Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

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