Monday, 17 March 2008

What is Britishness?

Defining Britishness is a vexing enterprise. But this was what we attempted to do at tonight's discussion hosted by Keele Against Racism and Fascism. The meeting opened with two short Youtube clips. The first was Real Members of the BNP, a piece featuring Sharon Ebanks (now formerly of that fash parish). She said the BNP were neither left or right, but British. They were the only ones who cared about the working class, and if anything they were more socialist than not (I couldn't resist slipping in a loud snort of derision). They didn't hate other people, but why she asked, do minorities feel the need to celebrate their separate identities? They have the MOBO awards and the Black Police Association, so why can't whites?

This was contrasted with the second clip - an interview by the BBC's Matthew Amroliwala with Mohammed Shaddiq of the Ramadhan Foundation on the 'national day' and oath-swearing controversy. He argued a day set aside for celebrating Britishness is potentially a good idea. It would be an opportunity to celebrate the diversity and inclusivity of British identity and talk about want unifies us all as Britons. But on the other hand the idea of swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen is a bad idea. For all sorts of reasons a large proportion of British people would be unhappy to do so - this traditional institutional embodiment of national unity ironically cuts a divisive figure in the British body politic these days.

Here we have two competing visions - the narrow and exclusive versus the broad and inclusive. This was the starting point for a wide ranging debate on a number of themes. Among the participants was an Algerian student who drew attention to the differences between the national identities of our respective countries. He argued that while different (self-defined) communities are to an extent supported by the state here, Algeria's approach to minorities was similar to that in France - all are citizens of the state, nothing more, nothing less. He suggested this bottom line was basically the case in Britain. If we are to define Britishness, ultimately the only officially delineated commonality is citizenship. Therefore the state is the repository of national identity. To an extent this is true - the state officially promotes an inclusive, bourgeois multiculturalism AND expects/demands minority communities learn and speak English. The new citizenship tests require migrants to learn about so-called British customs, which help determine the outcome of their applications.

But how inclusive can Britishness be? All national identities must exclude someone, they all need an 'other' through which it can be recognised as a nationality. But how this exclusion is realised becomes more problematic the further we move away from the tidy concepts of citizenship. Take values for example - as George Galloway is often fond of noting on his radio show, how is tolerance, individual liberty, democracy and freedom of expression unique to these islands? Can't Danish, Portuguese, German and French national discourse lay equal claim to them? The same is true of negative traits - imperial elitism, bigotry and xenophobia are far from particular to Britain. And to what extent is Britishness itself really a cover for Englishness? Can British people wear kilts and speak Gaelic? Even if you take the very narrow view of Ebanks and her Mein Kampf-inspired rants about blood and soil, her xenophobic nationalism still had enough room for a mixed race woman like herself. Unfortunately we didn't make much headway in beginning to answer these questions.

But there was a fertile discussion of religion. Someone noted how Britain is virtually unique to have members of the clergy sit in its legislature (a distinction it alone shares with the Islamic Republic of Iran), so what place does religion play in British identity? The state has an official religion, but that doesn't stop it from extending its 'official' multiculturalism to religious observance. There is talk of Charles Windsor adopting the title 'defender of faiths' rather than 'defender of the faith' if ever he assumes the throne. But there is also a tacit secularism at work - no one expects politicians, to quote Alastair Campbell, to 'do God'. It seems, generally speaking (and leaving aside Ulster protestants, for whom religion is the bedrock of a highly politicised British identity) liberal tolerance of religion combined with a skeptical/critical attitude toward strong public displays of belief is a central British value. And so it seems this is one streams feeding into contemporary Islamophobia. The idea Muslims are extremists working to turn Britain into a fundamentalist caliphate has a certain popular currency because, as well as tapping into everyday anxieties around immigration and racism, it appears as if Islam demands its adherents act in a way contrary to British religious convention. For example, take Rowan Williams' proposal to incorporate elements of Sharia Law into English civil law. Though a serious secular critique can be mounted of his argument, most of the voices raised against him evoked images of a predatory Islam muscling in on British legal traditions.

Given it was an anti-fascist society hosting the debate it was only a matter of time before the BNP featured in discussion. Throughout the night reference was made to the perceived disenfranchisement of the white working class. There was some controversy whether no platform policies, such as that operated by KUSU, are a help or hindrance in combating the BNP's influence. Some argued from a libertarian position that all arguments should be out in the open. Others correctly pointed out the BNP were not interested in political debates, merely whipping up hostility to their scapegoat of the month. Nor is it exactly appropriate for a labour movement body, which KUSU is (albeit somewhat tenuously), to allow an organisation fundamentally opposed to the hopes and aspirations of that movement a platform within it. However it would be wrong to dismiss all the concerns the BNP articulates as being of no consequence. I pointed out the rise of the BNP and racist/xenophobic ideas do not come out of nowhere - they have real material causes that can be addressed. Fascism is not a moral problem solved through better education. It is a political problem that requires political solutions.

