Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

7 March 2011

White and English, but not white-English: how to deal with the discriminatory Census for England and Wales

In two weeks’ time, all UK citizens will be required in law to fill in the national Census. Except, as in so many of these matters, there isn’t a Census for the whole UK but separate Censuses for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not that you’d know this from the coverage in the England-based British media, though, which hasn’t drawn our attention to the fact that the Census, like so much of domestic policy, has been devolved.

In England and Wales, we’ll be expected to answer the following two questions on our national identity and ‘ethnic group’:

The only difference between England and Wales will be the order in which the options ‘English’ and ‘Welsh’ appear on the form, and the fact that a Welsh-language version is available in Wales.

In Scotland, the ethnic-group question runs as follows:

Spot the difference? In England and Wales, non-white ethnic groups, as such, are not offered the standard option of including ‘English’ as part of their ethnic group: they’re officially classified only as ‘Black British’, ‘Asian British’, etc., and not ‘Black English’ or ‘Asian English’. By contrast, black and Asian persons living in Scotland are permitted to identify as ‘Black Scottish’ and ‘Asian Scottish’.

Not only is the ethnicity of black and minority ethnic (BAME) persons in England and Wales not officially to be classified as ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’, but those latter terms are reserved as ethnic categories exclusively for white persons. I.e., according to British officialdom, if you’re ethnically English, you’re white. If that sounds a bit like the BNP, that’s because this is a form of – indeed, a form for – racial apartheid.

Now, of course, people filling in the form can write in ‘English’ as their ethnic group. But how many black or Asian respondents are seriously going to write in ‘English’ in the space left blank for ‘any other Black / African / Caribbean background’ or ‘any other Asian background’? Even if people from those population groups think of their culture as English, they’re not going to write ‘English’ in here because ‘English’ isn’t exactly an Afro-Caribbean or Asian ‘background’ as such; plus most form fillers will think that their English identity is adequately implied by the term ‘British’ included in the ethnic-group headings, especially if they’ve specified ‘English’ as their national identity in the previous question.

So the Census is going to come up with millions of non-white people who supposedly identify ethnically as ‘British’ rather than ‘English’. But this is totally meaningless because they weren’t even given the option of viewing themselves as English.

Meanwhile, if you are, as I am, white and English, the Census form leaves you no choice other than to accept that your ‘ethnic group’ is ‘white-English’. This hyphenated, racialised cultural identity is implied by the very fact that ‘English’ is a sub-category of ‘White’ alone. But I consider myself to be part of an English ethnic group – where ‘ethnic group’ implies culture – not a white-English sub-section of English / British society. I.e. my English ethnicity – culture – has nothing to do with the colour of my skin, and I don’t see myself as part of a culture associated only with one racial group. So what should I put down on the form here, and what should I write in?

Apart from its highly suspect racial-political bias against seeing English, as opposed to British, culture and identity as something multi-racial and multi-cultural, the problem is that the Census completely muddles up a number of distinct categories or types of national / cultural / ethnic identity. I would say there are four main forms of ‘national’ identity:

  • Citizenship / nationality (i.e. statehood): in this sense, I personally am British
  • Social identity: I identify as English and am seen by everyone who meets me as English because I sound, look and behave in typically English ways, and because my relationships, economic activities and engagement in society as a public space are shaped by the structures and institutions of English society (e.g. the English class system, the English as opposed to British public sector, the opportunities and limitations of the economy of southern England, etc.). My national identity is, therefore, English because I’ve been thoroughly socialised as English, and my life is shaped by English social norms and institutions
  • Cultural / ethnic-group identity: here again, I’m English, if ‘ethnic group’ refers primarily to culture. Culture is about how we express ourselves in terms of collective, national rituals, traditions, customs and ways of life, as well as through creativity and the arts. My culture is distinctly English, although I recognise there is a great deal of continuity and overlap between that Englishness and the other national cultures of the UK
  • Race / kinship: so here, I’m white and arguably white-British in the sense that all the ancestors I know of came from different parts of the British Isles, including what is now the Republic of Ireland. So perhaps I should tick both the ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / N. Irish / British’ and the ‘Irish’ boxes? Except the form doesn’t allow you to do so, exercising its own special form of ethnic apartheid again, separating the ‘British’ from the ‘non-British’ white populations. Goodness, even if I could enumerate the full set of my ancestors’ countries of origin – which I can’t – I couldn’t possibly say with any degree of scientific certainty what precise mix of British racial-ethnic-genetic antecedents I embody. I’d just rather call myself ‘white’ and have an end of it; but the form wants me to see myself as white-something, and effectively as either white-British or white-Irish. And if you do write in ‘English’, they’ll have you down as some sort of racial extremist: insisting on specifying ‘English’ in particular, as opposed to lumping ‘English’ in with all the other British-racial categories.

