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the blankness of being british

bergens tidende, 30 september 2007

What does it mean to be British? For the thousands of American and Japanese tourists that flock to Britain every year Britishness means quaint rituals outside Buckingham Palace, bad weather and overpriced hotels. Ask a Briton what it means to British, however, and you might as well be asking them about the finer points quantum mechanics. As a new government document on national identity observes, 'French citizens have a clear understanding of their values of liberty, equality and fraternity. America has a strong national perception of itself as the "land of the free". But there is a less clear sense among British citizens of the values that bind groups and communities who make up the body of the British people.'

It is this very lack of clarity that has driven politicians to address the question of Britishness ever more urgently over the last few years. The problems of multiculturalism, the sense that many sections of society are failing to fully integrated, and fear for social cohesion have all combined to create a growing unease with the lack of a sense of national values. It is an unease that has been exacerbated by the threat of Islamic terrorism and, especially, by the fact that a growing number of terrorists are British citizens. What drives them to bring carnage to their own country? The answer, many politicians seem to believe, is that they do not possess a sufficiently clear notion of what it means to be British.

The new government document is the latest attempt to remedy the situation. It proposes 'an inclusive process of national debate' through which the government 'will work with the public to develop a British statement of values that will set out the ideals and principles that bind us together as a nation'. The trouble is that the vision of 'local, regional and national events and opportunities for debate and deliberation' sounds more like a process through which to decide where to site a new airport than an attempt to define the values to which a people should cleave.

The comparison with France and America is instructive. Notions of 'liberté, fraternité, egalité' and of 'inalienable rights' emerged, not through official consultations, but through collective, fractious struggles to define – and create - a better society, struggles that give those values historical depth and emotional punch. The myths and symbols of national identity that contemporary British politicians are attempting to replicate evolved during a time of mass nation-building. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a sense of wanting to be American, say, or French and of wanting to be a part of the project of creating that nation. Today, there is no popular upsurge demanding, 'I want to be British'.

Modern British identity was forged in the furnace of race and Empire. The 'Empire on which the sun never set' gave Britain, and its people, a sense of itself, its racial identity and its importance in the world. All that began to change after the Second World War. The Empire itself began to disappear, but large parts of that Empire now turned up on Britain's doorstep in the form of immigrants from south Asia and the Caribbean. Mass immigration inevitably challenged traditional concepts of Britishness. As a Colonial Office report of 1955 observed, 'a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken… the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached'.

Even in the 1950s, though, it was clear that such a simple, racial 'concept of England or Britain' could not be sustained for long. Not only was the fading of Empire turning Britain from a global superpower to a middling nation, and mass immigration transforming the face of the nation, but the experience of Nazism and the Holocaust had also rendered virtually unusable the kind of racial exclusiveness embodied in this notion of national identity. British identity would clearly have to be reformulated to include the presence in this country of black and Asians citizens.

Today, the old racist notion of British identity has thankfully crumbled. The trouble is that nothing new has come to replace it. Multiculturalism developed in the 1980s as an acknowledgement both of the presence in Britain of non-white peoples and the inability of the authorities to create a new, more inclusive sense of belonging. Instead, multiculturalists argued that black and Asian people should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. The very notion of creating common values was abandoned except at a most minimal level and Britishness defined simply as a toleration of difference.

Now that policy of multiculturalism itself has come to be recognised as a problem. However, the idea that national identity can be forged through a consultation process is as plausible as the belief that unity could develop through the promotion of difference. Whatever list of virtues the government's final 'statement of values' endorses - and no doubt it will be a pic 'n' mix of the usual suspects such democracy, diversity, liberty, tolerance, fairness - people in Britain will have neither actively engaged in shaping them, nor have any true emotional or ideological attachment to them. And it is only through such active political engagement that common values can be forged. There is a lot more to national identity than drawing up a list of nice-sounding values.