Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 March 2008

Correction: the Proms are all right – just leave out ‘Jerusalem’!

What a marvellous thing serendipity is! I was just thinking yesterday that it was about time I did another piece on the English Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I took a brief break from work and wandered downstairs to make myself a sandwich; tuned in to my beloved Radio Four; and heard a news item on yesterday morning’s speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) by the English Minister of State for Culture, Margaret Hodge, entitled, ‘Britishness, Heritage and the Arts: Should cultural institutions promote shared values and a common national identity?’

The Radio Four item homed in on the bit towards the end of the speech where Ms Hodge criticises the Proms (the traditional summer-time series of (mostly) classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London) as being perhaps unrepresentative of the inclusive, culturally diverse, modern sense of Britishness that the cultural ‘sectors’ (e.g. the arts and media) should seek to express, as they hark back to the jingoism of Britain’s imperial past. The BBC wheeled on Nicholas Kenyon, the former director of the Proms, who defended this particular institution as precisely embodying the cultural diversity Ms Hodge was advocating – given that during the two-month-long series of Proms as a whole, a huge variety of musical styles and traditions from throughout the world are featured. It was just the traditional ‘Last Night of the Proms’ that could possibly justify Ms Hodge’s criticisms: much waving of the Union Flag and chanting of patriotic hymns such as ‘Rule Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’.

The Radio Four article was prefaced by the presenter indicating that they had invited Margaret Hodge on to the programme to discuss her speech and that she had initially accepted, only to cancel later in the morning because of some other commitment that had cropped up. The newscaster speculated whether Downing Street had stepped in to prevent her appearance, presumably out of displeasure that she had associated something that David Cameron was quoted as describing as “a great symbol of our Britishness” with something nationalistic, culturally exclusive and anti-progressive.

Indeed, later in the day, during another wonderfully fortuitously timed work break (coinciding with the PM news programme on Radio Four), it emerged that during a briefing at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman had clarified that, “DCMS had also stated that, in the view of Margaret Hodge, the Proms were a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution, which did a fantastic job to promote serious culture to millions of people; this was a view the Prime Minister very much agreed with”. Clearly, Ms Hodge had received a little slap on the wrist from GB [Gordon Brown] for having dared to criticise a tradition that provides an opportunity for people to wrap themselves up in the Union Jack and celebrate Britain as a great nation (which is not the same thing as old-fashioned British nationalism, you understand)!

To express the contrary point of view, the PM programme brought on the folk-rock singer Billy Bragg, formerly the bard of New Labour and latterly a critic of its more conservative tendencies. He defended Margaret Hodge’s earlier (but subsequently ‘moderated’) criticism of the Proms as being not particularly representative of, or conducive towards, a culturally inclusive Britain while balancing this point of view by agreeing to some extent with Nicholas Kenyon: that the ‘problem’ was only really with the Last Night, with its jingoistic resonances and parading of the Union Jack. And this is where things got really muddled: Billy Bragg then declared that, whereas he used to be quite sceptical towards the Union Flag because of its hard-right, nationalistic associations, he now felt more positive about it as a symbol of some of the great things that Britain had achieved, including through the Empire, and of an inclusive UK formed from the coming together of different nations [seeming to align himself with GB, then]. In support of this new-found pride in the flag, he compared this to the English taking pride in displaying the Cross of St. George; and ‘no one was going to try to stop them doing so’. Wrong; this is precisely what they (i.e. the government) do try to do: promote official flying of the Union Flag (as in the guidelines published by DCMS itself) and the discouragement (and actual banning?) of any official use in England of the flag of England.

Then Billy Bragg went on to claim that the association of the Union Jack with the imperialistic overtones of the Last Night of the Proms, and absence from that occasion of the other flags of the UK, was indeed a problem. Wrong again: in all the recent pictures I’ve seen of the Last Night of the Proms, there are many Flags of St. George alongside the Union Jacks, and also Welsh flags, banners reading ‘Cymru’, and even the occasional Saltire. So in fact, even the Last Night of the Proms could be given as an example of an inclusive, multi-national UK. I’m not sure, however, that this is a reason why GB would endorse the Proms: he for one, I’m sure, would prefer it if only Union Flags were on display in the Last Night, making it a celebration of a unified Nation of Britain and not of the different nations of the UK.

Maybe the problem with the Last Night of the Proms for Bragg and Hodge, then, is not so much its UK-wide symbolism but the fact that it stands for a mono-cultural and nationalistic Britishness, as opposed to the multi-cultural, internationalist Britishness they both espouse. OK, what we’re really talking about here is an English Britishness. It’s the Englishness of this particular celebration of Britishess they don’t like; in particular, its ‘elitist’, white English middle-class character. This is the subtext of Margaret Hodge’s critique as well as the basis for Billy Bragg’s inconsistency over the Cross of St. George: OK as a symbol for the English working class but definitely not if associated with white middle-class British nationalism – the old type, that is, where Britishness was celebrated as an extension of English national identity and pride. Why else would Bragg say that we could still have a Last Night of the Proms so long as it no longer included a rendition of ‘Jerusalem’? I ask you! Of all the anthems traditionally performed at the Last Night, this is the only one that is universally thought of as an English hymn as opposed to the unmistakable Britishness of ‘Rule Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Bragg then alluded to the fact that a bit of Vaughan Williams wouldn’t go amiss: echoes of the Vaughan Williams (non-jingoistic British) versus Elgar (jingoistic, but also less authentically, British) controversy of two weeks ago! (Whereas, actually, they’re both English.)