What a load of absurd and politically manipulated nonsense this all is! I’d have nothing to do with it if the law didn’t insist I went along with it. The Census’s national-identity question arguably implies all four types of identity I’ve enumerated here, so I could reply alternately British, English, Irish and even Welsh (given my Welsh maternal family), and all four would be correct on one level but wouldn’t reflect how I really feel, which is English. And the ethnic-group question egregiously conflates cultural and racial identity, and disallows ‘English’ as a term that applies to all racial groups, which is in fact how I view the term.

So how am I actually going to answer? ‘English’, obviously, as far as national identity is concerned. Many of my fellow countrymen will also tick ‘British’, partly because the question also implies the other main type of national identity: citizenship. So again, the Census will generate some marvellous stats about how the majority of English people also or exclusively identify as British; but the data will be completely useless because the Census is so inexplicit about how these terms for national identity are to be understood.

And as for ‘ethnic group’, I’m just going to tick White and then write in ‘White’. If they want to know about race, then fine: I’m happy to be seen as white. But I won’t be pigeonholed as ‘white-English’, still less as someone who insists on a white-English racial identity. My ethnicity is English, not my white skin colour. (Well, OK, that’s English too, on one level: not a pretty sight on a foreign beach!)

Clearly, other English people will have their own individual take on these things, and will have their own strategies for filling in, deflecting and subverting these injurious and biased questions about national and ethnic identity. And so the whole exercise will produce meaningless information, because it just doesn’t reflect the way English people – both white and non-white – now see themselves in terms of nationhood and culture. In truth, it’s more of a desperate last-ditched effort on the part of the Anglo-British establishment to mirror back to themselves a population that still views itself as British.

But like all statistical surveys, you get back pretty much what you put in. A load of rubbish in this instance.

24 October 2009

The 2011 Census And the Suppression Of English Identity

On Wednesday of this week, the Office for National Statistics (for England and Wales) published their final recommendations for the 2011 census questions, including those on national identity and ethnic group. I’ve written about these questions on three previous occasions (here, here and here). I don’t want to rehearse those long and complex arguments. However, I do want to voice a strong protest.

The proposed questions for England are essentially the same as those used for the trials in 2007, discussed in the last of the previous posts linked above. For reference, they are as follows:

National identity questions

Ethnic group

The essential point I want to make here is that these questions deny any status for ‘English’ (and ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’, for that matter) as objective, civic national identities at the same time as confining the use of ‘English’ as an objective term to the ‘white-British-racial’ portion of English society.

It does this by combining four distinct categorisations within the two headings it uses (national identity and ethnic group). These categories are:

  • nationality in the political sense (equated with citizenship)
  • national identity in the subjective, personal sense (in the way I and many others identify primarily as English, as opposed to British, which is my official nationality)
  • race
  • ethnic / cultural background and history.

The documents about the national-identity and ethnic-group questions released this week (linked above) explicitly acknowledge the fact that the two categorisations are framed in complementary terms: the available national-identity categories are ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British / Other’; and the first option in the ethnic-group categories is ‘White – English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’. The ethnic-group categories are supposed to be objective: the question is asked using the words, “What is your ethnic group?” [my emphasis]. This implies that ‘ethnic group’ is an unquestionable, objective fact that the respondent will have no problem in ascribing to themself. And the reason why the respondent will not object to these ethnic-group classifications (or, at least, the ONS hopes they will not object) is because they will have willingly expressed their ‘national identity’ in the same terms in the previous question.

By contrast, the ‘national identity’ question is subjective: “How would you describe your national identity?”. A white Englishman like me might come along and happily tick the ‘English’ box in the national-identity question and then go on to blithely to classify myself as ‘White – English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’ in the ethnic-group question because my Englishness (national identity), which I’m happy to affirm, appears to also be acknowledged as an integral part of my white ethnicity, and therefore I should have no problems with ticking that box. However, in so doing, what I’ve actually done is frame myself as only subjectively English (personal identity) but objectively white-British (race).

