Why national identity matters

Posted on 3 December 2013

2014 will be the Year of Identity, argues Sunder Katwala, Director of British Futur,e in his Ralph Miliband memorial lecture at the London School of Economics. Addressing the theme ‘Is there a progressive case for national identity?’, Katwala looked at how identity will help to shape key choices about the future of the United Kingdom, Britain’s place in Europe, identity and immigration. Below is the full text of his lecture.

National identity: can there be a progressive patriotism?

Thank you for inviting me to the LSE to give this lecture tonight, on the subject of national identity, as part of your series of lectures in memory of Ralph Miliband.

When I agreed to give this talk this summer, I had no idea that this would be a year in which Ralph Miliband’s own patriotism would be both aggressively questioned, and then robustly defended.  This was Ralph Miliband’s adopted country. Britain gave him sanctuary when he needed refuge from fascism, and he served in the Royal Navy as part of the effort which defeated Hitler. He was certainly a man very much of the left, indeed a thinker within a Marxist tradition, but he was also committed to intellectual freedom behind the iron curtain just as he was to it here, at home, in a London

Sunder Katwala delivering the Ralph Miliband Lecture

Sunder Katwala delivering the Ralph Miliband Lecture

School of Economics which he shared with Hayek and Popper. The general reaction to the row over the claim that he was ‘the man who hated Britain’ captured a healthy and rather British aversion to culture wars over political litmus tests of patriotism. (Perhaps, in hindsight, it may all have just been a cunning ploy to bring the Miliband brothers back together! Or maybe not). Anyway, I rather suspect just about everything that could be said about all of that has been said by now. Tonight, I want to cast forward to what next year will tell us about national identity.

2014 will be the year of identity. Indeed, it will be the year of national identities in our multi-national state of Britain today.

On 1st January, Romanian and Bulgarian workers join those from 25 other countries with the right to work across the European Union. As Britain opens our borders, there does not seem to be much public demand for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to be played at Victoria Coach station. The Prime Minister’s view is that “free movement needs to be less free,” a view which the other party leaders seem, broadly, to share.

In May, 375 million of us across Europe can go to the polls to elect the European Parliament, and more than a third of us will probably take up the offer. Those European elections will, once again, in reality be 27 different elections, fought by national parties, mostly on national issues, in each EU member state. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has already boasted that he expects his party to top the poll in Britain, campaigning under the banner of restoring UK national sovereignty by leaving the European Union.

In June, England’s football team play in the football World Cup. They will be the only one of 32 footballing nations to take the field in Brazil which does not have a state to its name.

In July, Glasgow will welcome more than 50 nations to participate in the Commonwealth Games, a sporting event reflecting the fraternal, voluntary cooperation of countries which were once part of the British Empire. Plus Mozambique and Rwanda, who seem to have decided to join as well, though they don’t share that historic link.

In August, the day after the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony, it will be exactly a century since Britain declared war on Germany and entered the first great global conflict, which did so much to shape the century which was to follow. Glasgow Cathedral will host the Queen and Commonwealth leaders to mark the centenary; the Prime Minister will join European leaders in a collective act of commemoration and reconciliation; and candles will be snuffed out at Westminster Abbey, and across the country, at 11pm, symbolising that moment when the lights went out across Europe.

Within six weeks, Scots will choose whether they want to remain within the United Kingdom or to strike out for independence. It could prove one of the most significant events in 300 years of British political history, and now dominates Scottish public life, though many people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are probably only vaguely aware that the vote is to take place.

Straight afterwards, at the final political conference season of this Parliament, party leaders will, in effect, be kicking off a long campaign to the 2015 General Election. How will they make sense of all of this identity talk? As they seek to navigate their way through the complexity, I expect we will hear them seek to compete, again, for the mantle of being ‘One Nation’ leaders.

A personal journey through national identity

So 2014 will be a year when we do think and talk about national identity. Before I explore the argument that this doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter, and that we should focus on more important topics, let me tell you something about how national identity came to matter to me.