The dichotomy that is at work in Bragg’s and particularly Hodge’s advocacy of a culturally inclusive Britishness, and indeed of a ‘culture industry’ that promotes social inclusion, is a common one within the ‘Britological’ promotion of Britishness over Englishness. ‘Britain’ is seen as culturally inclusive, open, internationalist; whereas Englishness is associated with all the worst aspects of exclusivity, narrowness and tribal nationalism that in the past were linked with Britain’s imposition of its rule and civilisation on the peoples of the Empire, and in the present is seen in hostility towards, and separation from, the multiplicity of peoples and cultures (again, many coming from the former Empire) that continue to settle in Britain. But the paradox of this British all-inclusiveness is that it is predicated on the exclusion of Englishness, the touchstone of the old mono-cultural, national Britishness: Britishness that was the expression of a nation – England – rather than a merging of multiple nations (including the ‘former’ nation of England) into a cultural (rather than ethnic-national) unity that has progressed beyond traditional nationhood and become truly international and global.

This helps to illuminate why Margaret Hodge’s criticism of the Proms is so fundamentally misguided: she rejects it as an example of an exclusive Britishness; and yet, of course, if the Last Night traditions were jettisoned on these politically correct grounds, it is they that would end up being excluded and censored in favour of the type of supposedly more inclusive, internationalist British culture of which Ms Hodge provides examples in her speech. Why can’t the Last Night of the Proms be retained as a relatively harmless expression of a now largely moribund British patriotism that was actually inclusive of the different nations of the UK – if necessary, alongside all those other cultural celebrations of multi-culturally inclusive Britain Ms Hodge supports? Isn’t that what true cultural diversity entails: mutual tolerance of difference, including different interpretations of Britishness? But again, it is perhaps the very native, ‘tribal’ quality of this particular celebration of national British identity that Ms Hodge objects to: the fact that it’s an English Britishness and by that very token perhaps evokes a Britain defined in terms of the four indigenous nations of the UK (or five, including Cornwall) that were united – albeit in a contested form – in the English-controlled UK before devolution? In other words, it’s an ethnic-British, mono-cultural Britishness: inclusiveness limited to white British people and not extended beyond ethnic boundaries to all-comers.

Isn’t this the real subtext of Ms Hodge’s speech: the Proms as appealing to an insular, conservative, white audience – described as “a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds [in PC language, implies 'ethnic backgrounds'] feel at ease in being part of this”? Or, as she describes the situation in her constituency of Barking in East London, “a retreat to the old narrow bonds of kinship and ‘tribe’” [in context, clearly in part a reference to English nationalism, or at least the nationalism of white English people] being associated with far-right, racist extremism. This is the big logical, ideological and political mistake that is made in arguments of this type. The fact that some people who call themselves English nationalists (or British, or indeed any type of, nationalists) are racist does not mean that any affirmation of English national identity/-ies is racist, or indeed even nationalist as understood as entailing hostility to other cultures. But somewhere down the road in the split that has occurred in the English-British identity, the British establishment has decided to try to secure a monopoly on the ‘good’ English-British values: Britain as inclusive of many cultures; England as nationalistic, exclusive and xenophobic. According to this view, by definition, only Britain and Britishness can provide the foundation for the blending of so many nationalities and cultures into something new – a new Britishness – because it is not a nationalism but an internationalism. To Britain are ascribed the positive aspects of British history and culture: the progressivism of the Empire, and the international (British) civilisation it spawned along with its liberal values.

But you could just as easily turn the whole thing on its head and associate the positive aspects of British history and culture as English, and the negative aspects (the nationalism; the aggression towards other peoples, both within the British Isles and throughout the Empire; the racism; the insularity; etc.) as British. Historically, it is probably more accurate to describe many of Britain’s great institutions and values as originally and primarily English: parliamentary democracy, libertarianism and the openness to the world beyond these shores, admittedly mixed with imperialistic and mercenary motives as the English began opening up what became the British Empire long before the Union with Scotland. The truth of the matter is that both good and bad aspects were indeed both English and British, insofar as the identity and destiny of the English merged with that of the other nations of these islands.

To ascribe the negative features of British culture and history to England and Englishness is therefore not only to perpetrate a huge historic and epistemological injustice towards the English but also has disastrous consequences in the present that militate against the declared aim to create an inclusive British-cultural identity. The first consequence is the exclusion of England as a nation in its own right, along with the English national identity – seen as ‘bad’, ‘exclusive’, ‘retrograde’ – from the new internationalist, multi-cultural Britain. This was seen in the example discussed above: a would-be exclusion of the Last Night of the Proms from the new culture owing to its old English-British-nationalist connotations. But because cultural expressions of a traditional national and ethnic identity, such as in the Proms, are mistakenly seen as nationalistic and, implicitly, racist, this results in calls for these traditions to be modified or banned. However, such responses inescapably cross over into inverted racism in their own right because they imply automatic suspicion, hostility and censorship directed towards any expression of anything redolent of ‘ethnic-English’, ‘ethnic-British’, ‘white’, or just plain self-consciously ‘English’ culture. The one nationality and ethnicity that then gets excluded from the new multi-cultural Britishness is Englishness. Indeed, one might even say that this exclusion is constitutive of the new Britain as an international entity, as opposed to its traditional status as the expression of English national identity. So we have a sort of inverted cultural apartheid: only those cultural expressions that are multi-cultural and international in inspiration are authentically British in the new ‘inclusive’ definition of the term; and there’s no such thing (at least, it’s not ‘acceptable’) as traditional white-English or white-British culture.

