This is my latest column for the New York Times, on ideas of Britishness, belonging and identity. (We had to cut the essay slightly because of the space available; I will publish the full version next month.)
How times change. Last week, I was at the Lord’s cricket ground in London — the ‘home of cricket’, as England cricket administrators like to boast — to see England play India. I was born in India. Yet I was cheering on England.
Thirty years ago, I certainly would not have been. I can remember the Indian cricket team touring England in 1986. India won that Test match series 2-0. I was ecstatic.
Why the change in my attitude? Answering that question will, of course, reveal much about myself. It will reveal much about Britain. But perhaps most of all, it will reveal much about the nature of identity.
We live in an age of constant soul-searching about the meaning of national identity. Public debates about what it is to be ‘English’ or ‘British’ have become a ritual almost as familiar as an England football team being humiliated at a World Cup. But these debates rarely grasp the realities of the ways in which people experience their identities.
In 2007, the last Labour government produced a green paper entitled The Governance of Britain which bemoaned the fact that, compared to French or American citizens, Britons had a ‘less clear sense’ of the ‘values that bind’ the British people. It proposed ‘a British statement of values that will set out the ideals and principles that bind us together as a nation’. Earlier this year, when an attempt to introduce an Islamist agenda into certain state schools in Birmingham was exposed, the coalition government’s response was to insist that ‘Britishness’ had to become part of the educational curriculum.
Craft a statement. Teach a lesson. Politicians may be the only people in the world who imagine that the creation of identities, or the forging of a sense of belongingness, can be reduced to such simple formulae.
What most public debates ignore is the complexity, elasticity and sheer contrariness of identity. Whether personal or national, identities can never be singular or fixed because they are rooted largely in people’s relationships with each other — not merely personal but social relationships, too — and such connections are always mutating.
Continue reading the essay in the New York Times.
The photo is of England cricketer Moeen Ali, © PA