The ethnic-group categories borrow a spurious veneer of objectivity from being based on the first of the four categorisations listed above: political nationality / citizenship. For all the apparent concession of a distinct English (and, indeed, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish) ethnic group, these are all clearly sub-categories of ‘British’, which really designates political nationality not ethnicity. This is evident from the fact that the ethnic-group questions distinguish between ‘Northern Irish’ (paired with ‘British’ alongside the other UK nations / ethnic groups) and ‘Irish’. But this is a purely political distinction: are we really saying that there is a Northern Irish race or ethnic group distinct from the ‘Irish’ (i.e. Irish Republic) race / ethnicity? Clearly, that is ridiculous.

So these ‘ethnic-group’ categories are in fact based on formal nationality, and the ‘White – English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’ category really just means ‘white British’. But, while being endowed with an air of scientific objectivity by being assimilated to nationality, the ethnic-group classifications do double duty as designators of race. Five fundamental racial categories are offered: white / mixed race / Asian / black / other. Respondents are invited to ascribe one of these categories to themselves by virtue of identifying with the ethnic-group sub-categories, which are geo-political in nature: ‘objective’ by virtue of being based on terms designating official nationalities (i.e. nation-states) or regions – India, Pakistan, China, Africa, the Caribbean, etc. Note, however, that all of these sub-categories are at a higher level in the categorial hierarchy than ‘English’. I.e. if ‘English’ were an ethnic-group category that was truly equal and regarded as ‘objective’ in the same way as these other ethnic groups, then the ‘White’ ethnic-group list would read as follows:

A – White

– English

– Welsh

– Scottish

– Northern Irish

– British

– Irish [Republic]

– Gypsy or Irish Traveller

– Any other White background, write in

This would make ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, etc. ‘objective’ designators of ethnicity / race in the same way as ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistani’, as they would be at the same level as those terms in the hierarchy, as comparison with the Asian / Asian British ethnic-group section makes clear:

C – Asian / Asian British

– Indian

– Pakistani

– Bangladeshi

– Chinese

– Any other Asian background, write in

But instead of ‘English’ etc. being at the same level as ‘Indian’ etc., we have a category that effectively means ‘British’, as I’ve said: ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’. This ‘British’ term is a sub-category in section A of equivalent status to ‘Indian’ in section C; while ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ are effectively sub-categories of ‘British’. They’re analogous, in fact, to regions of India and Pakistan such as Kashmir, Punjab or Gujarat, some of which claim a nation status that is not recognised politically.

This inconsistency and inequality is put to the service of an insidious sleight of hand that relates to a problem in the system: ‘British’ is used at once as a nationality, a designator of race (as in the implied ‘White – British’ category) and a would-be unifying national identity for the whole English population, both white and non-white. The way this is worked out is as follows:

  • The status of ‘British’ as a racial category (i.e. white-British) is mediated and validated by its sub-categories: ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ are framed as exclusively ‘white’ identities; and as they are all effectively sub-categories of ‘British’, they make it possible to conceive of a white-British racial group
  • The identification of the ‘white-British’ population with ‘British’ as their national identity is mediated by articulating their ‘objective’ ethnic-group and ‘subjective’ national identities in the same terms, which are those of nationality: if we accept that we are objectively of the ‘British race’, then we might adopt ‘British’ as our national identity; whereas ‘British’, in a truly objective sense, only really designates our political nationality
  • But the implicit white-British category, despite being lower in the hierarchy than the top-level ethnic-group term ‘White’, also functions in the same way as the top-level categories C (Asian / British Asian) and D (Black / African / Caribbean / Black British): just as the multiple racial sub-categories English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish are resolved to a single ‘white-British’ race / ethnic group, so the racial sub-categories Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi etc. and Black / African / Caribbean etc. are resolved to overarching ‘Asian-British’ and ‘Black-British’ racial / ethnic groups
  • Finally, by applying ‘British’ to these supposedly objective, non-white
    racial categories (which are in reality based on nationalities and regional identities), Asian, Black and indeed ‘British-mixed-race’ people are encouraged to also adopt ‘British’ as their national identity.