The second disastrous consequence of the negativisation of Englishness is that ‘immigrant’ communities are encouraged to identify as British rather than English. The illogicality of this as a supposed strategy for promoting integration is astounding. First, Britishness is positioned ideologically as an international / multi-cultural concept and identity; then you take international migrants and encourage them (through citizenship courses and ceremonies, and new forms of cultural expression) to identify as British, i.e. as international and multi-cultural. So then, what you are left with is the migrant communities affirming an identity as international-multicultural-British that is separate from the identities of the ‘native British’ people around them who identify typically as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. In other words, rather than embedding Britishness in the already established, historic cultures and identities of the nations of the UK, and then encouraging international migrants to identify with those cultures, Britishness is elevated to an international plane; so that, in reality, no truly profound cultural integration with the existing nations of the UK on the part of migrants need take place. Instead of international settlers becoming British in the same way that British people are British (by virtue of being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish in the first instance), it’s Britain that is made international. The net result is virtually a reversal of the intended effect; instead of immigrants integrating with the national identities and cultures of the UK, a plural, international ‘cultural identity’ of Britain evolves with which the established nations of the UK are called to identify. We have to ‘get with’ the new ‘multi-culture’, since this is essentially the same as the global culture on which Britain’s future depends.

Well, we English at least have to accept these realities and relinquish our Englishness in favour of the new British internationalism. I don’t hear such a call being directed to the Scottish and the Welsh, whose quest to reaffirm their own distinct cultures and national identities (inclusive of those of migrant communities) was not alluded to in any shape or form in Margaret Hodge’s speech. And why should it be? She is after all only the English Minister of State for Culture (the Scots and Welsh having their own culture ministers); and her exhortations to embrace a new inclusive Britishness are therefore primarily – if not exclusively – directed to the English alone.

British internationalism versus English nationalism. Problem, though. GB [Gordon Brown] wants Britain to be a nation. All this talk about cultural pluralism and the repudiation of the Proms as a case of nationalist mono-culturalism does rather militate against the idea of both migrants and native British people converging in a monolithic, unitary Britishness of the kind that you could see the Last Night of the Proms as celebrating – if you ignore the flags of England, Wales and Scotland, that is. No wonder GB slapped Ms Hodge’s wrist! It’s not just the implication that GB’s flag waving, like that of the Last Night, has slightly jingoistic overtones. No, it’s the fact that Ms Hodge’s internationalist vision of Britain is not in fact a vision of a united Britain: it’s a multi-nation, not a nation. At least, in such a Britain, we English might be able to uphold our own national identity and traditions as one ‘tribe’ among many in the land; while we can hope that, in time, the madness of seeking to achieve cultural integration by denying the distinct cultures of the UK’s nations will recede. Then perhaps, the true conditions can be created for migrant communities to come together with the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish peoples; and we can develop shared multiple national identities, rather than a divisive, imposed Britishness – whether of the unitary, statist, Brownite variety; or the plural, cultural Hodgian kind.

So let’s keep the Last Night of the Proms for now. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let them remove ‘Jerusalem’ from the programme!

30 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 3): Stop and Search, and Social Care

Just a couple of quickies from the media over the past few days. First, the ‘stop and search’ row that broke out at PMQs this morning. Haven’t followed the coverage as systematically as usual, but I didn’t hear either GB [Gordon Brown] or David Cameron referring to the fact that they were talking about relaxing the rules regarding stopping and searching (young) people in the streets in England and Wales only. The reports on the Radio Four lunchtime and evening news similarly didn’t mention the fact that the debate was relevant to England and Wales only – or at least, I didn’t hear any mention of it.

The BBC News website is – as on many occasions – the worthy exception. Its report does mention in two places that the discussion involves England and Wales: the Tories’ claim that scrapping the bureaucratic forms the police have to fill in every time they stop someone “would save 900,000 police hours per year in England and Wales”; and a reference to Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary in England and Wales, who’s produced a report on it. However, the first six paragraphs of the BBC News website report fail to mention ‘England and Wales’ at all; and the way the alleged statistic of 900,000 police hours per year is thrown in out of any context could give the impression that this is being referred to only because statistics for England and Wales are gathered and published separately, not because the whole story refers to England and Wales alone.

Why does this matter? How would the issue be debated differently if the proposals for England and Wales were contrasted with the approach taken in Scotland? It’s known that stop and search makes only a negligible contribution to reducing youth crime and gang violence, which is the alleged reason for relaxing the rules. Equally, statistics (and damn statistics) show that ethnic and religious minorities are more likely than their white [English] counterparts to be stopped and searched, leading to resentment at supposed racism and Islamophobia on the part of the [English] police – despite DC’s bland assurances that the [English] police are “no longer racist”. [Really - not even a little bit, in parts?] In addition, playing on the [English] public’s fear that stop and search is necessary to reduce gang violence (even though it’s pretty ineffectual) contributes to the demonisation of [English] youth, while increased stop and search is likely to increase the disaffection of young [English] people towards the [English] police.

OK, so how are the preventive approach, the thinking, the attitudes towards young people, the extent of gang violence, and the whole problem of youth crime different in Scotland? What lessons can we learn, if any, from our northern neighbours? Is English youth really as bad as it’s (only implicitly) being made out to be, and is it that much worse than Scottish youth? Only goes to show what a violent, uncouth and racist lot we English are then, doesn’t it?

Verdict: GB and DC – 0 out of 5 for opportunistic, let’s-play-on-the-fear-of-crime-on-English-streets stop and search politics; BBC Radio Four: 0 out of 5 (no mention of England and Wales); BBC News website (2 out of 5: if you’re wised up, man, you can read between da lines about dem English lies).

