England, Britain and multiculturalism: an OurKingdom exchange

About the authors
About this author: Vron Ware is a research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG) and the ESRC Centre for research in socio-cultural change (CRESC) based at the Open University. Her new book Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country will be out in Sept.

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder and Director of the Dark Mountain Project, a growing global network of writers, artists and thinkers dedicated to challenging the myths which underlie our civilization. He is also the author of two books of non-fiction and a collection of poetry. His first novel, The Wake, will be published in January 2014. His website is www.paulkingsnorth.net.


What kind of country has Britain become; does multiculturalism enrich or damage its people's lives; and is English national identity a route to political progress or a journey away from inclusive belonging? These questions are being freshly posed in a society seeking new frameworks to understand itself, and the major forces - post-colonial unsettlement, neo-liberal globalisation, autonomist processes in Scotland and Wales, and dynamics of racism, communalism and immigration - that are combining to reshape it. They underlie a vigorous exchange between Paul Kingsnorth and Vron Ware, originally published here in openDemocracy's OurKingdom. In engaging with the arguments of the other's book, the authors highlight their sharp differences of perspective; and in continuing the conversation, they enlarge a field of debate often confined by academic specialism or political tribalism.


* Paul Kingsnorth: A clouded vision (a review of Ware's Who Cares about Britishness)

* Vron Ware: A contested reality (a reply that assesses Kingsnorth's Real England)

* Paul Kingsnorth: The heart of the problem

* Vron Ware: The climate and the choice

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Paul Kingsnorth: A clouded vision

Ware lays her cards on the table in the first few pages. Britain, she writes, "may be a country, but it is not really a place". When you come through the Channel tunnel, you are informed that you have arrived in England, and the signs at Heathrow welcome you to London. Britain is not a nation at all, but a composite of four nations. It has, she observes, "a standing army but not a football team. It has an anthem, a flag and a queen", but no patron saint and no constitution. These are all good points, but Ware goes further. Britain, she reckons, is essentially rubbish. The most noticeable things about the Brits are their "flaws": ‘they drink too much, swear too much, blame the government for everything and laugh at themselves when things get rough." Pretty much the only good thing about this poor bloody country, in fact, is "its record of functioning multiculturalism." In other words, the best thing about Britain is the bits that aren't British.

Paul Kingsnorth is a writer and journalist. He was deputy editor of the Ecologist magazine, and writes a column there. He is the author of One No, Many Yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and Real England: the Battle Against the Bland (Portobello, 2008). His website is here
Also by Paul Kingsnorth in openDemocracy: "What now for the anti-globalisers?" (4 October 2001) "The next clash of civilisations?" (16 January 2002) "The end of the beginning" (13 February 2002) "Making a new world" (May-June 2003) - a four-part journey through protest movements from Mexico and South Africa to West Papua "West Papuans: neither lads nor cannibals, but humans" (29 April 2004) "How to save the world: poverty, security, and nation-building" (24 June 2004) "Can 'active citizens' transform British politics?" (14 July 2004) "A shaft of light at the European Social Forum" (18 October 2004) "The European Social Forum: time to get serious" (21 October 2004)

What is it, then, apart from the political determination of its governing classes, which holds this messy historical accident of a nation together? What makes it what it is? This is the question that Ware is supposed to be answering, and to be fair to her it is a hard, perhaps an impossible, one. Just look at Gordon Brown's floundering attempts to make "Britishness" sing in our hearts. Or, come to that, the words of his fellow-Celtic British nationalist Neil Kinnock (and chair of the British Council) who, in the book's foreword, makes the usual liberal case for the historical illegitimacy of Britain (we're a "mongrel nation", the empire was bad, etc) but then flinches from the obvious conclusion and decides that, after all, Britishness is a good and necessary thing which just needs to be "re-invented" - perhaps, the reader may mischievously think, to get his beloved Labour Party out of a tricky political fix.

Ware has chosen to try and make her project work by using the device of asking foreigners - many of them from countries formerly colonised by Britain - what "Britishness" means. This is an intriguing idea and, in the right hands, could have yielded some fascinating results. And there are some intriguing nuggets in this book, gleaned from many conversations with immigrants now living in Britain and from people in other countries whose perspective on this hoary old debate can be refreshing.

Some of them are intriguingly counterintuitive. Ware interviews Tariq, a student from Lahore, Pakistan, who is studying for a PhD at Leeds University. He is astonished to see people wearing veils on the streets of Britain. Expecting to arrive in Brontë country he was surprised to see the city of Bradford's council estates, and even more surprised to see Bradford itself. Tariq would prefer the Britain of the past - a Victorian nation of hard work and self-discipline, not the "benefit culture" he thinks it has become. He is astonished that British mosques are employing "crazy" imams from rural Pakistan who "would never get a job over there." His British-Pakistani barber tells him to pray for his wife who is having trouble conceiving because he doesn't trust doctors. "They are living in the Stone Age", he says, shocked. He wants to go back to Pakistan because "it seems so primitive" in Britain. "This country", he declares, "has a problem on its hands".

