5 May 2023

‘My very British patriotism’

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In this extract from his new book 'How to be a patriot,' British Future's Director Sunder Katwala describes his own journey to feeling positive about Britain and patriotic about our shared society.

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Steve Ballinger
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“But where are you really from?” Some people find this a clumsy question, if asked in the wrong way, too insistently, or just that little bit too often over the years. Speaking for myself, I have never especially minded being asked it – as long as you could spare the time to listen to a slightly complicated answer.

I was born British. That’s the easy bit. An indisputable fact on my birth certificate. Doncaster, Yorkshire, England, Great Britain. My birth-right claim to this great country of ours.

My name might make it fairly obvious that I might be a bit Indian too – if not quite obvious enough for those whose playground use of the p-word betrayed a shaky grasp of South Asian geography. Yet I felt at least as Irish as I was Indian, if a little less obviously, since I was brought up as an Irish Catholic, with a mother from County Cork.

I certainly grew up northern, at first. Being born in Doncaster made me eligible to play cricket for Yorkshire under their old county-nativist rules, before they changed them in the 1990s for Sachin Tendulkar and Michael Vaughan. I was never that likely to get the call myself.

Having left Yorkshire at an early age, I identified rather more as Scouse. But was I really a proper Scouser? I had begun a lifelong relationship with Everton Football Club by the age of five, but living in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, on the Wirral, across the other side of the Mersey, I would probably have been called a ‘woollyback’ in Liverpool proper.

Moving south with my Scouse accent – to Essex – when I was 12 certainly strengthened my sense of identification as a northerner at first, though that changed as my accent softened, as if my voice was gradually drifting southwards over the years.

“Mixed” sounded like a useful label for me. I could happily identify with that. Mixed race, for sure, but hopefully not too mixed up about how to put all of this together. I guess it would be fair to assume that I grew up with some identity issues to work through. National identity seemed naively straightforward at first. I watched the World Cups and the Olympics, supporting my country, without knowing any reaason why anybody might ever question why I thought any of that had anything to do with people like me.

My teenage self naturally became more aware that these questions of identity, belonging and race could be pretty fiercely contested. I guess it would have been unlikely, with a back-story like mine, not to develop some kind of interest in history. That looked like it might provide some of the keys for explaining how I came to be me -and it turned out to offer some broader insights into how we, the British today, came to be us too.

Eventually, I came to understand that mine was a very British identity indeed.

After all, my Dad may have been born four thousand miles away, in Gujarat in India, not far from the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. Yet he had been born a British subject too. He did become a citizen of the new Indian Republic, between his third and fourth birthdays, but he was to become British once again several decades later. As a citizen of the Commonwealth, he could, as a newly qualified doctor, take a plane to Heathrow to look for work in the NHS. It was 1968 – the week after Enoch Powell made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech asking him not to come, or to go back home if he did. His own father was an ally of Enoch in this respect, offering to support him to set up a medical practice if he came back home, with plans to arrange his marriage too.

But Dad stayed. He had met my Mum who was certainly not born British, in County Cork in the 1940s. Yet, as an Irish citizen, she did not need any passport, permit or visa to take the ferry from Cork to Holyhead, before taking a coach onwards to Portsmouth, to begin her training to be a nurse. “So, are you coming as an immigrant then?”, the ticket inspector asked her, on seeing that she had a one-way ticket. Half a century later, Mum has still never become British. A few years ago she took to flying an irish tricolour, from a flagpole, in her garden in Essex. That was intended – and apparently received – as a friendly riposte to a neighbour’s Cross of St George. Her strong sense of being Irish has not prevented her from voting in every General Election for decades. Ireland may have been independent for a century, but we have never treated it, in law, as just another foreign country.

The more that I thought about the whole complex history of India, Ireland and Britain, one simple truth became obvious: I could only really be British.It was not exactly a coincidence, the son of an Indian doctor and an Irish nurse, that I was British rather than, say, Belgian or Brazilian. I was hardly going to be anything else.

I was not just the product of that complex British history of Empire, decolonisation and post-war migration, but also a child of the National Health Service, whose 75th birthday is marked this year, and which had employed so many of the Commonwealth and Irish migrants to Britain as doctors and nurses.

Maybe you couldn’t really get much more British than this. That became my way of looking at it anyway, even if not everybody else would agree.

I doubt I would have thought of myself as ‘patriotic’ as a teenager. But I definitely felt it get easier to be British. It was partly a generational thing, for those of us who could stake a birth-right claim to British identity. It was not that nobody ever told me to “go back to where you came from” but I could sarcastically point out that it might be a little bit complicated to work out exactly where you might be sending me. How we thought and talked about what it meant to be British was broadening out across the 1990s. I was definitely a Britpop indy kid then – more Pulp than Blur or Oasis in the 90s battle of the bands) and with at least one ear harking back to their 1960s antecedents too. What might have been less anticipated was that English identity was becoming more inclusive too, particularly once football started to change in surprising ways.

Even as a teenager, it had been impossible to miss how differently the economic and social changes of the 1980s were felt in Merseyside and Essex. The softening of political and social conflict after the departure of Margaret Thatcher, Arthur Scargill and Derek Hatton had begun to generate optimistic talk about a more classless society in the era of John Major and ideas about a stronger sense of community from Tony Blair.

So this whole mixed race, Indian and Irish, Yorkshire-born, Scouse and Essex version of how to be English and British seemed to me to be increasingly fitting together pretty naturally, from the inside if this is who you happened to be.