Quickly on to the social care issue. BBC Radio Four, again [you can tell I'm a devotee, if only in the Victor Meldrew 'I don't believe it' school] have been running an excellent, informative and campaigning ‘Care in the UK’ month of programmes. Except, you’ve guessed it, it’s about social care in England: about 90% of it, that is. Look at their Care Calculator and their Care Questionnaire: all England only. The resumés of the month’s programmes – virtually all England. You become aware of this exclusively English content only when you click through to the detailed information; the introductory pages make no mention of England – but in this case, what you get is definitely not what it says on the tin.

Why does it matter? Because it blunts the whole campaigning thrust of the programme. The situation of personal and social care in England is desperate. But if you make out that you’re talking about the UK, not England, then you can avoid referring to the infinitely better deal the Scots are currently getting: free personal care for all who need it. The question the programme asks is why isn’t the UK getting better social care provision? What it should be asking is ‘why isn’t England getting better social care provision, like that available in Scotland?’ Instead, you get a sentence like this: “Social care is means tested in most of the UK“: no, it’s means-tested in England, not in Scotland.

The You and Yours programme has sent a set of listeners’ questions to the Care Minister, who’s a junior minister in the Department of Health: the English Department of Health, that is, whose remit is social care in England not in the UK. Do you really think he’ll address the English dimension of the question? Does he really care about England? They may make a few improvements around the edges, and then the government can say that it’s listened to the British people; and the programme will say that it’s helped to improve care in the UK – avoiding those embarrassing comparisons with Scotland, where the situation will still be – to coin a phrase -miles better.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 for the BBC; very worthy exercise but deceitful in pretending that there’s some kind of uniform UK-wide governmental responsibility for these issues; whereas England’s plight in this area is because it’s ‘cared for’ by a UK government that thinks England needs to carry the financial burden of the Union.

7 September 2007

Is UK Immigration Policy Designed To Undermine Englishness?

There’s no doubt that the English national identity is under considerable stress at the present time: from the political and cultural privileging of Britishness over Englishness; from the fact that – through devolution – the other nations of the UK have acquired the right to define their identity and determine their destiny in separation from the UK, while English people have not been accorded the same privilege; and from the substantial recent waves of immigration that have landed up mainly on English shores rather than those of Scotland or Wales.

It’s mainly these combined pressures of devolution and immigration that have precipitated the present crisis. And, indeed, the very intensity of the efforts to reaffirm British identity and values is clearly in part a reaction to the same stresses. But is there a more profound correlation between these three strands as they affect English national identity? Could it be the case that what amounts to UK-government tolerance, if not encouragement, of the high volume of immigration over recent years is actually an affirmation of a certain vision of Britishness, opposed to what adherents of that vision might regard as ‘narrow’ English nationalism?

Let’s set out the hypothetical causal chain like this: Scottish and Welsh devolution is seen as threatening not only the survival of the United Kingdom as a political union but also challenges the integrity and universality of so-called British values. In their liberal acception, these stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to nationalist separatism and to a ‘mono-ethnic’ culture and society (e.g. ‘white Anglo-Saxon’). Indeed, Britishness is to a substantial degree assimilated to the idea of the ‘global culture’ and the values that, under the Bush-Blair axis, were thought to be universally applicable to any particular culture, e.g. liberty (including free-market economics), democracy, equality (at least, nominal equality of economic opportunity), tolerance / pluralism, etc.

The welcoming of hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of people from all over the world to make their homes and establish economic activity in Britain was seen in part as a way to reaffirm this idea of British values as at the heart of the new globalised world, and British society as a microcosm and vanguard of the inevitable mixing of races and cultures that this involves. To this extent, the reaffirmation of a trans-cultural and trans-ethnic Britain (more so than multi-cultural and multi-ethnic) represents a vision of a unity that is of such a universal character that it transcends and more than offsets any impairment to the more limited unity of the United Kingdom, made up from the political union of its constituent countries. (Britain, in this sense, represents a unity that is of an ideal / ideological character; while the ‘United Kingdom’ refers merely to the political union.) But by the same token, this idea of Britain leaves no room at all for any notion of a separate English national, ethnic or political identity.

It is perhaps in this more general sense that the widespread immigration of the past few years does help to undermine the efforts to affirm and define a distinct English cultural and political future. The new trans-cultural, trans-ethnic Britain is predicated on the denial of a supposedly mono-cultural, mono-ethnic England. Indeed, the very idea and political project of Britain has always been dependent on the rejection of a separate, isolated English identity and state: not just an island cut off from the rest of the world, but a fragmentary part of that island, with hostile neighbours. Britain has always been the persona through which England has forged its connection with the outside world and, indeed, attempted to re-mould it in its image.

Which sort of brings me to my main point. While the reaffirmation of Britishness, paradoxically in part through immigration, undoubtedly expresses a denial of English separation and separateness, it is in fact mainly English people themselves who are the willing agents of that denial. As I’ve said elsewhere, the British project is primarily an English project: ‘Britain’ has been the cultural and political vehicle through which the English have striven to conquer and order the world. In its apparent trans-nationality, Britain has been a very English form of hypocrisy and subterfuge: things done in the name of Britain can be made out to be motivated by altruistic concern and universal values; whereas, in reality, that Britain was the means for England to dominate not only its island neighbours but large portions of every continent on earth.

