The phrase “national identity” is popping up everywhere in Britain. I have read two recent books with those words in the title, and they recur throughout an article in the March 17 London Review of Books, “The Wonderfulness of Us: The Tory Interpretation of History” by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans. In February the prime minister David Cameron spoke at an international conference on security at Munich, addressing the problem of domestic terrorism, and specifically of young Muslims who are alienated from the society in which they were born and grew up.
Cameron’s speech, with its critical reference to “the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” was found controversial in some quarters, but I could not see much to disagree with in it. He made a crucial distinction when he remarked, “Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority.” This was the ideology that prompted the suicide bombers who, in 2005, set off bombs in London Underground trains and a bus, causing several dozen deaths. Cameron was indeed making a political point in attacking the “multiculturalism” that the Labour government had favored: “Instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.”