7 January 2012

Let this be the year we decide we are proud of our society

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By Sunder Katwala

This is a year when Britain will want to tell a story to the world. The message that we want to project overseas must depend on what we want to say to ourselves, too, about who we are, what we stand for, and what we feel about how we have changed.

These are anxious times when it comes to identity questions. As Alex Salmond prepares for a Scottish vote on independence, will we still be British in five years’ time? When will the English find their voice? With the government struggling to reduce net migration, will calls to cap the population grow? The British Future/Observer State of the Nation poll captures all of these anxieties. There is a sober awareness of the perils facing British and European economies, the dangers of a lost generation if young graduates can’t find jobs, and potential pressures on public services from both austerity and immigration. But we remain quietly hopeful about our families and the places we live – and most people are looking forward to some Olympic golds and a bit of royal bunting, too, to lift the spirits.

This could be the year that we decide that we are proud of the society that we have become. This poll suggests a confidence in being able to combine the modern and the traditional. At the millennium, the failure of the Dome was its mistaken idea that Britain would be more confident about its future by drawing a line under our history. The result was contentless and empty. So we should celebrate Shakespeare and Dickens as we remember that these Olympics are being held in London, not Paris, because Seb Coe and east London’s teenagers captured the Games with their vision of modern British pride.

The Queen’s diamond jubilee will spark reflections not just on the service of the monarch, but on how the past six decades have changed Britain, for better and worse. We may watch Downton Abbey, but we do not want to live in it, yet the question of whether we are more classless than six decades ago divides people. Our poll also finds that ethnic minorities feel just a little more proud to be British than white Brits, and immigrants most optimistic about the future. That could be good news for integration, as long as we pay more attention to those who fear being left behind.

We have finally seen some justice for the Lawrence family. We saw the broadest campaign for British justice that we have ever seen. Who would have imagined an alliance stretching from the radical black left and anti-racist movement, through New Labour ministers to the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, whose brilliant campaign made the legal establishment take notice? The lesson is that we brought about change, not by competing over whose grievances really matter, so again we need to give greater voice to all.

The poll captures the need to take integration seriously, to ensure that we do not segregate our children into mono-ethnic schools in diverse towns. Yet the poll also hits Norman Tebbit’s cricket test for six. That will boost the argument of Tory modernisers such as Sayeeda Warsi that that argument’s time has passed. It’s good news, too, for my dad, who came here from India in 1968: he need no longer fear failing a loyalty test. It may even console him for Sachin Tendulkar’s collapsing form, which required much tact on my part when I took him to the Oval last summer.

But I still hope that other British-born children of immigrants will mostly choose to cheer for us, with a soft spot for their parents’ birthplace, too.

A confident democracy should always debate the most difficult questions openly. But that can take the form of a conversation, and not always a shouting match. Only a miserabilist minority believe Britain is going to hell in a handcart, but few would claim that little needs to change.

We are launching British Future to explore how we extend confidence in modern Britain to those who do not feel it, to help ensure no difficult issue is kept off limits, and to challenge people to work together – on issues of identity and integration, migration and opportunity – to create workable solutions and a future that people want to share. As we seek to create an identity and society we can all share, 2012 feels like a good moment to begin.

This article was originally published in The Observer. View it here.

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