In this way, ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic group’ are tight, mutually reinforcing categories in the census. As discussed above, selecting ‘English’ as one’s national identity encourages one to accept an ‘objective’ racial identity as white-British; and as both forms of identity are articulated in terms of British nationality, one might be inclined to favour the politico-racially objective term ‘British’ as the designator of one’s national identity over the more subjective ‘English’. Or alternatively, as an Asian person of Indian heritage, you can embrace that particular national identity as an integral part of your ethnic-group identity; and, in so doing, you also buy into a racial identity as ‘Asian’. But as that racial identity is also designated as ‘British Asian’, you are also invited to adopt ‘British’ as your national identity as a British citizen: again, this is Britishness founded on a politico-racial ‘objectivity’ that trumps the historic national identity of India or the alternative adoptive national identity of Englishness.

Hence, the census insidiously frames the national and ethnic identities of both white-British people and non-white-British people living in England in the mutually reinforcing ‘objective’ terms of nationality and race. And, in so doing, it deprives both whites and non-whites of the opportunity to affirm a different sort of Englishness: one based on ethnicity in the sense of cultural background rather than race. For a white English person wanting to affirm their Englishness as their culture, the census throws it back at them as a merely subjective national identity and as a sub-category of an exclusively white-British racial identity. In so doing, the census also denies non-white English people the chance to declare their adherence to English culture and identity: you can be only ‘British Asian’ or ‘Black British’, the census says, not ‘English-Pakistani’ (what a powerful pairing that could be!) or ‘Black English’.

In doing this, the census fundamentally betrays the true power of geographical designations of identity. Yes, India is a political state; and yes, ‘Indian’ is a convenient label to attach to a diverse mix of races and peoples living in that state. But more than that, India is a state of mind: a wonderfully rich, complex and historic culture. To be Indian is far more than to be merely the member of a supposedly homogeneous, objective Asian ‘race’ that can then be assimilated to a category in a British census and an all-embracing British national identity. Similarly, to be English is far more than merely the nostalgic whim of a white-British citizen holding on to a historic ethnic and national identity that has long since been superseded by that of Britain. England is an ancient nation and a complex civilisation, and not merely a sub-category of British nationality or the preserve of an anonymous white-British race. And, in particular, it’s an identity open to all who embrace it.

You can be English and Indian, English and Black, and even English and Scottish in the true, cultural sense of the terms. But not for the 2011 English census, for which there is no such thing as an objective, distinctive, English civic, or indeed ethnic, identity. For the census, only British nationality and ethnicity counts. But for us English as we ponder how to fill in the census, we’re left with no alternative than to think outside the British tick box.

10 January 2009

Lies, damn lies and censuses: nationality, national identity and ethnicity in the proposed 2011 UK censuses

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: there are lies, damn lies and statistics. And the 2011 census belongs, clearly, in the latter category. Or the 2011 censuses, rather; because, in the wake of devolution, there are now three censuses for the UK – or four, if you include the superficial differences, mostly relating to the sequence of the questions, between the forms that will be sent out to households in England and Wales.

The questions about ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic group’ in the proposed forms for England & Wales and Scotland respectively neatly illustrate how the way you gather statistics can pre-determine the answer you want, in the service of a political agenda; whether that agenda is to reinforce the cohesiveness of a British ‘national identity’ or to insidiously drive a wedge between the different national identities of the UK by defining them in ethnic terms.

First, the form for England and Wales. As reported by Toque, the 2011 census will ask people the following question about their ‘national identity’:

So far so good: very good, in fact. In contrast to the 2001 census, there are at least separate ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ tick boxes; and they’re not indented underneath the ‘British’ category (making ‘British’ the implied primary national identity for all UK citizens), as they were in an earlier proposal for the ethnic categories in the census (see my previous discussion). And you can also pick more than one of these national identities, if you so wish; e.g. English and British, Scottish and British, etc. However, Cornish nationalists will understandably decry the absence of a ‘Cornish’ check box. And there’s also still a big problem with this ‘national identity’ list when set against the ‘ethnic group’ question:

It’s undoubtedly a good thing that people aren’t asked to differentiate in ethnic terms between Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness and Britishness: there’s a single ‘white’ category for all white persons who have selected one or more of these terms as their national identity (-ies). However, this implicitly sets up a ‘white-British’ ethnic group (like the one used in the 2001 census), as all of these five ‘national identities’ are basically those of Britain / the UK. This white-British ethnicity is differentiated in the ethnic-group question from ‘white Irish’; in contrast to the 2001 form, which defined a single ‘white Irish’ ethnicity that could include people with political loyalties or affiliations to either Northern Ireland or the Republic. In other words, the form is making an ethnic distinction purely on the basis of a political division: between Britain / the UK (including Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland.