Any national identity might draw from millions of individual experiences. Let me tell you something about my personal journey into national identity.

If you want to start at the beginning, I was born in a hospital in Doncaster, on the first of April 1974.

So I was born British, a couple of weeks after my Dad’s thirtieth birthday. Three decades earlier, he had been born some four thousand miles away, in Baroda, India, in the state of Gujarat, about seventy miles from the Ahmedabad birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.

Yet the funny thing is that Dad had been born British too. It was 1944: still three years before Gandhi’s cause of Indian independence was to prevail. He was born a subject of the British Empire, at a time when 2.5 million Indians were taking part in the military effort to defeat fascism.

Dad became an Indian citizen between his third and fourth birthday, and he’s become British again since.

It was in 1968 that he took a plane from India to Heathrow. He was 24.  He had completed his medical training, and spent a summer working as a doctor on the Indian Railways, and came here to work for the NHS.

He arrived at Heathrow on the Whitsun bank holiday in 1968, precisely a fortnight after a speech had been given in a Birmingham hotel, which would resonate down the decades.

Perhaps that ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech may not have been immediately as widely reported in India as Enoch Powell might have hoped. By 1968, Powell’s central argument was no longer about curbing immigration. There were one-and-a-quarter million Commonwealth immigrants already here when my Dad arrived. For Powell, the focus needed to shift to persuading as many of them as possible to return. Here, Enoch had an unusual ally, in this specific case: my grandfather, also called Sunder. For he came to England to persuade my Dad that he should return home. He went as far as to put a fairly generous repatriation package on the table. He could help my Dad set up a local surgery to practice as a doctor – and he was ready to arrange a marriage for him too.

"Nigel Farage expects to top the poll in Britain, campaigning under the banner of restoring UK national sovereignty by leaving the European Union." Photo: rockcohen

“Nigel Farage expects to top the poll in Britain, campaigning under the banner of restoring UK national sovereignty by leaving the European Union.” Photo: rockcohen

Dad had decided to make his own choices. He had met my mother, who hailed from County Cork in the south of Ireland. One thing I can tell you about Cork is that it definitely wasn’t British – anymore. By the time she was born there in the ‘forties, the Irish Republic having been proclaimed a generation before. Though the funny thing is that Mum didn’t need or have a passport to take the ferry from Cork to Holyhead, before she took a bus south to Portsmouth, to begin her training as a nurse.  ‘I suppose you’re coming here as an immigrant’, she was asked, as the ticket guard looked at her one-way ticket. Mum has never become a British citizen, actually, though that hasn’t stopped her voting in fifteen general elections since then. Yet British law somehow never quite wanted to treat the Irish in Britain as we would other foreigners, even though Ireland was never, regrettably, to join the Commonwealth.

So it was that my parents met in a Surrey hospital, just outside London, a few years before I was born. It was only many years later that I realised that my national identity had been a subject of fierce public dispute before I was even born.

If you happened to be British-born, and the child of migrants to Britain, it would be quite hard not to take Enoch’s infamous speech at least a little personally. It was a speech about my national identity, its difficulty, in all probability its impossibility, and the devastating social consequences which would follow from that.

Or, as he put it, “Sometimes people point to the increasing proportion of immigrant offspring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate solution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law, he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact, he is a West Indian or an Asian still. He will by the very nature of things have lost one country without gaining another, lost one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded – to the benefit of nobody – in reproducing ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’ the haunting tragedy of the United States”.

Hence, it was Enoch’s fervent wish that I might never be born. He feared that would be one more stick on the funeral pyre of British identity.

Yet 1968 was not the only time that Enoch and my Dad’s paths had not quite crossed. Enoch himself had also been in India when my Dad was born in 1944. While he was there, he penned perhaps the most intriguing sentence ever conjured up by the complex contradictions of his great yet deeply troubled mind. What Enoch wrote to his parents was this:  ”I felt as Indian as I did British.”