This has been the secret reason for the success of ‘Britain’ as an international power and global cultural powerhouse: that it’s ultimately served the English national interest. But is it the case that Britain is no longer ruling the waves of immigration that are crashing onto its shores, and England’s former imperial dominance is coming home to roost? What I mean by this is that if the integrity of the British identity starts to be severely challenged by the new immigration, this means that its value for ensuring the security of English identity and society (probably, in both senses of that word) is also impaired. And it may be necessary to re-define what English identity means in separation from the old British comfort blanket, in order to regain a stable sense of who we are, and who amongst us we’re happy to accept as our countrymen. In other words, if we can’t tell what constitutes being English any more, how can we work out who has a right to live in England or not?

Let me try and illustrate some of the extreme challenges faced by British identity and, as a consequence, English identity. In a previous post, I discussed the multiple ‘ethnic’ categories by which I was confronted when filling in an NHS form. As was subsequently drawn to my attention, these are in fact the same categories that were used in the England and Wales Census of 2001. In that previous post, I argued that the ethnic category ‘White British’ represented an attempt to establish a core Britishness identified with race; and, while this could be viewed as implicitly racist, this also denied the option of using ‘English’ as a signifier of either ethnicity or nationality – something that was not denied to other ethnic groups, who were entitled to refer to themselves as ‘African’, ‘Bangladeshi’, etc. as well as British.

Subsequently, it occurred to me that this form could be interpreted in more or less the opposite way. If the term ‘British’, as used in this set of ethnic categories, is interpreted as in part a designator of ethnicity, this means that, by a curious logical reversal, if Black-African persons who are UK citizens can call themselves ‘Black-British-African’, this also makes ‘Black African’ a possible variety of British ethnicity as well as UK citizenship; the same going for Bangladeshis and all the other national-ethnic categories on the form that are paired with the term ‘British’.

The same ‘Briticisation’ of other races and cultures does not apply to the Chinese, at least in the terms of this form. They’re simply referred to as ‘Chinese’, not ‘British Chinese’ or ‘Chinese British’. ‘British Chinese’ would do perfectly well as a description of a UK citizen from a Chinese ethnic background. But the reason why the term seems unnatural is that we don’t feel comfortable making implicitly proprietorial claims over China (British Chinese) in the way we do over parts of Africa, the Caribbean or the subcontinent of Asia. Proprietorial claims, that is, which relate to ethnicity and ‘acculturation': the assertion that a Chinese person living in the UK could be ‘properly’, ‘truly’ British in the same implicitly ethnic way that a Black African or Asian Bangladeshi person could be.

In the case of these latter categories, an ethnic identification with Britishness (or an extension to those categories of ‘British’ as a designator of ethnicity) has come to supplement and complete a merely national identification: to be a British citizen – as opposed to, historically, merely a British subject or national by virtue of living in a British imperial dependency – implies the possession of British ethnicity. We don’t feel we should symbolically extend this to the Chinese among us because they were never part of the British empire in quite the same way – although technically, I suppose, we could invent the category ‘Chinese or British Chinese Hong Kong’ to mirror the likes of ‘Asian or British Asian Indian’ – but that wouldn’t go down well politically!

‘Multi-ethnic Britain’ means precisely this: not a multiplicity of ethnic groupings within a Britain that somehow retains a fixed and separate native-British identity above, beyond or beneath that diversity; but a ‘British multi-ethnicity’. Britain is a nation that went out to conquer the world and has now incorporated all its formerly subject nations into its own identity, transforming Britishness from a nationality to an ‘internationality': or a trans-national and trans-ethnic identity, as I referred to it earlier.

Let’s note in passing that this means that there are two contradictory ways in which the advocacy of a unitary Britishness suppresses any claims that Englishness deserves a separate national or ethnic status: 1) the view that if there is any native-British genetic-racial baseline, this is to be referred to as ‘British’ and not ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc.; and 2) the politically correct perspective that questions what I’ve referred to as the implicitly ‘racist’ implications of such British mono-ethnicity and considers that all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the right to be called ‘British’ with respect to ethnicity, not just their national / cultural background. But while this contradiction denies any role for a separate English identity, it also reveals the lack of any consensus as to what truly defines British ethnicity and nationality.

Do all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the implied right to call their ethnicity British? No, not Chinese apparently, as I’ve just remarked; and also not other categories that don’t conform to the ‘already-British-anyway’ assumption that attaches to people hailing from Britain’s former colonies. These are, on the Census / NHS form: ‘Other white background'; ‘Other mixed background'; and ‘Any other ethnic group’. In other words, these are the terms that are likely to apply to many of the more recent immigrants: Eastern Europeans; immigrants from non-European, non-former-British colonies; and mixed-race individuals (including Chinese-British) that are combinations involving either of the above, even if they are combined with one of the ‘British’ categories. The reason why I say these are not regarded as ‘properly’ British ethnic groupings is a) that the term British is not applied to them; and b) that parallel to the absence of ‘British’, the adjectives describing their ethnicity begin with lower-case letters – e.g. ‘Other white background’ versus ‘White British’ or ‘Black British African’, the use of the capital implying that there is some literal [meaning 'to the letter'] equivalence and identification between the term that designates the ethnicity and the term that refers to the nation or region / continent. [OK, maybe pushing the point a bit there.]

But the point is, the whole thing is completely riddled with contradictions and is useless as a means of establishing a definition either of British nationality or ethnicity. For instance, many of the individuals corresponding to these ‘non-properly-British’ categories will be UK citizens and might wish to describe their ethnicity in British terms. Equally, while Eastern Europeans from EU countries have a right of residence here, they could well be viewed by many British people has having less priority in the ‘queue’ of people wanting to settle here than people from former imperial colonies, including those that are not from either Africa, the Caribbean or subcontinental Asia – e.g. Belize, Nepal or Australia.