This definition of ethnic categories along the lines of state frontiers is completely inappropriate and unacceptable, politically and methodologically. In actual fact, this introduces into the census a third, unspoken type of ethnic / national categorisation – nationality – that is subtly different from ‘national identity’ but will inevitably skew the way respondents describe their national identity. White-British people are being forced by the form to define their ethnicity in relation to this third type of identity (nationality), i.e. their status as British citizens. If the form succeeds in getting English people to accept a definition of their ethnicity that is based on their nationality (i.e. ‘white-British’), then those same people are far more likely to tick the ‘British’ check box in the question on ‘national identity’ (No. 15 above), whether in addition to or instead of ‘English’.

In this way, the census manipulates the power of ethnic identity to reinforce a political identity: Britishness. In relation to all the ‘non-white-British’ ethnic categories, it also effectively biases people in favour of choosing ‘British’ as their ‘national identity’ by again using the political category ‘British’ as an ethnic identifier (e.g. in the top-level categories ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’). If, on the other hand, the terms ‘Asian English’ and ‘Black English’ were used alongside ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’, respondents selecting those ethnic groups would be far more likely to select ‘English’ as their national identities in addition to or instead of British. But if their very ethnicity is defined in relation to Britishness, this subliminally induces them to also pick an exclusively British national identity.

In the proposed Scottish census, by contrast, ethnically Asian and Black persons are allowed to view themselves ethnically as Scottish; i.e. the terms corresponding to the ethnic-group categories C and D in the England & Wales form shown above are ‘Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British’ and ‘African, Caribbean or Black’ – a heading that includes the sub-categories ‘African Scottish’, ‘Caribbean Scottish’ and ‘Black Scottish’ alongside ‘African British’, ‘Caribbean British’ and ‘Black British’. This is of course designed to produce the same effect as would the inclusion of the categories of ‘Asian English’ and ‘African English’ in the English census (or ‘Asian Welsh’ and ‘African Welsh’ in Wales): it encourages people of those ethnicities to indicate ‘Scottish’ as one of their ‘national identities’ or even their only one, especially as the ‘ethnic’ designator ‘Scottish’ precedes that of ‘British’ in each of these ethnic-group categories.

To this extent, the Scottish form works in a similar way to the English & Welsh one, although to politically diametrically opposed ends: it encourages people to identify ethnically as Scottish so that they will also select ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and perhaps their exclusive one. However, the Scottish census exploits ethnic identification in an even more pernicious way still. In contrast to the England & Wales form, the Scottish questionnaire explicitly separates out the terms ‘Scottish’, ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and ‘British’ as distinct ethnic categories, albeit only when identified with the white ethnic group, as illustrated below:

There are many things that could be said about these categories; but the most important point is the utterly insidious way that these ethnic categories are intended to influence the way people will fill in the checkboxes relating to ‘national identity’ (see below). If respondents are forced to define themselves ethnically as either Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish or British (when these are political and cultural identities, not ethnic), then this will inevitably induce more of those that choose ‘Scottish’ to select only ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and not Scottish and British. Here is the bit of the form relating to national identity:

Note the quite astonishing omission of ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and even ‘Irish’ as options for national identity, whereas these terms are options for ethnicity, a discrepancy that was reported on with some bemusement in Wednesday’s Wales Online. This seems to me to be a complete reversal of the correct way of looking at things: Welsh and (Northern) Irish, and Scottish and English for that matter, are properly to be seen as national and cultural identities, not ethnic ones.

What on earth is going on here? My interpretation is that the form is trying to foster an ‘ethnic-Scottish’ identity as the ‘primary’ national identity of Scottish people: one that takes precedence, precisely, over their British nationality. As people work their way through the form, they may well tick both ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ in question No. 14 above on national identity. Then, when they come to question 15 on ethnic group, they are forced to choose between Scottishness and Britishness, purely on supposedly ethnic grounds. Scottish people going through this process will then think to themselves: ‘well, am I more Scottish or more British in terms of my genealogy and family affiliations’, which is how people think of their ethnicity. And, of course, they’re much more likely to answer ‘Scottish’ if they’ve got Scottish family roots and have lived in Scotland all their lives; whereas ‘British’ is a merely political affiliation: nationality as opposed to this faux ethnicity. So, once they’ve decided to describe themselves officially as of Scottish ethnicity, then they are a) much more likely to go back and cross out ‘British’ as one of their national identities (or not select it at all if they fill in question 15 before question 14); and b) more importantly, they may henceforth come to see their national identity as Scottish in the first instance, as the form invites them to see this concept in relation to a spurious Scottish ethnicity rather than their British nationality.