I had never felt that myself, but then I’d never spent nearly so long in India as Powell did. He only ever wanted to be Viceroy of India. He never quite recovered from what his biographer called the ‘spiritual amputation’ of Indian independence.

Fortunately for me, nobody had told my eight-year-old self that there was any question of whether I could be English. The only really pressing national question that I was aware of, aged eight, was whether Kevin Keegan could get fit in time for the World Cup. But what had seemed straightforward when I was eight did seem a bit more complicated by the time I was eighteen.  But I came to think of mine as a very British identity. With Indian and Irish parents, was I ever going to be anything else? It was hardly a matter of random coincidence that I came to be British rather than Belgian. If I was a child of Empire, post-war immigration and the NHS, could you get more British than that?

Not everybody I met in the school playground agreed. Back then, the question of whether you could be black and British, or Asian and British, was still being sorted out. Few people today can remember why that seemed so difficult a question.  Popular culture had by the 1990s, as Paul Gilroy was to argue, put plenty of black in the Union Jack.

Enoch was wrong. But he was right about his numbers. “Four million of them”, he had warned, by the end of the century. By the time that it happened, we were talking about four million of us, including two million of us born in Britain to parents who came here from elsewhere. Anxieties about the scale and pace of immigration certainly remain, but the foundational question of who counts as equally British was decisively resolved. Enoch’s Tory successor as the MP for Wolverhampton, Paul Uppal, was able to speak recently in the House of Commons of the pride that he takes, as a Sikh and British Asian, in both the Wolverhampton and the Sikh contributions which will be marked during next year’s first world war centenary commemoration. Indeed, one in three of the Team GB medals at London 2012 reflected the contribution of three generations of immigration and integration into British society.

I suppose those personal experiences, growing up, affected how I think today about why national identity matters.

National identity definitely mattered to me. Perhaps because it is more important to stake a claim to an identity if it is challenged and contested, in the playground, as much as by speeches from decades before. That might explain why academic surveys consistently show that those from minority backgrounds are just that little bit prouder to be British than the average.

We do need to secure the foundations of a shared identity in a diverse society. If we are interested in integration, then national identity has to be open, on terms of equal citizenship, to those who want to integrate. And that means that we all need to decide collectively what demands can legitimately be made of each of us as part of the common citizenship we need in a liberal society.

We do need to understand how our identities are shaped by Britain’s history. The history of any nation is complex and often contested. But we should never shy away from that if we want to understand how we became the society that we now are.
 
The trouble with national identity

Another view might be that all of this just demonstrates the trouble with national identity. It is both personal and public. If it can be deeply emotive, it can be potentially polarising. Does its power to include ultimately depend on those it excludes? Can there ever be a meaningful “us” which doesn’t depend on not being “them”? Might we not be better off without it entirely?

Tonight, I want to make three arguments why I don’t think we would be.

-Firstly, identity and nationhood do matter to people. Predictions that national identity would wither away have been consistently disappointed. It may matter more, rather than less, in our age of individualism and globalisation.

– Secondly, I want to note out the value of national identity for those pursuing liberal and internationalist causes.

– Thirdly, I want to say that there are limits to the idea of a “progressive patriotism” – and say why I don’t think its goal should be to try to define national identity entirely on its own, progressive political terms.

The case against national identity

Let’s look at the case against national identity. There has always been a utopian argument for a borderless, nationless world. You can find it in Thomas More’s Utopia. You can find it in John Lennon’s Imagine too.

“Imagine there’s no country. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to die or fight for. And no religion too.”

If you were to stop and try, it can be quite a bit harder than John Lennon suggested.