This is clearly one of the unacknowledged reasons for the degree of anxiety that the more recent waves of immigration have provoked: that this is a mass migration on a par with that of the Asians and Afro-Caribbeans who came into this country from the 1950s to 1970s; but that it involves what seems to be a random and (in the light of the terror threat) scary mix of ethnicities from around the world, in contrast to our former imperial subjects for whom we felt a paternalistic sense of responsibility. Those former waves of immigration remained within the British comfort zone and did not appear to challenge British identity or culture. In the present, however, the multiplication of alien ethnic categories appearing to compete for British status appears to be straining things to the point of bursting – let alone frustrating any aspirations people might have to affirm their Englishness.

This has contributed to the formation of a conspiracy theory among some English-nationalist sympathisers (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m an English-nationalist sympathiser myself) that the UK government’s laissez-faire attitude towards immigration has been part of calculated plan (possibly inspired by Scots in positions of political power) to dilute the English community and franchise; i.e. to reduce the proportion of the population that is English and so diminish their political influence, particularly in relation to calls for an English parliament and / or independence.

While such conspiracy theories are an understandable offshoot of the stress which the English national identity is currently under, they are problematic on a number of levels. For a start, as the current and previous discussion on British ethnicity have attempted to show, it is extremely difficult to define or agree what constitutes English nationality or ethnicity in the present situation; and by extension, to know exactly what a phrase such as ‘diluting the English community’ might mean. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t have a working definition of Englishness, because if you abandon this concept altogether, you’re giving in to the official view that there is only a British and not English national identity.

One of the reasons why phrases such as ‘diluting the English community / population’ are problematic is they could be read as embodying an assumption that the ‘English community’ is defined ‘properly’ only in ethnic terms. However, apart from the increasing proportion of English residents that are recent or longer-term immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, how does this point of view deal with the growing mixed-race population: persons of both ‘White-British’ / ‘White-English’ and non-native British heritage? Does diluting the English community equate to diluting the ‘English race’ here? But do not the direct descendants of English people have an inalienable right to call themselves ‘properly’ English just as much as those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are of more unadulterated English lineage?

All the same, the perception that the English population is being diluted, diminished or marginalised is certainly in part accentuated by the very ethnic terms that are used to categorise the population, such as those of the form that I’ve discussed. The difficulties connected with these categories ironically appear even more acute in the expanded list of ethnicities recommended by the Commission for Racial Equality, which are intended to be more inclusive and to make allowance for people wishing to declare themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British.

This extended ethnic set lists English, Scottish and Welsh as sub-categories first of White and then of British. This makes White-British-English – for many, the core definition of English ethnicity-nationality – only one out of 22 ethnic categories. Moreover, the atomising of British identity into so many categories and sub-categories means that many people who would tick the box ‘English’ if they were offered only national categories that reflected their cultural affinities and personal attachments are now invited to select one of the many other options on offer, from the more outlandish (e.g. ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Irish traveller’ – two separate categories) to the more mainstream such as Welsh and Scottish: somebody of mixed Anglo-Scottish parentage who’s lived all their life in England might be tempted to tick the Scottish box for political or career reasons, for instance, whereas ‘English’ might be more accurate as a description of their personality and cultural background. And I ask you, this is the Commission for Racial Equality we’re talking about, and they’re using the term ‘Gypsy’, presumably to refer to Romanis, for which Gypsy is generally considered a derogatory term nowadays. And, by the way, the Wikipedia listing for ‘Gypsy’ considers ‘Irish travellers’ to be a possible sub-category of Gypsy as opposed to Romani, which the CRE appears to assimilate to ‘Gypsy’! Doesn’t inspire confidence that they can get the relations between Britain and its constituent national tribes right!

As the above example of the Anglo-Scottish person demonstrates, this expanded list of ethnic categories and the way the form is designed not only makes White-British-English (the only guise under which you’re able to declare English ethnicity-nationality) appear to be a minority but also has the practical effect of reducing the number of respondents who will tick the England box. Some liberal-minded English folk, as another instance, might shy away from selecting a rather restrictive definition of Englishness and opt for the more ‘inclusive’ British. The positioning of ‘British’ on the form – the fact that it is listed as the primary sub-category of ‘White’ and the first one as you go down the list – naturally encourages people to select ‘British first’, leaving ‘English’ unselected, as you’re not supposed to tick both boxes. Scots and Welsh people, however, would be more inclined, and are often politically encouraged, to select ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ as opposed to British.

More insidiously still, if you look at this form (and I do invite you to hit the link), the sub-categories of ‘British’ (English, Scottish, Welsh and ‘Other, please write in’ (‘excludes NI’, as the small print on product labels often reads)) have less implied logical or proprietorial precedence than every other ethnic category: all the others (including Gypsy and Irish traveller) are listed on the same level – with the same degree of indenting – as ‘British’. So in fact, rather than there being 22 categories, there are really 18 categories and four sub-categories, one of which is the majority population of the UK: culturally English people.