The book could do with more of this kind of insight, from all sides of the debate. There are other examples - a man from Britain's Chinese community, for example, complains to a Muslim friend that Muslims are getting all the media attention and the Chinese are being ignored. His friend tells him to be thankful. Roxana from Colombia observes that "London is a place for lonely people." Ware asks Bano, a young Muslim woman from Blackburn, whether "a strongly defined national identity is a useful device for protecting and supporting minorities". "Not if you keep calling us minorities", Bano shoots back. Such ghettoisation, she insists, makes it much harder for anyone who isn't white to ever feel British.

Bano's objection to Ware's question gets to the heart of the problem with this book: it is suffocatingly politically-correct (PC). So much so that it sometimes seems to have fallen through a wormhole in space in 1986 and emerged in the present day. Ware's background is in writing anti-racist and feminist literature, and her reference-points - as she points out ad nauseam throughout the book - are in battles against the National Front circa 1979 and the strenuous defence of a very 1980s version of "multiculturalism". Every few pages, it seems, we are treated to an anecdote in which she bravely stands up to fascists as a teenager in Buckinghamshire, or soapboxes about white western imperialism and the prejudice of the pasty-faced natives. Ware is not just agnostic about Britain and Britishness; she openly dislikes it. To her, Britain's only saving grace is its population of foreigners. Not only that, but she seems to know very little about Britain as a place, as distinct from an idea (neither do most of her interviewees but they, unlike the author, have a pretty good excuse), save for a few London boroughs and a couple of northern industrial cities. Most of Britain, and most of its people, don't even make an appearance.

The problem with this is twofold. First, Ware utterly fails to answer - or even, in most cases, ask - the question which the book's title poses. Second, she is forced to skate over the many cracks which are currently appearing in Britain's multicultural ideology - cracks which, ironically, are highlighted again and again throughout the book not by foaming, white-skinned Daily Mail columnists but by the very "minorities" who she is so convinced have been its beneficiaries.

Bano, in Blackburn, explains the problem well. Growing up in Sheffield, Bano - though aware of her Muslim and Asian heritage - always felt British. She went to an ethnically mixed school where people rubbed along. Then she moved to Blackburn aged fourteen and started at a school whose intake was 95% Asian. Suddenly, she says, she didn't feel British anymore.

Bano's point is clear to the reader, and painful to read: attending an "Asian" school, in which the teachers focused on her "Asian" identity, she felt immediately different to the rest of the country. She had been ghettoised. She was now a "minority" rather than just another British citizen. At this point, her friend Amar joins the conversation. "People live in an Asian ghetto, they go to the state school which is mostly Asian, they have their mosques ... The system is designed like that", he says. "In my day there were no ‘minority' teachers, but I had a better experience ... If you have to give up your identity as British, you will never belong."

Bano and Amar have highlighted the painful paradox at the heart of the multicultural experiment: the act of defining people as "minorities" in order to better defend their rights also ghettoises them; sets them apart from the mainstream. A generation of this has led to areas of Britain in which ethnic and racial segregation are now a reality. Multiculturalism has led to less, not more, integration and more, not less, communal tension.

Yet Ware cannot see it. She is "surprised" by Bano's story, and she doesn't really take it anywhere. Instead, she falls back into her comfort-zone: "multiculturalism" (which she never, incidentally, defines) is a good thing because - well, because it just is. The unacknowledged contradictions are highlighted again when Peray, a Turkish Muslim woman, tells her of a "safer schools" conference she had attended. A member of the audience suggested that some young men needed to be told it was wrong to sexually harass women. Peray takes this as an "Islamophobic" slight and retorts that such things simply never happen in Muslim culture. Ware reports this approvingly: but who does she think she is helping by doing so? Some Muslim women in Britain suffer terribly at the hands of men whose actions are, whether Peray wants to admit it or not, tacitly or openly sanctioned by their communities in the name of culture or religion or both. Women's refuges are full of them. For Peray, and Ware, to suggest that this is not the case does no-one any favours - least of all the most vulnerable people in society.

There were a number of books that could have been written here: a genuine inquiry into the nature of "Britishness", perhaps; a spirited defence (starting with a definition) of multiculturalism; or an honest exploration of the pros and cons of life in multi-ethnic Britain. Ware seems to have tried to combine all three, and has ended up succeeding in none of them. By the end, all we are a left with is a frustrating series of questions.

If this is what Britain has come to, Gordon Brown is in even more trouble than we thought.

 

Vron Ware: A contested reality

I bought Paul Kingsnorth's book Real England: the Battle Against the Bland (Portobello, 2008) a few weeks ago after reading a positive review of it. I was enthusiastic about his project of bringing an anti-globalisation perspective to the destruction of England's distinctive environments as I also feel passionately about this. I have been writing about a particular English locality for ten years now, tracking the impact of global forces on every area of life. I've also been working on and against racism and nationalism, attentive to the past and future relationships between Britain and England. When I read him I realised that there are differences between us.

