Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

19 December 2009

Starting action against the ONS regarding the 2011 Census

I’ve now enquired of the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the best course of action to take regarding what I consider to be the racially discriminatory aspects of the national-identity and ethnic-group questions in the 2011 Census for England and Wales (see last post). This was following a reply from the ONS to my previous email to them. This is the text of the ONS’s response:

“Dear Mr Rickard

Thank you for your further email of 6 December regarding classification of
an ‘English’ identity in the 2011 Census. As you will be aware a question
on national identity and a question on ethnic group is to be included in
the census. Whilst these are two separate questions on the questionnaire
they are designed so that the resulting data could be combined to give
exactly the kind of detailed breakdown of ethnicity that you describe.
Rather than have a huge ethnic group question that would include separate
options for ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Northern Irish’ etc repeated
under each of the ethnic group categories (‘White’, ‘Asian’, ‘Black’ etc),
it was decided to split the question into two to make it more
understandable for the public and easier to complete.

In this way people who feel that their ethnicity/identity is ‘White
English’, ‘Black English’, ‘Asian Welsh’, ‘Chinese Scottish’ etc; will be
able to record this directly by using the national identity and the ethnic
group questions and be classified as such in the resulting statistical
outputs. Therefore, for instance people who report that they are ‘English’
in the national identity question and ‘White’ in the ethnicity question
could therefore be classified as being of a ‘White English’ ethnic group.
The form of the output classifications will be decided in consultation with

ONS believe that this allows for a much more detailed breakdown of how
people view themselves in the eventual census data tables (should this
level of data be requested)

The Census (England and Wales) Order 2009, which sets out the question
topics to be asked in the 2011 Census has recently been approved by
Parliament, without amendment.

Yours sincerely

Helen Bray”

To which I’ve replied in the following terms:

“Dear Ms Bray,

Thank you very much for your reply to my previous email and for your further explanation of the thinking behind the national-identity and ethnic-group categories in the Census for 2011.
I feel, however, that you have not addressed my three main points:
  1. that non-white people are not treated equally with respect to recognition of their English (or Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish) ethnicity
  2. that white people are not treated equally with respect to recognition of ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘N. Irish’ as distinct ethnic-group categories that are as valid as the sub-categories for the non-white ethnic groups
  3. and that, overall, the form is racially discriminatory in that it assumes the existence of two forms of Britishness: a racial-ethnic Britishness reserved for whites only and a national Britishness available to non-whites alongside whites.
I do not accept your argument that the ability for respondents to break down their national identity by English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or British allows them to specify their ethnic group in relation to the same national categories. This is clearly a logically flawed statement unless the national-identity and ethnic-group categories are so fluid as to be epistemologically useless. In the case of someone ticking the ‘English’ box under national identity and the ‘White – English / Welsh / Scottish / N. Irish / British’ box under ethnic group, no objective inference can be made that they either belong or see themselves as belonging to any white-English ethnic group. And indeed, you yourself say that the outputs from these two questions will be translated into ‘statistics’ about ethnic-group identity only on the basis of user requirements that they be interpreted in this way, not on the basis of any objective analysis.
I also do not accept your contention that by listing separate ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Northern Irish’ and ‘British’ sub-categories applying to each of the primary ethnic-group headings, the form would become too unwieldy and complicated. This is purely a matter of form design. It would be very simple to just separate out the question into two parts: one dealing with ‘race’ (e.g. White, Mixed, Asian, Black, Other) and one with ethnic group (English, Welsh, Scottish, N. Irish, British, Indian, Pakistani, etc.). This would make a correct distinction between race and ethnic group, which are currently muddied by the form in ways that are racially discriminatory, as I’ve argued previously: Britishness being associated intrinsically with ethnic group in the case of white people (because ethnic group is being confused with the idea of a white-British race), whereas it is denied as an ethnic-group classification applicable to non-whites.
This sort of break-down would, in addition, truly fulfil the objective of producing an accurate statistical picture of how people view themselves in national, racial and ethnic terms. Take your example of a Welsh Asian person. Let’s say that person views themselves as Welsh in terms of national identity and in terms of their ethnic group, on the basis that they were born and brought up in Wales, and see their culture and social group as Welsh. Your form forces such a person to declare a non-Welsh ethnic-group identity that is a sub-category of Asian, such as Indian, Pakistani, etc. This may be entirely alien to the way that person views themselves and imposes a sort of ethnic-racial segregation of the population that runs counter to the goal of an ethnically integrated society.
If what you are really trying to canvass in the ethnic-group question is something that could be described as ‘family history / cultural background’ (including history of immigration), then you should perhaps indicate this explicitly. Otherwise, the form appears to violate the equality, dignity and human rights of British citizens by imposing on them ethnic classifications that treat them differently purely on the basis of race and migration, rather than respecting how they see themselves or are seen by others.
As for your indication that Parliament has now approved the form, this has no bearing on the charge of racial discrimination. Parliament has arguably lost much of its moral authority in recent times, and the UK Parliament is not a representative democratic body for England, unlike the Scottish Parliament, which has backed a Census form that does allow white and non-white Scots to refer to their ethnic group as Scottish. It does not come as any surprise that the UK Parliament should have approved a Census form, supposedly for England, that does not recognise the existence of an English ethnic group – open to those of all racial backgrounds – when the same Parliament and government have consistently sought to suppress any notion of English nationhood in virtually all their actions and legislation.
For the above reasons, I consider that there is still a case of racial discrimination to be answered, and I intend to take this forward in some form, whether through the EHRC or another channel.
Yours sincerely,
David Rickard”

