Opinion: We must reckon with identity to unite the nation

Rabbi David Mason, Muswell Hill Synagogue, has been inspired by his summer reading.

Rabbi David Mason, Muswell Hill Synagogue, has been inspired by his summer reading. - Credit: Archant

The summer holiday is a great opportunity to spend some quality time with the family, as well as a perfect time for some good reading.

One of my summer reads this year was Francis Fukuyama's book Identity, and I am following it up with The Lies that Bind; Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah.

You can see a pattern here!

Identity is clearly an ever-present part of our political landscape whether one is on the left or on the right.

Fukujama will always be known as the man who coined the phrase "the end of history" to refer to the state of liberal democracy in the late 1990s.

What is often overlooked is that when he wrote the complacent-appearing lines, he added a caveat.

In this new book he repeats that caveat - liberal democracy has to deal with identity, and if it can't, do so, it will be imperilled

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What Fukujama lays out in his book is fascinating - a real mixture of political and sociological thinking and psychology which can inform how we look at the divisions noticeable in our society today.

Recognition is at the heart of identity.

In recent centuries people have come to sense a difference between how they see themselves and and what society wants of them. No longer were people forced into narrow roles by society, now they had their own inner sense of who they were - and this would lead to the need to be recognised by society.

But society has, in recent decades, splintered into a whole range of legitimate concerns - each pulling at the fabric of what makes a modern nation state. The response to this has been nationalism.

Presciently, in his book Fukujama talks at length about immigration and the double reaction to it - he correctly predicted that many would welcome immigration, but also that many would not at all.

But what is interesting in his book is the idea of creating a binding national identity to which all groups who live in a state can be assimilated.

In his words: "The retreat on both sides into ever narrower identities threatens the possibility of deliberation and collective action by the society as a whole."

Fukujama does suggest some concrete ideas for how to construct this idea of national identity that binds. One example is a national service programme for all.

But this leaves me torn - between whether this is simply 'more of the same', a suggestion one might hear from moderate Tories, or whether it actually opens up a way of discussing how a liberal democracy can create a sense of togetherness among its sometimes disparate groups and communities.

Either way, if we don't do something about this now, populist nationalists may well be the ones to keep marching forward.