. How else could one learn which animals to hunt, which fruits to eat, which paths to travel, which people to trust and so on.
In one sense we all own all these paths. They are the legacy left to us by our ancestors. This mental geography is handed down through the generations in stories, in songs, in pictures, in poems, in dramas, in artefacts, in rites and rituals. More recently, in the last few hundred years, they have been stored in a new way; the printed word.
The knowledge contained in all the books, and all the artefacts in all the great libraries, museums and universities of the world are also part of our shared inheritance. We are also owners of these treasures. The stories from Egyptian, Greek and Roman times, the writings of philosophers, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, the Bhagavagita, the works of the Enlightenment, the discoveries and theories of science, the formulas for technology, for potions and lotions, the writings of Confucius, of Lao Tse, of the Buddha and all the rest from Shakespeare to the living writers and artists of our time. They belong to us all.
And there is too much, and we need to select and we need help, we need more than just instruction booklets. We need education. For without knowledge a citizen, or someone with a right of residence or even a tourist who only has a temporary entitlement to stay in this country, may, in theory, have an entitlement to its many treasures, but how will they access them if they don’t know where they are? How will they choose the journeys to make? Keys are of no value if you don’t know which locks they fit. So in principle you may have equal entitlement but do you have equal access?
Entitlement to access must depend on some qualities of identity. You may acquire one form of ownership, that is to say citizenship, by accident of birth, which in this country makes you also a citizen of the European Union. You may also acquire citizenship by meeting certain other conditions. If access with entitlement is part, as I suggest, of a definition of ownership, then there are those whose main qualification is that they are wealthy. Sufficient wealth will provide you with considerable access and entitlement, more access, in fact, than the majority of citizens possess, although it is still true that you may have your entitlement and therefore your access refused or restricted depending on other factors, nationality, criminal record and so on.
So access isn’t equal.
Ownership presupposes an entitlement, and with that entitlement comes access, and with access, use and with use comes interest and responsibility; an interest in conservation, in upkeep, in development. And also an interest in the agreements that protect and provide the rights of access; and an interest in who else has access.
So what is the agreed entitlement? Is there one? Being British is one identity from which flows a sense of ownership, but do we agree on what that means?
My father was British. He thought of himself as British but was not totally confident about it. After all he had been quite prepared to live, married to a Belgian, in Belgium until the Germans invaded. After the war he recognised the need for a Jewish Homeland, a place to which he could take his family, if this place also became unsafe. But he thought of himself as British.
He was a successful businessman in a business started by his father. We had a comfortable middle class life. How much did he think he owned of this country? Well churches had some uncomfortable connotations for him. The freedoms that he exercised, the protection of the rule of law that he enjoyed, the ability to belong to a community of other people who were Jewish, had in other places not only, not been defended by organised churches but these same churches had been key players in fomenting some of the pogroms which, a generation earlier, had caused his father to flee for his life from Poland. My father wasn’t comfortable in churches.
I mean no offence to good people who might be Christian, might be members of the Church of England might even be only ‘vaguely practising’. I just want you to know that my father, an Englishman by birth, did not feel comfortable in churches. The Established Church belonged to others. He didn’t think for a moment that his right to travel the streets of the country depended on the Church of England’s largesse. He thought he was entitled to that by reason of his place of birth but he knew enough, having been taught English history, to know that the Church was a key player in the division of power that is at the core of Britain’s unwritten constitution. He knew that where the roads led to in this country had been determined by others and that there was not open and equal access for all.
He appreciated and valued the innate conservatism of such a long lived series of accommodations and adjustments. Like many other English people he was wary of strident socialism, nationalism and of idealism and the revolutions that they sometimes encouraged. For they often seemed to challenge the rights of the individual to live as they please, within the law and with a minimum of state interference.
So, who do I think does own Britain?
Well, my answer is simple: we all do, everyone who is legally entitled to be in this country. More importantly it is only we as individuals who own this country. We the people may have invested governments, churches, companies and corporations, communities and other bodies (some of which are religious and many of which are not) with the status of a quasi-individual but their entitlement is second hand. It derives from us as individuals. It is because we give them, actively or passively, our assent.