There is a fundamental disconnect between establishment politics and the working class. Whereas the Labour party was perceived to be and was (to an extent) the primary political vehicle of the working class in Britain, this has increasingly not been the case for the last 20 years. I cited the recent school closures in Stoke-on-Trent as a prime example. Labour councillors were given leave to campaign against the mayor's schemes but were nevertheless required to obey the whip when the plans were voted through in full council, which they dutifully did. Taken with a never ending avalanche of cuts and closures it's small wonder large number of white Stokies take the BNP claims to be the party of British workers at face value. In their defence the Labour candidate for the forthcoming election in Longton North said the party was listening and changing, and cited their ousting of the hapless BNP'er Steve Batkin from that seat last year as evidence. Unfortunately this was more the result of NorSCARF and Keele Labour Students getting the core Labour vote out rather than any Damascene conversion to working class politics. And it has to be said the new Longton North councillor showed he was "listening" when he voted for the school closures along with the rest. Only when bourgeois politics take working class people seriously again can it hope to recover its old legitimacy, but there's little sign of that happening.

We never really got close to an agreeable definition of British identity. I put it to the meeting that positive values of liberty and freedom are as British as the imperial legacy of bigotry and intolerance. What socialists need to do is try and annex positive British values to our projects. It's not about reclaiming "our" flag for ours remains deepest red, but used skilfully it can challenge the right's uncontested use of Britishness for their own ends.


Charlie Marks said...

Hmm, Britishness.

My view is since most "Brits" dwell in England, and there's been a growth of inclusive national identity in Wales and Scotland since devolution, the ruling class push for Britishness is a way to hold together the British state.

I think that socialists in England should not talk about Britishness, but rather, an inclusive Englishness. If anything, British identity is declining - partly because of devolution - as a primary identification and there's a danger that Englishness is left to the fascists to articulate.

thinkingdifference said...

Indeed, how much can a national identity stretch to include, incorporate and turn itself more 'liberal' than 'national'... Maybe the problem is 'national identity' itself.

Anonymous said...

Most Scots see themselves as Scottish. Many immigrants and their decendants quickly take on a Scottish identity check out
The Sikhs love being Scottish - they have caused big fights in the Royal Mile by having bigger and better tartan tat shops that the other tartan tat shop keepers.

I don't know anyone who calls themselves British in Scotland. The discussion has to be what is Britishness - I see it as imperalistic, greedy, boorish, first worldist, war mongering, racist. Why would I identify with that?

Though I have a strong Scottish identity - not because I think the Scots are better than anyone else just because I feel Scottish - I think it is an expression of not being British actually, to react against Britishness I identify with being Scottish.

Oh identity is a complex one!

Phil said...

I don't feel particularly British, or even English for that matter. I suppose if pushed I would identify myself as *happening* to be English by virtue of birth, like most comrades in England.

Re: Britishness though, the establishment know it has all these exclusionary overtones of the past, but also they have no alternative but to try and articulate a multicultural Britishness. It is the only means available to them to reach all corners of these islands. If they are successful in their inclusive project it may well undercut the appeal of Scottish and Welsh identities as something opposed to Britishness.

Charlie Marks said...

I'm English by birth - by which I mean, my family are all from Ireland (and oddly enough, some of my ancestors were Europeans fleeing persecution who settled in Ireland!)

The task for us, I think, is to articulate an inclusive Englishness, based upon a civic rather than ethnic national identity. So, for example, the NHS which is a key part of our lives is an institution in England which we recognise as something to be defended and strengthened - it doesn't matter what your religious beliefs are, where you or your parents originate, etc, all are entitled to medical care.

If an English parliament existed we would be calling for it to have and use economic powers to the benefit of working people instead of big business. As it stands, New Labour can use its MPs with Scottish constituencies to win votes for things like tuition fees in England and Wales...

Anonymous said...

British, for me, is a handy integrated term for what is actually (in simple terms) a dual ethnic identity. At the end of the day, it's just an accident of birth - my identity is a product of nature (genes/ancestors) and nurture (upbringing/environmental factors) plus free will (the ability to choose and make decisions). Some people need to work on utilising the last bit, then they won't need to become so reliant on the first ones.