I’ll keep you posted about further developments.

6 December 2009

Correspondence with the ONS on the 2011 Census for England and Wales

Further to my previous post on this topic, I received the following reply to my complaint alleging racial discrimination in the way the national-identity and ethnic-group categories are structured in the proposed 2011 Census form for England and Wales:

I have now replied in the following terms:

6 December 2009

Your ref. TO 09 103

Dear Ms Bray,

Thank you for your letter of 4 November 2009, in response to my earlier email drawing the attention of the ONS to my concerns about the national-identity and ethnic-group questions on the proposed 2011 Census form for England and Wales.

I am sorry it’s taken me so long to reply: I’ve been preoccupied with other work and personal matters.

I appreciate your setting out of the ONS’s position and note your points. I do, however, continue to think that the national-identity and ethnic-group questions are discriminatory in two main ways:

  1. Non-white ethnic groups are not treated equally to the white-British ethnic group, in that there is no official acknowledgement – as reflected in the ethnic-group categories used in the form – that they might wish to refer to their ethnicity as ‘English’ (or Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish) instead of, or in addition to, ‘British’. There are no categories such as ‘Asian English’ or ‘Black English’, only ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’. This makes English by implication a purely white-racial ethnicity that is not to be officially ascribed to non-white persons. This is quite racist, in my view.
  2. The white-British ethnic group is not treated equally to non-white ethnic groups, in that the form makes it admissible for non-white ethnic groups to break down their ethnicity into major regional or national sub-categories (e.g. Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi; or African and Caribbean) but does not regard it as admissible in the same way for white-British people to specify English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish separately. If non-white groups were treated in the same way, this would be like saying to them that they had to treat ‘Asian’ or ‘Black’ as a single category (albeit one that subsumed the respective sub-categories) without separate tick boxes for those sub-categories.

I expect you might respond by saying there is no actual ‘white-British’ ethnic group in the form, which actually reads ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’ as a sub-category of ‘White’. But this does equate to a white-British ethnic group, by virtue of not separating out the constituent parts of Britain, and by differentiating between UK and non-UK white groups. As you yourself write: “there was not a strong need expressed to identify separate components of the ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’ tick box of the ethnic group question since such a breakdown is offered in the national identity component of the question in England and Wales”. But national identity is not at all the same thing as ethnic group. What you are effectively saying is that, for official purposes, it is irrelevant (or merely ‘subjective’, as you say elsewhere) if a white respondent regards their ethnic group as ‘English’. Officially, whatever that person thinks, they will be treated as ethnically British; and the only official recognition that is given to that person’s Englishness is as a national, not ethnic, identity.