So if we are the owners then what further questions do I think we need to consider?
Firstly, but not I think necessarily in order of importance, can non-Anglicans and particularly non-Christians and non-theists have full entitlement when there is an Establish Church?
Can an established Church of England avoid creating a host and guest relationship? The host with full rights of ownership and the guest with somewhat restricted ones.It may be that there are ways of solving the problem without necessarily engaging in full disestablishment. This needs to be explored. However I am not convinced that this is the most urgent of questions.
Article 1 of the UN Declaration states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – but, as George Orwell noted, some are more equal than others. Equal in entitlement but not in the exercise of that entitlement. If there were to be considered a new British Bill of Rights, as some are calling for, how would all citizens of all religions and beliefs be guaranteed their rights?
If it began with a preamble along the lines of “We the people” who is it that would be included in that ‘we’?
There has been considerable discussion in the last few years about British Values and the underlying meaning beyond the legal status of British identity. These are I suggest irrelevant issues to the question of ownership. Our rights as citizens, residents and visitors are determined simply by our legal status and I think it is worth pointing out that citizenship is a human right guaranteed within the UN Declaration.
Words matter. They are, as I have already argued, the creators of mental pathways.
Does a woman, a British Citizen herself, and grandmother of someone born in this country have less of an entitlement because her command of the English language is poor or non existent?
No. Her entitlement is the same but quite possibly her ability to access her entitlement is severely reduced. All rights automatically imply duties and responsibilities. If you have a right to life then I have a duty not to kill you. But more than this the right to life is not just to any sort of life, but to the opportunity, and I stress, the opportunity, to live a full and fulfilled life. For those in power to ensure that you can live, but have only the means to do so, unemployed or on poverty wages, in poor substandard housing without proper access to medical or other services is not to honour the duty to your right to life.
Meeting these and all the other obligations as individuals and through governments, state agencies, churches and the myriad other organisations requires a balance of rights against rights, and duties against duties, and it is often complicated. We need to talk about these issues.
So here we arrive at some possibly even more challenging questions.
- Do you recognise the duty that you have to ensure the rights of others, others who are not members of your immediate family, of your local community, of your religious or belief community, of your sex , of your age, of your sexual orientation ?
- Do you accept that it is only by owning, by taking ownership of the whole of our human inheritance and then selecting and arguing and persuading as to how to proceed in the best way possible that we can move towards fulfilling our obligations to the human rights of others?
- Do you agree that to leave the decision making to others because you have not been here long, or because you are from a different culture or from a non-Christian religious background, or a religious perspective which is suspicious of engagement with others is to not fulfil your obligations to yourself, your family, your own community or to others?
Of course not everyone is motivated to be politically active but here we come to the difference between, for instance, voting for one party or another, abstaining for whatever reason and simply not bothering to vote. Only you can know whether your abstention from political involvement on any particular occasion is for good reason.
Do you intend to honour the most important, the most sacred of your obligations; the one to your children. And to all the other children of this country?
You can not do the one without doing the other.
To honour this obligation means to enable them to develop into independent individuals and to help them to realise their full potential. I want here to give a somewhat contentious example. If you, for whatever reason, exercise your right, to send your children to schools of a religious character, whether independent or state funded, then you must ensure that, in addition to a wide and varied general curriculum, they learn about other religions and also about non-religious and non-theistic beliefs. I am told that there are quite a few schools of a religious character that have begun to include Humanism in their programs of study. I hope this is the case, for there are many in this country who hold these beliefs. If you are non-religious and your children know nothing about Christian beliefs or the beliefs of other religions and worldviews then they too are being deprived of part of their heritage, being denied part of their entitlement to full development.
Children have a right to education. They have a right, and here I quote a UN convention, to the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice. This right is not unqualified. It is a duty imposed on us adults that we restrict what the child can access or impart if it is in the child’s best interest and this will no doubt vary depending on their stage of development. The analysis of the question of how we ensure the human rights of all the children of Britain is the most important conversation that I feel we should be having.
Prime-ministers must stand up for something larger than just the values and principles of their own faith but should be among the principle defenders of the rights of all.