All through May, British media has unloaded an unstoppable barrage of coverage on the Royal Wedding. The dress! The ceremony! The flowers! No aspect of an otherwise conventional Western practice was covered with nothing less than hysteria. There was the odd malcontent who postulated that the taxpayer footed the bill (ignoring the substantially larger returns HM Government make on Royal land), but most of the country revelled in the celebration with great joy and enthusiasm. Why? What compels an entire country, especially one so fractured by class, culture and politics as Great Britain, to come together as one people?
More than a century ago, William James called it the ‘moral equivalent of war’. War is a horrid thing, this we know, but a less appreciated fact is the way it binds a whole people together with a shared purpose. Imagine Britain during WWII, a country united behind not only a leader, but a greater national destiny. People put their petty quotidian differences aside in recognition of a simple common bond – that they were British, and the shared principles and values that denomination stood for.
The moral equivalent of war is the search for a cause that commands that same unity, without the terror that war entails. It is not merely political consensus, but a consensus built on a moral common denominator. I saw traces of it in the Royal Wedding, which was more a celebration of a national culture than a mere marriage of two individuals. And each and every participant of the culture found themselves invited to the fete. The obvious question remains, how can we find such common causes in our political life?
For most of our young lives, there has never been a moral crisis that has split us so deeply as this one. The principle of the successful nation state is a shared tribal identity that drives harmony and consensus. In turn, the focus within that tribe is the individual, rather than that individual’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or background. But in a postmodern world, the shared tribe of the nation state is fractured, and the individual disappears as the unit of analysis. Identity politics, perpetuated by both the left and the right, is threatening to tear not only our political life apart, but also obliterate the moral foundations upon which our society stands. If we treat each other like overlapping products of political identities – working class white Christian male, immigrant latino bisexual woman, et cetera, we risk corroding away that which we have in common. At that point, there will be nothing ‘United’ in the UK.
So here’s my proposition. Let us find a moral equivalent of war in a national discussion about what unites us, rather than what divides us. Let us ask what it means to British, and bury our hatchets in recognition of a shared identity. Or, you know, just look forward to the next royal wedding.