So whereas the England & Wales form defines ethnicity along the lines of nationality to reinforce an acceptance of a British national identity on the part of English people, the Scottish form defines national identity along the lines of a concocted Scottish ethnicity in order to undermine Scottish people’s identification with their British nationality.

It’s hard to say which is worse. If anything, I think it’s the Scottish one, which uses a totally unjustifiable division of the UK along dubious ethnic lines in the service of a nationalist agenda. This is the kind of ethnic nationalism that undermines the cause of civic and multi-ethnic nationalism. But both approaches will inevitably generate misleading results designed to support the national-identity politics of the UK and Scottish governments respectively.

As I said: there are lies, damn Scottish lies and UK censuses.

24 July 2008

Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on social cohesion promotes ethnic marginalisation of the English

The left-wing think tank Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report this week on Immigration and Social Cohesion in the UK. This was widely heralded in English-nationalist circles as arguing against the government’s policies of trying to impose normative British values and identity on the English as a means to foster social cohesion and multi-ethnic integration.

The report does indeed refute this approach. As it says about its findings in the Executive Summary: “The dominant ‘consensualist’ sensibility informing current policies of social cohesion, with its implied argument that immigration threatens a shared national identity and its emphasis on identifying processes that can foster commonalities, is out of step with our findings”. In essence, the report regards what it terms ‘relational’ and ‘structural’ factors as being more significant determinants of social cohesion than an artificially imposed Britishness. ‘Relational’ factors are those affecting inter-community relations, inter-change and problem resolution; and ‘structural’ interventions involve measures to address social inequalities, and ensure adequate and fair access to public services, and to economic and educational opportunity, for all ethnic groups, including the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ group, i.e. the group classified in the 2001 census of England and Wales as ‘White British’.

The report is actually quite a long, detailed sociological study; and I must confess not to have read it in full. But I did look more closely at the parts where it attempts to get to grips with specifically English experiences of immigration and the challenges this poses to particular communities. Based on that, I would say there are two fundamental flaws in the report: 1) it fails to tackle the implications of the questions it raises concerning national identity and the varying attitudes towards Britishness in the different countries of the UK; 2) it ends up being primarily about social cohesion and immigration in England, and about how to re-engage the English in an ongoing British-national project in which Englishness is defined in ethnic rather than civic terms.

On the first issue, the report interestingly observes how ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ people in England have difficulty defining what Britishness means to them: it’s just ‘home’ and where they feel they belong, and is associated with values such as fairness and tolerance. This is what the authors of the report describe as “‘minus one ethnicity’. . . . the way predominant identities tend to be naturalised as unmarked and to define all other groups as ethnically marked and different”. This sounds like a general sociological concept that could in theory be applied to any country. In other words, majority-ethnic British people living in England would not think of themselves as just one British-ethnic group among many but would think of themselves as having a sort of zero ethnicity; meaning that only minority-ethnic groups would be classed as ‘ethnic’ – as indeed is the case in popular parlance. If this were a general principle, then in France, for instance, majority-ethnic French people would not think of themselves particularly as ethnically French but just as (nationally) French; while minority-ethnic groups would be designated in an ethnic way, as in fact they are; e.g. ‘maghrébin’ (Arabic-speaking North African), ‘africain’ (sub-Saharan African), etc.

But this analogy does not hold up. The difference is that the French unambiguously see themselves as French in a civic, national sense. While this is non-ethnic in principle, in practice it is also associated with precisely the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ population in France, and its long and proud history and culture. By contrast, the reason why the Rowntree Foundation report’s researchers encountered such fuzziness on the part of English respondents about their ‘White British’ ethnicity is because Britishness is also not a national identity with which majority-ethnic English people identify in an unambiguous and integral manner, as the French do with Frenchness. So what the report describes as a kind of ethnicity-neutral identity on the part of majority-ethnic people in England is in fact the well-known and oft-discussed syndrome of English people not having a secure sense of their national identity: merging it with Britishness at the same time as not feeling that Britishness as such entirely encapsulates who they are in ethnic-national terms; because, in fact, Britain may well be their civic nationality but not their national-ethnic identity, which is English. If the researchers had asked their interviewees about the meaning they attached to belonging to England, rather than belonging to Britain, they would undoubtedly have obtained a much more definite response along the lines of, ‘what do you mean? That’s a bit of a daft question, isn’t it? I am English, aren’t I; and England is my country’.

