Britain is a fairer and less racist country than it was when Stephen Lawrence was murdered 20 years ago. But there is good sense, too, in the public wariness of over-claiming how much has changed, says Sunder Katwala.
Tag Archive for national identity
Danny Boyle has tapped straight into the heart of the national psyche, and what makes Britain distinct, with his colourful countryside concept of the Olympic opening. British Future polling shows that across Britain, not just in England as some sceptics argue, there is immense pride in our green pleasant lands, from the Lake District, to Snowdonia and the Highlands.
The upsurge in belief in an English identity over the past five years is not the threat to modern Britain that many English believe it to be, says British Future director Sunder Katwala in a new interview.
Sunder Katwala argues that the population has a strong sense of what they are proud of, but also more needs to be done to extend our pride in our flags and the modern, inclusive Britain they represent.
Channel 4's Make Bradford British defied the expectations and took risks to explore how we want to live together or apart, but left Sunder Katwala feeling more hopeful about a Britain that we want to share.
So, why dotdotdot? Dotdotdot picks up the ellipses in the British Future logo. What I hope those dots are saying is that our future is unwritten, that it is up to us to shape it, and that we want to extend an invitation to you to join our conversation about how we could choose to shape it together.
Who are we, the British, today? How well do we understand the history which has made us the society we have become? How confident are we that we want to create a shared future together, asks Sunder Katwala.
Britain has had several major identity debates at once. Perhaps we have been having an extended identity crisis as, across the post-war decades, the focus of our ‘state of the nation’ conversation has frequently shifted from one identity anxiety to another.
The question of whether post-imperial Britain would find a new role seemed the central question in the 1950s, while the issue, arising from post-war immigration, of whether a multi-ethnic society was either possible or desirable was most sharply contested in the 1960s.
The British joined Europe in the 1970s, and then voted to stay in, though anxieties about this reluctant Europeanism, and whether it is compatible with national sovereignty and identity have persisted since, while the 1980s were dominated by a concerted effort to reverse not just relative economic decline, but geopolitical and national psychological decline too. The 1990s saw a major constitutional upheaval reshape relationships between Britain’s four nations, with the quest for a peace settlement in Northern Ireland, and the debate about whether devolution to Scotland and Wales would save the Union or, ultimately, end it.
The world since 2001 saw sharp controversies over security and liberty at home, as well as Britain’s transatlantic links and global role. Long-running debates about multiculturalism, and about how the role of religion was changing in a multi-faith and increasingly secular society, were understandably sharpened, with a particular, and at times exclusive, on the role of Islam and Muslims. Meanwhile, arguments about opportunity and fairness continued to resonate – on issues from immigration to welfare – and inequality at the top was put back on the public agenda by the great financial crash of 2008.
Any of these issues can be debated practically, in terms of the costs and benefits of different options and choices. But what often gives life and feeling to public arguments about these issues is that they all also involve questions of identity – about what the choices we make say about the type of society we are, and the values we want to uphold. And we have probably done too little to join the dots between these different identity anxieties – and to examine how they each offer a different lens on the challenge of deciding the content of an inclusive citizenship and the common bonds that bind a society together.
Every democratic society in this global era is now talking about who “we” now are. Each must seek to secure confidence in an authentic sense of belonging which is inclusive of all of its citizens. That will be hardest where the identities which underpin citizenship are understood, in popular sentiment if not in law, as having a primary or significant ethnic basis, so that it will always be descent, ethnicity or faith that matters most. “Blood and soil” national identities will need…Who are we, the British, today? How well do we understand the history which has made us the society we have become? How confident are we that we want to create a shared future together, asks Sunder Katwala. Britain has had several major identity debates at once. Perhaps we have been having an extended identity
For Stanley Baldwin, Conservative prime minister of the 1920s and 1930s, Englishness was a sensibility, writes Anthony Painter.
Its essence was a series of sights and sounds:
“the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been in England since England was a land … the one eternal sight of England.”
It is a beautifully constructed political speech. Unfortunately, it describes an England that no longer exists: there is no longer a tinkle of the hammer on the anvil; we don’t hear the scythe on the whetstone; the corncrake is on the RSPB’s red alert list, occasionally glimpsed only in western Scotland and Ireland; and the plough team is now mechanised – not so eternal after all (and already a very partial view of England in Baldwin’s day). As evocative as Baldwin’s speech was, it describes an England that we can only now access through the words and art of the past.
When Englishness assumes a monocultural form, when it is idealised and amplified, tightly defined and dissected, it quickly slips from grasp. Soon after, there is little option but to pursue an elegiac course and inevitably declare its death.
Thus Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has declared England dead – what else is there to do? His England includes parlour songs, the Saturday-night dance, the bandstand, and so on. And yes, those cultural forms and institutions have almost entirely gone. Sir Roy Strong, in an iconographic account of England, locates Englishness – as an ideal – in rural traditions exemplified by landscape and social order. With breath-taking and unjustified boldness, he argues that this is the England we went to wars for: ‘They did not fight for Manchester or Birmingham but for the likes of Chipping Camden and Lavenham’.
England currently faces threats to its economic, cultural, and constitutional order both within and beyond its borders. Scottish nationalism is ascendant and independence cannot be ruled out. British nationhood is being distorted by constitutional change in the EU. Aggressive and violent forms of English nationalism are asserting themselves to a troubling degree. It’s hardly surprising that while Britishness has assumed pluralistic and inclusive form, Englishness has become a toxic dumping site for chauvinism and exclusivity.
The degree to which it is able to confront these threats will depend on a new political settlement and a more honest and inclusive national dialogue. There isn’t a single view of England. It will be a many-faceted thing: different in Yorkshire to Great Yarmouth, Camden to Chipping Camden, Leicester to Lavenham. And yet, Englishness does have meaning beyond just birthplace and waving a flag, supporting a sports team, and the bulldog icon. There are predominant traits. There is shared history and culture. An English political community does exist even if it doesn’t have its own formal institutions. It has an overlap with Britishness but many of…For Stanley Baldwin, Conservative prime minister of the 1920s and 1930s, Englishness was a sensibility, writes Anthony Painter. Its essence was a series of sights and sounds: “the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the