Since the LSE is a pretty cosmopolitan place, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to bump into a Martian sociologist, Professor Zog, perhaps on a visiting fellowship to research a new edition of his intergalactic blockbuster: ‘Earthlings and their Ways’ (I hear he is outselling Anthony Giddens around the solar system).  Our visiting Martian might quickly discover the popularity of football, during next summer’s World Cup. Now, as Professor Zog has a brain the size of a planet, he would quickly work the game out. Even the offside rule. But one thing puzzles him. While 7 or 8 million people will sit down and watch the games, that always doubles to 15 million or more whenever the team in white shirts play. Yet even Professor Zog can see that you don’t have to be watching the games for very long to work out that the team in white shirts are not nearly as good as the teams who play in yellow and in red. Slightly fewer people in this country watched the last World Cup final as sat through England’s 0-0 draw with Algeria. What explains that is national identity.

So Professor Zog doesn’t think he is going to be able to endorse the John Lennon vision when he writes his chapter on national identity and the earthlings. Why, if national identity is just an optional extra, aren’t there some societies that have done away with it? What would be the basis for government and democratic politics if there were no such thing as national identity?  We can’t in truth, imagine ourselves without national identity.

Still, there are two common arguments against national identity, though they are perhaps somewhat in tension with each other. The first is that national identity is irrational and meaningless; that it deifies a mere accident of birth, so that any form of patriotism is a form of irrationality that we ought to grow out of, and evolve beyond. The alternative (and perhaps more plausible) critique agrees on the irrationality, but not the meaninglessness. Rather, the problem here is that national identity is all too dangerously meaningful, that flags, anthems and national pride must lead to xenophobia and hatred, jingoism and war.

The core proof of the “meaningless” argument is usually said to be the inability to define any unique characteristics of the national identity in question.  It is quite true that nobody has any precise, concise three-word unifying and exclusive definition of what it means to be British, or indeed English, Scottish or Welsh, or French, Italian or Brazilian, come to mention it.

The mystery is why this is thought to prove that national identity either doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist, given that most of us evidently talk and act in the belief that it does.

To believe that this country has a distinctive sense of humour, which is something that most people do believe, does not mean that nobody else ever tells or gets a joke.

The demand that an identity depends on entirely unique characteristics is not one we would apply elsewhere. Could we, for example, talk about the London School of Economics having a distinctive ethos? Many students, staff and visitors may think it does. Many of you tonight could offer some ideas about its content. It would be very surprising if there were no overlap with the answers I might get from a similar audience at Oxford or Cambridge, Yale or Delhi, Edinburgh or King’s College, London. That would not prevent those who knew two or three of these institutions making distinctions between them which others would recognise. There is an ethic of service in both the NHS and the Army, with common and distinct features. Outsiders might well find the differences in ethos between the army, navy and air force narrower, and those between particular army regiments imperceptible. It would not be surprising to hear that these distinctions mattered rather more to those involved.

"2014 could have a decisive impact on reshaping our identities"

“2014 could have a decisive impact on reshaping our identities”


We inherit some identity commitments, and we choose others. Some have quite arbitrary origins, such as allegiances to a sporting team. Yet they can still provide meaningful lifelong allegiances because, in embracing them, we join communities of commitment and belonging, memory and allegiance. It would be a surprising idea that national identity cannot run more deeply than that.

The point of a national identity is not who can define it; it is who has a felt sense of belonging to it.

Of course, the national identities of democratic societies are going to overlap. Just about every liberal democracy is grappling with the challenge of how national identities, which were once largely ethnically defined, can become civic and inclusive while still retaining an authentic sense of belonging. But facing similar challenges do not make our distinct identities fake. Sometimes, different countries may sign up to the same international treaties of universal human rights, join the same multilateral clubs like the European Union, yet will still make distinct choices about important public issues.

Take Britain and France. Both are European societies of many faiths and none. Both talk about the value of secularism, but mean different things by it. Both make different choices about the role and limits of faith in the public sphere, whether that is about retaining an Established Church in Britain, or choosing to ban the burka in France. Both think of themselves as strongly committed to principles of anti-discrimination – yet again, take very different approaches to it. The British habit of collecting data on the outcomes for those from different ethnic backgrounds helps us to track progress on equal opportunity. For the French, collecting those statistics, acknowledging discrimination on racial grounds, would itself risk being a betrayal of a core Republican idea of equal citizenship.