English people still feel that they ought to belong to Britain; but in reality, they often no longer do feel they belong to and in Britain: that who and what they are, ethnically and culturally, is no longer seamlessly mirrored in the state and society of the ‘Britain’ in which they live. So this is a case not so much of the ethnic neutrality of the dominant ethnic group but of the disconnect from the multi-ethnic (and hence ethnically neutral) ‘nation’ of Britain experienced by its largest national-ethnic group, the English.

The report goes on to observe that there were no such ambiguities towards Britishness on the part of the Scottish and Northern Irish research subjects. As they say: “In Scotland, the issue of belonging to Britain was seen as irrelevant for most people, who would rather relate to Scotland or not relate to any national affiliation at all”. Well, precisely: in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been a much more sustained, historical dissociation between the national identity and the civic British nation state, perceived as the English state. But then this makes it clear that the reason why ‘belonging to Scotland’ is so uncomplicated for the Scots is because Scotland is simply their nation; whereas ‘belonging to Britain’ cannot fail to be a complicated matter for the English because Britain is not their nation other than in the ambiguous sense whereby the English have tended to conflate the nation England with the civic state Britain.

But this disparity between the English, on the one hand, and the Scots and Northern Irish on the other (the report doesn’t research any communities in Wales) is based on an inconsistency in the report’s approach that goes right to the heart of its failure as a prescription for Britain as a whole, rather than just England. By the report’s own admission, as in the quote in the paragraph above, both Scotland and Britain are national affiliations, not ethnic ones: Scotland being an ethnic-cultural nation like England, and now well on its way to being a civic nation, or nation state; and Britain being merely a civic nation which, as the report says, the Scots would increasingly rather not relate, and indeed belong, to at all.

But this gives the lie to the report’s use of Britishness (as in the ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ or ‘White British’ group) as a unified ethnic designation for all the indigenous peoples of the UK, with which English people’s non-identification is somehow a sign that they are the predominant ethnic group. On the contrary, the Scots do not identify with Britishness either; and the reason why they don’t is because they identify, in ethnic-national terms, as Scottish, just as the English more strongly identify as English than British in this ethnic-national sense.

And, incidentally, this strong Scottish national identity also becomes implicitly an ethnic identity in the sense that, insofar as the Scots identify with any ethnic classification, the report makes it clear that this is Scottish not British; and, indeed, it talks of the difficulties that Scotland has had in integrating the ‘other’ ethnic groups that have immigrated into Scotland in unprecedented numbers under New Labour.

In other words, Scottishness serves as an ethnic term, both in the report and in Scottish society. But the report itself glosses over the awkward questions this might raise in relation to its overall objective, which is basically to foster multi-ethnic cohesion within ‘Britain as a whole’. To throw the idea of distinct Scottish, Irish and Welsh ethnic as well as national identities into the discussion would really muddle things up; and, in any case, the report seeks to mitigate the importance of ethnic distinctions in favour of a progressive, economically redistributive and multi-cultural approach to social cohesion.

But in order to do this, it has to deny the validity of any idea on the part of the English that the new multi-ethnic civic society that is to be nurtured might actually go by the name of England rather than Britain. As was discussed above, it first tries to do this by making out that English people’s non-identification of themselves as (ethnically) British is because, in fact, they are the dominant British ethnic group. In other words, designations such as ‘long-term settled majority ethnic’ and ‘White British’ are really the most accurate and appropriate terms with which to categorise English people (English people, note, not Scots whose ethnic non-identification with Britain is said to have a different basis), even though – or perhaps, precisely because – they don’t know it:

“much of the professional and political rhetoric about multiculturalism did not recognise the white population as constituted ethnically. In other words, the term ‘white’ was stripped of ethnic content. For example, a survey of the Irish in England in the mid-1990s found that a majority thought they were a minority ethnic group but a large minority did not think they could be because they were white . . . . This assumed homogeneity of the white population reinforced the idea that ethnicity was the property of historical immigrations and not of the majority ethnic group, the English/British”.

