Flaxman: Understudy 1972 by Ian Stephenson 1934-2000

This is the full version of the essay on Britishness, patriotism and identity, published last month in the New York Times under the headline ‘On Britishness and Belonging’.

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 back in 1986. India won that 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 in which there is constant soul searching about the meaning of national identity. Public debates about what it is to be ‘English’ or ‘British’ has become a ritual almost as frequent 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 document 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 government’s response was to insist that ‘Britishness’ had to become part of the 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 relationships are always mutating.

Thirty years ago Britain was a different place. And I was a different person. I grew up in a Britain in which racism was woven onto the fabric of society in a way that would be difficult to imagine today. Racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings of Asian houses almost weekly events, murders not infrequent.

My parents were of a generation that had accepted racism as a part of life. I was of a generation that challenged it both politically and physically. We confronted far-right thugs, organized street patrols to protect black and Asian families from racist attacks, and stood up to police harassment. And this inevitably shaped our sense of who we were.

Mine was a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’. We wanted to be seen as British. But Britain told us, ‘You don’t belong’. Many of us responded both by insisting on our Britishness – and by identifying with those who challenged British identity. Such is the contrary character of belongingness. So, I refused to support any British team, still less any English one. (The relationship between Englishness and Britishness can often feel as unfathomable as the rules of cricket; it is an issue to which I will have to return another time.) Whether in cricket, football, rugby or tiddlywinks it was a case for me of ‘anyone but England’. It was not surprising that Conservative minister Norman Tebbitt should make support in cricket his test for national loyalty. Nor was it surprising that, in those days, I would have failed it.

Thirty years on, it is very different. Neither racism nor racial violence has disappeared, and hostility to immigration has become a defining feature of British politics. Yet the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that marked Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. The nature of Britishness has changed too. It is no longer rooted in ideas of race and Empire, but defined as much by diversity as by jingoism. National identity is being redefined through a host of new debates, from the fractious question of Scottish independence to the fraught relationship with the European Union.

(c) Grace Gardner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Blacks and Asians have long since become an accepted part of British identity; from heptathlete Jessica Ennis, the poster girl of the 2102 Olympics to Moeen Ali, the new Muslim star of the England cricket team, the sons and daughters of migrants have become an indispensable part of Britain’s sporting culture. And I have long since dropped my ‘anyone but England’ attitude. I now, too, feel the pain of penalty shoot-out defeats and the joy of Test victories (rare though they may be).

And yet, if I am now willing to wave the flag on a cricket field or in a football stadium, I will not necessarily do so in other arenas. I might be tribal about sport, but I am not patriotic about Britain. Tribalism is an intimate part of sport. Irrational, unthinking support for one team rather than another is the means through the spectator becomes an essential part of the sporting story. Patriots desire us to be equally unthinking about our attachments in all spheres of national life. Unlike in sport, however, when it comes to history or culture or politics or international relations, we cannot, we should not, takes sides without reflection and thought.

In much of the public discussion about national identity, ‘Britishness’, just like ‘Frenchness’ or ‘Americanness’, is seen as a package. If one supports the nation in one arena, one is expected to do so in every arena. This is the myth of national identity. But identity does not work like that. My sense of attachment and of belonging, whether personal or national, is shaped by the context. Who am I? Well, that depends partly upon who wants to know. ‘Who am I to my daughter?’ requires a very different answer to ‘Who am I to a reader of this article?’ There is only one ‘me’. But that one me expresses itself through myriad identities.

Similarly with national identity, too. I only have to visit a London street market to be reminded how open Britain is to foods and goods and influences from all over the world; I only have to stand in line in passport control at Heathrow airport to remember how deep the suspicion of foreigners runs. Many British traditions resonate with me; many I find abhorrent. This is the nation that produced the Levellers and the Suffragettes, radical movements that helped shape the world; it is also a nation that still clings to a monarchy and the unelected, feudal House of Lords. Many non-British traditions, too, have helped shape my views, values and ideals. To erase this complexity with the myths of patriotism is to diminish the very meaning of ‘belonging’.

As for the cricket, England was humiliated by India at Lords. Some things, it seems, never change.

(Update:  After the Lords debacle, the England cricket team recovered, thrashed India in the final threeTests and convincingly took the series 3-1; some things do change.)


The paintings are Ian Stephenson’s ‘Flaxman: Understudy'(on display at the Tate Britain; © The estate of Ian Stephenson) and Grace Gardner’s ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart’ (at Falmouth Art Gallery; © Falmouth Art Gallery)


  1. Brom

    OT: Funny how the pro-regressive leftists having lost the economics and material debate wars in the 80s, are now hell bent on making culture the defining element of all social relationships, and politics. But isn’t that what the fascists were good at? To define their culture as unique and superior and condemn the other based on cultural values?

    That is exactly what the left does today – condemning the west, the white man, the westernized immigrants from 3rd world nations who seek and have found a better life as imperialists, privilegists, colonialists, etc. not on the basis of hard economic science facts, but based on the new metric of culture. If you in any way appreciate western civilization and culture, then you are doomed to being stooges and lackeys of the powerful and the domination-seekers.

    Leftism coming full circle to fascism. Well done.

  2. Dan

    I’ve a lot of sympathy with this article. Racism and Britain’s foreign policy in Ireland in the 1980s led me to support Brazil at football.
    However I still consider myself a patriot. Rejecting the nation sounds trendy but is empty moralism. Patriotism has a democratic content. As a body of citizens, we can only take responsibility and decide our future in one particular time and place. National identity means being part of the demos. There’s nothing ‘complex’ about the vote.

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