The progressive case for national identity

So what do progressives think about national identity? Strangely, there can be a tendency to be in favour of national identity, as long as it is somebody else’s.

This was a point noted by George Orwell back in the 1940s. “It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would be more ashamed of being caught standing to attention during God Save The King than of stealing from a poor box,” he wrote. But that aversion to patriotism did not prevent an enthusiastic understanding of post-colonial identities of the newly independent post-war states. So the English left, said Orwell, risk being suckers for anybody’s patriotism but their own.

Perhaps today, closer to home, that may explain why England and Englishness are still the hole in the polo mint of our uneven devolution settlement. It is curious to find some on the English liberal-left who are casting an envious eye at Alex Salmond’s civic Scottishness, while feeling much more sceptical about the flag of St George.

My argument is that those committed to progressive ends – internationalism and social justice – will weaken these causes if they prove allergic to national identity, tending to see it as enemy territory, as irrational passions to be managed or at best assuaged, rather than seeking to turn these into resources for social and political change.

Firstly, as Michael Ignatieff wrote in his book Blood and Belonging, “cosmopolitanism is surely the privilege of those who can take a secure nation state for granted.”

Think also of how Martin Luther King did not, in his famous “I have a Dream” speech, focus on arguing that racism and segregation were wrong. He made a deep appeal to American values, to the Declaration of Independence, to the ‘promissory note’. The dilemma for his audience was that he was appealing to values and icons which were deeply resonant to them, not just from the Bible, but the secular scriptures of the founding fathers

This suggests to me that national identity has a power which is unlikely to be emulated or matched by any post-national cosmopolitan ‘Esperanto Progressivism’.

Those countries which do most in the world do not just commit to meeting development aid targets, or hosting Middle East peace summits, as citizens of the world. It also reflects a sense of national identity – what you might call the Borgen patriotism of Scandinavian countries.

But there is no point admiring the progressive use of patriotism by others if you cannot engage in the work of developing one of your own.

Britain has a proud tradition of this type of internationalism too. Indeed, this might be another progressive legacy of being a post-imperial country that has always, for good and bad, being globally engaged. That also explains why Britain is the birthplace of Amnesty International and, from Live Aid to Make Poverty History, has often led each new generation of international development campaigning.

The limits of ‘progressive patriotism’

So I would argue that progressives need to engage with patriotism, and might advance their own political causes by doing so, but I also think there are limits to the idea of a ‘progressive patriotism’.

The motivation is largely to help the liberals and the left engage with patriotism, and for some to reach beyond their comfort zone by doing so. But ‘progressive patriotism’ can remain something of a comfort blanket. It risks offering an analysis of the case for engaging with national identity, when national identity depends on a felt sense of belonging.

I also think ditching talk of ‘reclaiming the flag’ from extreme groups like the BNP or the EDL is long overdue, though this is regularly described as a core motivation for a ‘progressive patriotism’. It is good to oppose extremism and hate speech, but there is simply no need to attribute ownership of widely valued national symbols to extreme groups who have only ever had a tiny following and marginal presence.  Here ‘progressive patriots’ risk inadvertently pathologising everyday expressions of national identity.

One of the differences between liberal and authoritarian societies is that national identity in a liberal, plural and democratic society cannot belong to any one political tradition.  Though the motives of a  ‘progressive patriotism’ are inclusive, it risks offering too narrowly defined an account of national identity, appearing to suggest that patriotism is legitimate, under licence, on progressive terms.

To take one small example recently, in which Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, to challenge UKIP’s argument for pulling out of the European Union, said that this would be “a betrayal of the national interest and an unpatriotic approach.”

It is perfectly in order for Nick Clegg to argue that UKIP’s views would damage the national interest. But the opposing views about this are sincerely held. The accusation of being unpatriotic goes further: it is an accusation of bad faith.  Those who disagreed with the Daily Mail over Ralph Miliband being “the man who hated Britain” should disagree with Nick Clegg’s attack on of Nigel Farage’s patriotism too. We all have to accept that national identity is shared with those with whom we might disagree profoundly about political choices, and what is in our best national interests.

