Wonking in a winterval wonderland

by Atul Hatwal

Santa is coming, bringing his annual sleigh of seasonal stories – will it or won’t it be a white Christmas; who can stop an X-Factor number 1 and that festive favourite: council bans Christmas so as not to offend minorities.

The “war on Christmas”, as Fox News puts it, is raging. From thwarted nativities in primary schools to international conspiracies to rebrand the whole thing as Winterval, a blizzard of synthetic outrage is blowing.

As these stories speckle the media through December, an old challenge awaits the new leader of the Labour party: the Christmas test.

Remember the Tebbit test? Well, add some tinsel and substitute cricket with Christmas.

Ed’s choice of Christmas cards will come under the spotlight. Do they mention the word Christmas or is there just vague talk of “happy holidays”? How will the first Jewish leader in well over half a century handle the c-word – Christianity? And what about on the day – will it be turkey with all the trimmings or does he prefer the vegan option?

Forget fees or cuts, commentators will pore over the answers to resolve the most pressing question of the day: Is Ed Milliband on the side of middle England, Christmas decency or does he stand with nativity-hating, godless, Wintervalistas?

Christmas originally being a pagan festival, celebrated in a country more concerned with the Corrie cliff-hanger than any religion, is irrelevant. For the spectatriots and their columns, Britain today is not the point. It’s their version of the past, a pastiche of 1950s Victoriana, that’s the ideal. The purpose of the Christmas test, as with the Tebbit test, is to divide those who share their vision of what it means to be British from the outsiders.

The right’s sepia view of England at imperial sunset is a powerful myth. The temptation to develop an alternate, more relevant vision is strong. Tony Blair gave it a brief go in 2000. Gordon Brown tried again a few years later. He really embraced the challenge. For him it became the big idea. The way he would define himself as different, establish his credentials as a millennial leader and, above all else, inoculate southern voters against his Scottishness.

Both attempts followed the same trajectory and ended in the same place.

A blaze of publicity, talk of public consultation, common room chatter in the Guardian on its significance, followed swiftly by the sound of a hefty boot kicking it into the long grass when the details became too difficult.

There the ball rests, along side other past leaderly enthusiasms (any takers for the “giving age”? What about “stakeholder capitalism”?) waiting for the next leader to come along and take his turn.

The reason for the failure is simple. Blair and Brown’s attempts focused on values that might define the British. Well-intentioned but utterly pointless.

Fair play and decency? Are we seriously saying that other countries are characterised by being unfair and indecent? Creativity and innovation in the arts and fashion? Is this only found in Britain?

Part of building big tent coalitions is being all things to all people. When translated into values, it’s as defining as fog. Any definition that focuses either on the character or values of its people will inevitably fail. No country has a monopoly on the positive any more than others embody the bad.

In the real world, people are too busy getting on with their lives to be bothered with abstracts on identity. Who gets up in the morning and wonders what being British means? Politicians should pay heed. The right answer to the Christmas test, same as the Tebbit test, is another question – who cares?

Atul Hatwal is a community and social affairs consultant.

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