I say ‘culturally’ here because it is as their ‘cultural background’ that this particular form invites respondents to view their ‘national’ identities (e.g. English, Welsh, etc.) as opposed to, or in conjunction with, their ethnic identities (White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Chinese or other). The 2005 consultation document on the 2011 census at least rectifies this implied relegation of Englishness to the status of sub-sub-category by putting it on the same level as all the other ethnic groupings; and it also corrects the ‘discriminatory’ use of lower-case adjectives for ‘non-properly-British’ ethnic groups. But there are still 20 categories to negotiate and they’re defined in ethnic terms, referred to as ‘single ethnic group categories’ – begging all the questions about the relations between ethnicity and nationality, the atomisation of Britishness, and the implied lack of pre-eminence accorded to Englishness – placing ‘English’ in a sort of minority of one out of 20 without any explicit privilege, although it’s still the first in the list. For reference, these 20 categories are as follows:

  1. White English (for Census returns in England)
  2. White Welsh (for Census returns in Wales)
  3. Other White British
  4. White Irish
  5. Other White background
  6. Mixed: White and Black Caribbean
  7. Mixed: White and Black African
  8. Mixed: White and Asian
  9. Mixed: Other Mixed background
  10. Indian
  11. Pakistani
  12. Bangladeshi
  13. Chinese
  14. Other Asian background
  15. Black Caribbean
  16. Black African
  17. Other Black background
  18. Arab
  19. Gypsy/Romany/Irish Traveller
  20. Other Ethnic Group

Alongside, and in addition to, these ‘single ethnic group categories’, the consultation asked for people’s reactions to an alternative / complementary set of ethnic categories referred to as ‘combined ethnic group categories’ – aggregates of the above, as follows:

  1. White (categories 1 to 4)
  2. Mixed (categories 5 to 9) [er, isn't No. 5 'Other White background? ED]
  3. Asian or Asian British (categories 10 to 14) [well, at least the Chinese are now accorded Asian British status - ED]
  4. Black or Black British (categories 15 to 17)
  5. Other ethnic groups (categories 18 to 20)

The point of all this is to demonstrate the extent to which British and English identity and ethnicity has become such a (very English?) muddle. In our (English) efforts to bend over backwards and be inclusive and accommodating to the sensitivities of every other ethnic group, and to be non-discriminatory, we’ve ended up being not only unable to define what constitutes British nationality and a justifiable claim to UK residence and even citizenship; but also we’ve ended up denying any sort of privileged or even just clearly defined status to English people as (still) the majority ethnic-national grouping within Britain. And we’ve done this in the name of a trans-ethnic, trans-national ideal of Britain.

How can this be redressed? It’s a complex problem, so the answer will not be simple. But one way to at least begin to work ourselves out of the conceptual muddle would be to define national identity (while fully separate political structures still do not exist) in cultural rather than ethnic terms; and then to have the ethnic categories as secondary, qualifying descriptions. This would clearly separate out the national and ethnic terms that have become so ambiguously and insidiously mixed up; and it would enable the majority population (the English) to declare themselves as such.

So, for instance, if I was putting together a form of this sort, I would have cultural / national identities first, and list ‘ethnic’ identities second. The cultural / national list would ask people to specify what they regarded as their primary cultural identity (referred to below as ‘preferred cultural identity’), e.g. do they feel more English than Scottish (if they are of mixed parentage), or more or less English than Caribbean (if they are a first-, second- or subsequent-generation person from that ethnic background). The list might read:

  1. English
  2. Scottish
  3. Welsh
  4. Northern Irish
  5. Cornish
  6. Irish (Republic)
  7. Other European
  8. Combination of any of No.’s 1 to 7 above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  9. African
  10. Caribbean
  11. Chinese / Hong Kong
  12. Jewish
  13. Subcontinental Asian [this category could be broken down into three (Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani) if the organisation soliciting the information had a justifiable need to quantify the different subcontinental Asian populations, e.g. typically, in a census or NHS form!]
  14. Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any, or any combination, of No.s 1 to 8, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  15. Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any other of No.’s 9 to 13, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
  16. Any other culture (please specify)
  17. Any combination of No. 16 with any other named culture above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)

The list of ethnic groupings could then be left very simple, e.g.:

  1. White / European / Caucasian
  2. Black / African / Caribbean
  3. Asian
  4. Any combination of the above (please specify)
  5. Other (please specify)

This way of doing things would have numerous benefits. For a start, it would enable people of whatever race who identify as English (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish) to state this with pride and confidence. It would also enable persons of mixed heritage (both mixed-race and descendants of immigrants) to affirm both parts of their identity in a way that more accurately reflects their subjective feelings and identifications. For instance, the grandchild of an immigrant from Nigeria whose parents were also of the same ethnic background could declare themself to be both English (culturally and nationally) and African (ethnically) – without the national and ethnic categories being mixed up in a manner that forces that individual to class themselves as something (e.g. Black British African) that makes them feel and appear not to be fully accepted as English.

If you’ve stayed with me on this mini-journey and read my previous post, you’ll remember that in the 2001 Census-based NHS form, I ticked myself as ‘Other white background’ even though (in fact, because) I’m of ‘mixed’ English, Welsh and Irish descent. On a form such as the one I’m advocating, I could select my actual cultural / national identification (English) without having to quibble; but if I wanted to declare my ‘mixed’ cultural background, I could do so, too. My mixed-race adopted sister, who’s as English as I am, could also select English as the national / cultural identity and No. 4 on the ethnic list (any combination of the above) without feeling she had to classify herself as anything by implication ‘less than’ properly English or British as she would have to do in the 2001 Census, e.g. White & Black African.

However, this list or one based on similar principles is unlikely to be adopted any time soon, as it gives precedence to English national and ethnic identity over British. Better, in the eyes of the powers that be, to have a total muddle over national identity in the name of an all-inclusive Britishness than to promote a clearly and non-discriminatorily defined – and proudly asserted – Englishness.