Perhaps Scotland’s referendum demonstrates a good model here, even when the issue at stake is the foundational one as to which political community Scots want to be part of. Most on both sides in the referendum can agree that this is an argument between patriotic Scots, who differ about what is in the best interests of their country. But they have agreed on how to settle the question: the legitimacy of a public referendum is not in doubt.

Might there be a lesson here for Britain’s deeply contested membership of the European Union? For half a century we have been torn, for reasons of interests and identity, about what we think Britain should do about our place in Europe. We chose to stay out at the start, then decided to join later, but have often tended to be semi-detached within the club. The question is coming back onto the agenda. Ultimately, successful British participation in the EU must depend on public consent. It is impossible to engage constructively in Europe without it. One day, in the next few years, this might be another foundational question of modern identity that all citizens are asked to settle and decide.

The year ahead

2014 could have a decisive impact on reshaping our identities. Alex Salmond will put the challenge that Britain, as a political union, belongs to the past. Nigel Farage will ask whether Britain is still Britain.  We will also hear competing arguments about different visions of national identity – as we argue about whether to end the UK or to mend it; how far British identity can accommodate a growing sense of Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish identity, or whether we have to choose between them; whether we would be better off out of the European club, or should stay in; when we want to welcome the positive contribution of immigration, and how far we want to restrict it to reduce the pace of change; how Britain should engage with intensified competition in a changing global economy, and what our foreign policy says about the role we want to play in the world.

All of these will be arguments about identity as well as interests. All of them involve choices. None of them can be settled by simple appeals to what the evidence proves. Trying to argue about and calculate what different choices might mean in pounds and pence will matter to the decisions that people want to make. But it will often be the case that the argument about what sort of country we think we are, and want to be in the future, will matter as much, and perhaps more. Questions of identity can sometimes trump economics too.

It could be a year of rupture, in which our identities fragment in the face of apparently existential challenges, but it could also prove to be one of adaptation.

The adaptability of British identity is easily underestimated.  Perhaps we too easily forget that, properly understood, it is not really a national identity but rather the civic identity of a multi-national state. What it means to be British has changed a great deal in a generation or two, in a powerful and positive way. British identity became decisively more plural over the last 25 years. One foundational question of who “we” are in a multi-faith and multi-ethnic society was decisively settled, more confidently than has been the case elsewhere in Europe. Since the 1990s, we have found considerably more public space for an increasingly confident modern Scottish and Welsh identity, though we have struggled to do anything similar to give Englishness a voice, or to turn the absence of conflict in Northern Ireland into a deeper engagement in the most divided part of Britain.

So this will clearly be a year when national identity will matter – when, in several important aspects, it will be up for grabs. Few of the outcomes of these debates are pre-determined – which is why anybody with an interest in which choices we make is likely to find themselves grappling with questions of identity. I want to see a British identity which shows that it has the capacity to adapt again, to give us the confidence that our democracy can address the anxieties that people feel today, about the pace of economic and cultural change, about how we manage immigration and promote integration, so that we do create a society that people want to share.

But, if I haven’t managed to persuade you tonight of the importance of grappling with questions of identity, I might leave you with one final, modest piece of advice. If you don’t want to think about national identity, you might find that you would enjoy next year more if you were to spend it somewhere else.

Thank you.

 

  • Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future. This is the text of the Ralph Miliband memorial lecture which he gave at the London School of Economics on Tuesday 3rd December 2014, on the theme ‘Is there a progressive case for national identity?’

Comment

 

  • Comment by Sadaqat Khan at 02:58 on 16.06.16

    I may be a bit late in commenting on this essay, lecture, I just read it today. I think it is a very thoughtful piece of work, much needed in these changed times. And it is also interesting that I’ve read it after the Scottish referendum has taken place, and the EU one comes next week. I don’t have a vote in either, but it doesn’t stop me thinking about these important concepts. Thanks for this.