But a funny thing happened after the turn of the century. Britain was not just having one identity crisis but several. Governments were losing public confidence over immigration. 9/11 and 7/7 changed the conversation about integration – and whether multiculturalism was part of the solution of how we live together as a community of communities in a diverse society, or becoming part of the problem too, by paying too little attention to what we all needed to share. Economic divides felt starker once again after a financial crash where the banks were bailed out and the debts borne by those who had done least to cause it. Europe divided us deeply – not just over the choice made in the Brexit referendum but in giving us new “them” and “us” labels – “Remainer” and “Leaver” – for those misguided idiots on the other side. Identity clashes seemed to be breaking out on every front; culture wars, statues and trans rights – with more new labels. Arguments about political correctness gave way to rows about ‘wokeness’ offering to link all of these issues up and ask everybody to pick a side.

National identities are supposed to be something that we share. So how much use would it be for me to have gained a secure personal sense of identity if my country started falling apart?

My big question about identity, then, had changed. My foundational question had long ceased to be whether British identity could find a place for people like me. The question of whether ethnic minorities could ever be truly British seemed to have been so decisively answered that I could sometimes find it hard to remember why that had been in doubt. It was certainly clear that not everybody shared my sense of confidence about how far we had come. So the big question for me has become whether or not there was still something that could still bind all of us together in this era of the ‘culture wars’.

I do not claim to speak for anybody but myself. There may be sixty million different journeys to being British today, including eight million experiences of being an ethnic minority person in this country. Our stories, our perspectives and our views differ – partly because of our different experiences in education and work, or of family, faith or community, or simply the range of different ways we have come to look at the world.

Maybe I had just been dealt a particularly lucky hand. Being mixed race which had once been talked about in terms of the agonising, maybe irresolvable identity dilemmas had somehow become fashionable – a glimpse of a possible distant future where the sharp edges of ethnic identity somehow blurred.

The luck of the Irish had changed. It was not just that the IRA bombs had finally stopped blowing up pubs following the ceasefire and peace deal in Northern Ireland. The Irish moved from being the butt of the joke to a Celtic Tiger at home and a global brand abroad. Curiously, it now seemed much easier to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in England with pints of Guinness than to work if we could extend that to find a way to celebrate St George together too.

The image of India at home and abroad shifted even more dramatically. Instead of it being a notable event if there was an Asian face on the television, Goodness Gracious Me began telling the jokes through the other end of the telescope.

But I could see how the direction of travel seemed to be going in the opposite direction after 9/11 and 7/7 for those who were British Muslim. That social changes often felt slower and less inclusive for many people who were Black British. There was also a surly sense of grievance from some – a minority no doubt, and a shrinking one, but a vocal one all the same, especially in the internet era – for whom the very fact of my feeling of identity and status could seem to be the core problem. Did my sense of possession of our national identity have to involve the dispossession of others? Or could most of us, at least, yet find a way through to something that we do want to share?

If that is the challenge we face, then I think patriotism can be part of the answer we need. Patriotism can take many forms. It can be angry or hopeful, it can be inclusive or exclusive. It can focus more on the past, or the future. I want it to do both, because I feel sure that our Britain is a product of our long history, not some kind of breach and betrayal of it. My own patriotism is not about who shouts about it the loudest or who can wave the biggest flag (though the genius of the design of the Union Flag does make it one of the best in the world) and I do put a St George’s flag out of the car windows every couple of summers, usually more in hope than expectation.

That does not mean that I want to lecture anybody on why they need to become more patriotic. There is no point in taking part in some kind of performative patriotism if that is not what feels right to you. I do want to set out why an inclusive patriotism can help us to work out what we can share in a society like this. I do want to challenge the idea that we would have a more inclusive society if we just tried to leave patriotism and national identity behind. And I do want to challenge those who need to identify some kind of ‘enemy within’ to energise their own sense of identity and belonging, whether those targets are one minority group or other, or the young or the old, or simply their political opponents, whether on the left or the right.

The best kind of patriotic spirit can help us to contain, manage and perhaps even transcend some of the social divides and identity clashes that many people fear are making our society feel more divided than many of us would want.

For all of our current anxieties and divisions, I do feel confident that Britain at heart is a nation more of bridgers and balancers than of culture warriors – even if it does not always feel like that. So we need to put more energy into rediscovering once again is a pluralist patriotism – a patriotism of both/and; a patriotism that invites us to get out of our rhetorical trenches and to try to talk it over. Trying to talk it through does not mean – in a democracy – that we will have to find common ground, though sometimes we might find that we can. But it could at least give us more understanding, and perhaps more confidence that we can live together as neighbours with those who don’t share our politics, or every aspect of how we look at the world. If that is what most of us want – but it is harder to work out what we can do to make it happen.

We will see again this year that Britain may well be the most traditional of liberal democracies, certainly when it comes to the ceremonies of our great occasions, such as the funerals and the Coronations of Monarchs. Yet we are also much the most liberal of traditional societies, almost certainly among the most liberal of societies that has ever existed.

That may seem to be a contradiction. But I think it may be the trick of how we make it work and what we have evolved together, better perhaps in practice than in a precisely rational theory. I certainly can not see the last seven decades as an era of decline or a retreat from past glories. I can enjoy Britain’s deep sense of its traditions because I can celebrate how this became a kinder, better society for so many over the late Queen’s reign – profoundly so for gay people able to be open about who they loved, or women who sought to pursue a career, or ethnic minority Britons for whom the question changed from who let us in and why, to push back the barriers of discrimination and make opportunities more open than they were.

When we do things together in a society like outs, it will invariably be from choice, rather than conscription. A shared society needs shared rituals, shared moments and shared experiences. Shared moments and shared rituals are powerful precisely because they are voluntary. We should choose to make them matter.

So I would say I am patriotic because I am still an optimist about Britain, not just from instinct, but from my personal experience too. As we embark on a new era, it is up to us to us all to decide what we want it to mean.

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