15 July 2007

British Ethnicity

Dicey subject, this! The reason I bring it up, apart from enjoying a bit of controversy (!), is that I was filling in a medical form earlier this evening, which asked you to state which ethnic group you belonged to. The options were as follows:




White British

White & Black African

Asian or Asian British Pakistani

Black or Black British African

White Irish

White & Asian

Asian or Asian British Bangladeshi

Other Black background

Other white background

Other mixed background

Other Asian background

Chinese

White & Black Caribbean

Asian or Asian British Indian

Black or Black British Caribbean

Any other ethnic group

I entered, ‘Other white background’, even though someone of my background would be expected to declare ‘white British’. My reason for doing this wasn’t an English-nationalist protest about being made to refer to myself as British rather than English, although it does seem – or could be construed as – discriminatory that someone of an Irish background is allowed to specify Irishness as part of their ethnicity while someone of an English background is not allowed to declare their Englishness.

The problem, rather, is the fact of using the word ‘British’ to denote ethnicity at all. Firstly, if there is such a thing as a ‘white-British’ ethnic group as distinct from a ‘white-Irish’ group – which is disputable, to say the least – then my own ethnicity could not really be encompassed by either but would have to be described as ‘white British & white Irish’, on the analogy of the mixed-race groups such as ‘white & black African’. This is because I had an Irish grandmother on my father’s side, and my father has joint-British and -Irish nationality, which makes me ‘mixed-race’, or ‘of mixed background’ in the terms of the form.

Secondly, ‘British’ is being used inconsistently as a signifier of ethnicity on the form. In relation to the use of the term ‘white British’ – ignoring the politically-correct addition of ‘white Irish’ for the moment – it is reasonable to suppose that it implies that there is such a thing as a distinct, white ethnic group that you might call ‘indigenous or native Britons’. This implication is further supported by the use of the option ‘other white background’, which is clearly not intended to be used in the contrary way that I did but must refer to the general category of ‘white-European’ (as opposed to ‘white British’), encompassing anything from Scandinavians to Mediterraneans and Turks. When crossing the box for that category, I wondered in fact whether I would be assumed to be originally or ancestrally from France or Eastern Europe, for instance, even if I was a British national.

And this is the point: shouldn’t the British option have read, ‘white or white British European’ if it was going to be consistent with categories such as ‘black or black British Caribbean’ and ‘Asian or Asian British Pakistani’? The first term (‘black’) in the string ‘black British Caribbean’ is the real signifier of ethnicity (as is ‘white’ and ‘Asian’); the third term (‘Caribbean’ or ‘Pakistani’) denotes the region or country from where that ethnicity originates, as related to the individual concerned.

However, ‘British’ for the Black Caribbean or the Asian Pakistani is merely an optional extra designating national identity rather than ethnicity. It is being assumed that someone ticking such a box might say, ‘yes, I’m black and of Caribbean descent but I’m really British, too’ – but you can decide to waive the British bit and it won’t affect your ethnicity. The white person of British descent, on the other hand, has no choice but to accept ‘British’ as the designator both of their nationality and ethnicity: I’m not an ethnically white person of European heritage who chooses to call myself British (and am in fact a British national) but I’m ethnically British as well.

Does it matter that some UK citizens can effectively choose to have three ethnic-national identities while others are only allowed one? The Asian person in the above example is able to define themselves as (ethnically) Asian / (nationally) British / of Pakistani (family) background. The white-British person, on the other hand, is considered to be only British in all three respects.

This does matter, for a number of reasons. First, it’s rather disingenuous. You could view forms like this as having little to do with ethnicity. In reality, they’re a coded way to gather cultural information about the patient, such as religious affiliation (if they’re an ‘Asian British Bangladeshi’ or an ‘Asian British Pakistani’, for instance); and also to elicit census-type information enabling statisticians to track things like the distribution of immigrant-origin communities, their health problems and their use of public services.

Second, it’s not what you’d call conducive to cultural and national integration if ‘Britishness’ for some races (and it’s explicitly framed in ethnic terms by such forms) is a kind of optional extra that you can choose to take on, if you wish, while holding on to an ‘ethnic’ identity (a more profound identification) that actually ties you not just to a different race but to a different nation (e.g. Pakistan, India or China on this form).

Third, it is in fact rather discriminatory if ‘British’ is an optional extra for people of non-British family origin but not optional for people of British descent. Such people might, for example, wish to adopt a different designator of national identity to ‘British’ while retaining ‘British’, ‘white’, ‘European’ or something else entirely as the descriptor of their ethnicity. So, for instance, why can’t someone describe themself as ‘white English British’, if it’s legitimate for others now to call themselves ‘white Irish’ or ‘Asian Pakistani’ while at the same time being British nationals? ‘White English’ would not necessarily need to be a reinvention of the intrinsic linkage that my NHS form appeared to be making between the ‘white race’ and Britishness; but the ‘English’ could stand for the idea of the individual’s family’s country of origin (their ‘background’), which they could choose either to associate with or uncouple from Britishness in a national sense.

Official forms like this do not allow any separation between British statehood and English, Scottish or Welsh nationality and identity defined in a more personal, familial and cultural way; but they will allow a separation of that sort for ‘other races’. In this, for all its politically-correct contortions, my NHS form is quite racist: it implies that to be a truly British person, you can only be ‘white-British’. Any other use of the British tag by people of other ethnic origins is a sort of value-added extra and as it were a metaphorical national Britishness, which can never be on a par with ‘authentic’ British ethnicity that is automatic and not an option for the persons concerned.

In this, we have an illustration of the fallaciousness of Britology, which attempts to establish a core, timeless Britishness. In this instance, it’s identified with race. But there is no such thing as a British race that all who trace their family origins in Britain are obliged to adhere to. Britishness is a label we can reject and, by doing so, usher in a more open, diverse nation in which ethnically ‘British’, ethnically black and ethnically Asian people are all equally entitled and welcome to be called English.

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