In other words, the majority ethnic group – clearly identified here as in reality white English people – are designated as ‘English/British’: the same as the ‘White British’ category used in the 2001 census, which merges Englishness indistinctly into Britishness – but from which Irishness (‘White Irish’ in the census) and, by implication, Scottishness (effectively seen by the report as another minority-ethnic group within England-Britain, of equivalent status to Ireland in that respect) are distinct categories.

So the English really are majority-White-British, from the perspective of the ethnic mapping of the UK which the report subscribes to. But, by virtue of distinguishing this English-British ethnicity from the ‘minority’ Irish and Scottish ethnic identities, Englishness is curiously reinstated towards the end of the report as a distinct ethnic identity. And this is put to the service of the second way in which the report evades the possibility of any civic English nation and identity: Englishness becomes only one (albeit the majority) ethnic identity among the many identities of multi-ethnic Britain. As the report states: “the framework of social cohesion can offer Englishness the possibility of decentring itself from its condition of invisibility and predominance, and presenting itself to itself and to other groups as a specific ethnic group, with a specific history, values, expectations and affiliation to the national project”.

Note that it’s now Englishness that is said to have remained hitherto invisible as an ethnic identity owing to the very ‘predominance’ of the native-English ethnic group within Britain; whereas, earlier in the report, it was said to be the ethnic Britishness of the English that was blurred and indistinct in many English people’s minds. Having now changed tack and established Englishness as a distinct ethnicity, the purpose of such a move becomes clear in the above quote: if English people can come to see themselves as just one among many ethnic groups within Britain, they will relinquish their claims to pre-eminence or ‘ownership’ of the nation and, at the same time, recover a renewed sense of belonging to Britain and of ‘affiliation to the national project‘ – i.e. of re-engagement with the very British national project and affiliations which Scottish and Irish people no longer feel nor are expected to feel. (Note the use of the word ‘affiliation’, which was the very word used about Scotland’s disengagement from Britain in the quote about Scotland earlier on.)

In this sense, the report partakes of what I have previously described as the ‘ethnic marginalisation’ of England. If you categorise Englishness and the English as an ethnicity rather than as a nation, this enables you to deny the ‘sovereign right’ of the English to form themselves as a nation – whether as an independent state or a self-governing nation within a larger state. The report seems to say, ‘Why should one ethnic group among many deny to all the other ethnic groups of Britain the British identity and citizenship of which – as the report describes – they are so proud?’ But this view relies on marginalising the English as just an ethnic group and not as what it is: a historic nation. Seen from this latter perspective, it is indeed the right of the English to determine their form of governance and civic nationhood. And this is only a problem for England’s ethnic minorities if you do indeed define the English only in ethnic terms: as the dominant ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you define as English all British citizens living in England who do not actually see themselves as ‘foreign’ nationals (including Irish and Scottish), then they should all have a say in England’s political and constitutional future.

In conclusion, the Rowntree Foundation report disagrees that imposing an artificial and monolithic Britishness onto the ethnically diverse population of Britain will foster social cohesion. But it equally regards the resurgence of a strong and distinct English national identity as a threat to harmonious multi-cultural co-existence and the more equitable society it seeks to promote. So it endeavours to deny English national identity in contradictory ways that manifest the underlying political motivation: English people ‘really’ see themselves as, well, just British in a hazy, ill-defined way that reveals them as the dominant White-British ethnic group. No distinct, cohesive English national identity therefore presently exists, in contrast to the more nationally assertive Scots and Northern Irish. But – in deference to the feelings of many of their English respondents’ sense that the needs and rights of the English people have been neglected by New Labour – English people can be allowed to take pride in their Englishness; but only as one among many ethnicities engaged in forging the new Britain.

But what if the Scots’, Irish and Welsh reassertion of their distinct national identities does lead them to depart from Britain? Will England still have to be called Britain out of respect for the British identities and sensibilities of minority-ethnic groups? Will English people still not be able to call their state by their own name, even when the geographical territory of that state is limited to England?

This is absurd. True social cohesion and multi-ethnic integration in England – let’s call it that, if that’s what we’re talking about – will come about only when English people have a nation to which they truly feel they belong, and which belongs to them – and belongs to all the ethnic minorities that have made it their home, too.

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


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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