Saturday, 1 October 2011

Being British, Matthew d'Ancona (ed.)

This is an anthology of pieces reflecting on modern British identity.  It was originally conceived as a contribution to the debate on Britishness initiated by Gordon Brown (who wrote the Foreword).  A project like this could very easily degenerate into a banal celebration of what the writers conceive to be British values and history, but it is a more substantial little volume than that.

There are 35 different contributions from Brits from all backgrounds and political alignments.  The result is that the book offers a plurality of voices, forming a sometimes harmonious and occasionally discordant chorus.

There are relatively straightforward political pieces from Douglas Murray on the right and John Kampfer on the left.  There is a witty contribution by the writer John O'Farrell.  The unionist academic Prof. Paul Bew has a chapter about Britain and Ireland, and the constitutional expert Prof. Anthony King offers some thoughtful reflections from his perspective as a Canadian émigré.  Piers Morgan's entry is quite entertaining.  Alex James of Blur has a endearing chapter on the countryside which has nothing to do with Britishness but is fun to read.  Best of all, there is nothing at all from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.  The least attractive contribution is a tedious and tone-deaf piece by Michael Gove in which the strange little man has a go at Gordon Brown and the EU.  The quintessentially New Labour contribution of Michael Wills, then a underling at the Ministry of Justice, is fairly unimpressive too.

Some of the most interesting contributions come from members of immigrant communities.  There is a self-consciously patriotic chapter by Muhammad Abdul Bari, the incumbent secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain.  The community worker Raja Miah writes that white Brits from the political right are too insistent on Muslims integrating into British society without really understanding the barriers that they face - but he equally worries that figures in his own community are equating integration with "selling out" and teaching Muslim children a regressive anti-British narrative.  The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, reminds us of how quickly and thoroughly British Jews assimilated into the cultural mainstream, at the price of the extinction of the Yiddish language.

The philosopher John Gray compares the United Kingdom to a miniature version of the Habsburg Empire - a collection of territories and peoples assembled over the course of history and united under a royal house and a loose identity ("British") which falls short of a nationality.  Gray goes on to draw comparisons with Canada and Spain, two other multinational states which have managed to survive as free and more-or-less stable societies, in spite of the best efforts of General Franco and the Bloc Québecois.  The result is that British identity is not coterminous with membership of a specific ethnic group or religious sect.  Archbishop Rowan Williams, whose prose is as harmlessly donnish as ever, adds the point that the winners in every round of civil strife and war have had to share the same small island with the losers after their victory (although Ireland problematises this idea somewhat).

It may be as well to close with some words from the Anglo-Jewish businessman Sir Victor Blank.  He had this to say, taking as his point of departure a friend's ceremony of admission to citizenship:
As my friend filed in for his citizenship rite, the local clerk politely handed him the lyrics to "God Save the Queen", only to assure him with a pat on the shoulder: "Don't worry.  You don't have to sing if you don't want to."

It was, I suppose, a reflection of the diffidence, the sense of apology, the reluctance to engage in any public display of national affection beyond the football terraces, that is also part of our national character.  But while I recognise that it is unfashionable to cite the example of our cousins across the Atlantic with anything short of a sneer, an American-style sense of shared national narrative would go a long way towards reinforcing the cement of "belonging" on which a sustainable definition of Britishness will depend.

Singing "God Save the Queen" does not preclude republican sentiments any more than voicing pride in our armed forces need forestall debate on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, or prevent us from speaking out over our shameful failure to act more assertively to confront outrages like the situation in Darfur or Robert Mugabe's assault on his own people in Zimbabwe.  Celebrating the achievements of the British Empire in our state schools need not blind students to the injustices sometimes committed in its name.  Teaching Shakespeare and Rushdie, Darwin and Hobbes, Thatcher and Blair, need not trample on anyone's religious beliefs or political sensibilities....

We Brits, they will say, don't do national narrative.  We let it take care of itself.  We don't do national pride.  It's undignified, cheesy.

The fact is, we can no longer afford not to.
This perhaps puts it a little too strongly, but Blank has a point.  The days when everyone knew what Britishness and British citizenship entailed because they came from the same white Christian monoculture are long gone.  So, for that matter, are the days when multiculturalism enjoyed uncritical acceptance among liberal opinion formers.  It remains to be seen whether our society is capable of constructing and maintaining a pluralistic and inclusive brand of Britishness without playing into the hands of petty Eurosceptics or the BNP.