Summarising my two points above, the two ways in which the form is discriminatory and even borderline racist are:

  • ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ are white-only ethnic terms – not officially accorded to non-white persons: this discriminates against non-white persons
  • At the same time, ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ are not officially allowable as stand-alone ethnic groups, but may be treated separately only if considered as national identities: this is discriminatory towards white-British persons and is tantamount to a sort of whitewashing and censorship of their ethnic identity.

I suppose another argument that you might bring forward at this point is that the mere fact that there is not a tick box for a given category does not prevent individuals from writing it in. That is true; but the very fact that there are no tick boxes for certain options results from choices driven by administrative and political considerations. And these choices can be seen to be a manifestation of racial discrimination and ethnic-identity politics whenever there is no objective, rational or scientific basis for ascribing certain national and / or ethnic designations to one racial group in society while denying it to others. Why shouldn’t black or Asian people be encouraged to think of themselves as English as well as British? Why should white-English people be denied official recognition of their Englishness as an ethnicity while officialdom does recognise separate Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnic groups? After all, these latter are national terms, in the first instance (like English, Scottish, etc.), rather than ethnic; but they’re treated as valid ethnic-group categories, while English, Scottish, etc. are not.

Damagingly, the form is also racist in a more all-embracing and subtle way: it makes Britishness more fundamentally a property of racially white persons than non-white persons. This is how:

  • ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish’ are applied to white persons only
  • In addition, ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish’ stand in a privileged relationship to ‘British’: they are treated as sub-categories, or ‘components’ (to use your word), of the white-British ethnic group within which they are subsumed – making them effectively interchangeable with ‘British’
  • As a consequence, ‘British’, too, is implicitly regarded as more properly applicable to white persons
  • This is manifested in the fact that ‘British’ (i.e. ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’) is a sub-category of ‘white’, whereas it is not allowed to be a sub-category of the Asian, black or mixed categories. If ‘British’ were genuinely an ethnic-group term, not a white-racial term, then there should be no problem in listing it, with a tick box, on the same level as ‘Indian’, ‘Pakistani’, etc. or as ‘African’, ‘Caribbean’, etc. In this way, you could describe yourself, for instance, an ‘ethnically British’ (or, indeed, English etc.) and racially Asian or black person at one and the same time.

    Adding ‘British’ to the generic terms used in the form for non-white ethnic groups (e.g. ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’ ) makes ‘British’ a designator neither of such persons’ race nor of their ethnic group. The form does not postulate anything such as a ‘Black British race’ or an ‘Asian British race’, and the term ‘British’ here is used merely to signify national identity; e.g. ‘Asian British’ means a ‘British-identifying, racially Asian person of the Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi / etc. ethnic group’.

  • Ultimately, then, non-white British persons are denied a fully British-ethnic identity, equal to that of white-British persons, because British ethnicity is implicitly derived from the white race. And, at the same time, the white-British race is identified with the terms ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’, which are also seen in purely racial terms and are denied to non-white people.

To summarise the above arguments: by denying non-white persons official recognition as English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish, they are also excluded from British identity on equal terms to white-British persons. This is because the British-ethnic identity is ultimately still seen as rooted in the white-race-only indigenous national-ethnic groups of the UK.

Perhaps this is the fundamental reason why ‘ethnically British’ persons are discouraged by the form from thinking of their ethnic group as ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, etc. The fear perhaps is that if people are given official ‘permission’ to think of themselves as ethnically English, they will construe this in purely racial terms, rather than in a civic or cultural sense. But these racial assumptions are in fact those of the Census form itself. This sees Englishness (and the identities of the other UK nations), and the British ethnicity of which Englishness is regarded as an integral part, in purely racial terms. And because of this, non-white British persons are regarded as British only in respect of their national identity and nationality (citizenship), not their ethnicity.

By negating the idea of whites and non-whites meeting on a common ground of Englishness – English culture, English civic society and English ethnicity – the form drives a wedge between the different ethnic groups of England, making even the ideal of a shared Britishness elusive: the Britishness of white-English persons being racial-ethnic as well as national, while that of non-whites living in England is that of British nationals only.

In view of the above points, I still consider that there could be a case for racial discrimination and racism to be examined by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. However, I would still be interested in your response to my points before I submit a claim to the EHRC.

Yours sincerely,

David Rickard

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.

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