Vron Ware is a research fellow in culture and citizenship at the Open University. She is the author of Beyond the Pale: white women, racism and history (Verso, 1992), (as co-author) Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics and Culture (Chicago University Press, 2002), and Who Cares About Britishness? A Global View of the National Identity Debate (Arcadia, 2007) Also by Vron Ware in openDemocracy "The man with odd socks" (14 September 2004)

Now, Kingsnorth's mean-spirited and inaccurate review of my book commissioned by the British Council, Who Cares About Britishness? A Global View of the National Identity (Arcadia, 2007) suggests that there is little common ground between us. Rather than just respond to his attack I'd like to assess his whole approach.

Kingsnorth employs the well-worn method of identifying the "real England" by travelling around the country to document a tale of damage, decline and neglect. The portrait of Englishness that he paints conveys a lament for better times, coupled with a reluctance to protest effectively at the destruction of "ways of life" and institutions that once developed out of local, English culture. I thought the book would also bring an added dimension, especially since George Monbiot's recommendation on the front cover announces that the book "helps to shape our view of who we are and who we want to be".

In particular, given his knowledge of the movement inspired by the World Social Forum I hoped he would combine an environmentalist rage with a critique of the racially coded nationalism which is often implicit in this genre of writing about England. Instead, he does not really address the question of who counts as English, and who the "we" are, talking vaguely of people "of all backgrounds". The fact that he is prepared to define himself as a nationalist indicates that he is not interested in connecting his position to a discussion about the future of England as a post-colonial country at ease with itself and alive to the value of a cosmopolitan future.

The project of my book was entirely different, not least because Britishness is not an ethnic or cultural category that functions in the same manner as Englishness. Britishness is a construct with deep historical roots in the country's imperial past, one that has left profound legacies in many parts of the world in the form of institutions, language, land ownership, and hierarchies of power. It made sense to travel outside Britain as well as within it, to see what could be learned about Britishness as a residual global concept.

I had two objectives in this project. First, I wanted to talk to young people in Britain whose opinions are rarely sought - those who had been migrants themselves or whose parents had migrated to Britain before they were born - to learn about and report on their experience and perspective. It was never my mission to go round to identify and learn about Britain itself "as a country". I made this clear in the introduction, that Kingsnorth chooses to cite selectively to suit his own prejudices.

Second, I felt that it was important to learn from debates in other societies that had been marked by British rule - particularly debates about national identity. I was especially interested in how young people in those countries negotiated identities, whether political, cultural, sexual, religious or ethnic, often in situations far more difficult and dangerous than faced by their equivalents in Britain. A large part of the book entails listening to young women and men - in Bangladesh, Kenya, Pakistan, India and Ireland - struggling to define themselves within and beyond their nation-states. The signs are that there is a converging generation of young people in different parts of the world who are wary of nationalism in all its forms, having witnessed the catastrophic damage that it does to social and political life.

Kingsnorth wilfully misunderstands the scope of the book, and does not even attempt to discuss the second half. Very surprisingly for an anti-globalisation activist, for his own part he seems to have little interest in the idea of a global conversation. He is offended by my ironic summary of Britain's shortcomings in my introduction, and misquotes me as saying that "Britain's only saving grace is its population of foreigners".

I find it significant that in his review he refers to people born and raised in the United Kingdom as "immigrants". This suggests that he does not understand the stakes involved in interrogating terms like British or English. For example, he is so phobic about being seen to be anti-racist that he makes it clear he agrees with the "immigrant" view of what's gone wrong with "multiculturalism". For my part, I am not interested in defining this term because it means so many different things to different constituencies. The word is routinely used to denounce a range of past mistakes made precisely because there was no coherent governmental strategy to address racism and cultural diversity in the UK. By recounting a series of conversations with young British people I hoped to offer a glimpse of what it felt like to grow up in a society shaped by this confusion, representing a range of experiences that were unremarkable, positive, frustrating or difficult.

Kingsnorth is particularly irritated by one one of my interviewees, Peray, who dismisses a social worker who implied casually that Muslim culture endorsed the harassment of women by men. He is even more scornful of my failure to correct Peray by reminding her that "women's refuges are full of Muslim women who suffer terribly at the hands of men". Happily, in Britain violence against women is a crime whoever commits it. More important in this context, there is no evidence that Muslim women are disproportionately affected. Using culture as a stick to beat Muslims with is a familiar tactic among those who question their right to belong, whether in England or the whole of the UK - or in Europe for that matter.

Finally, for someone who claims to be an expert on England, Kingsnorth should know that Andover is in Hampshire, not Buckinghamshire (he should have heard of the campaign to block the siting of the Tesco mega-shed on the A303). And in damning my account of my run-in with the National Front on my home ground he betrays his impatience with a writing style not unlike his own: a mixture of polemic, dialogue, observation and reflection. The reason I traced the contours of anti-racist politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s is that I wanted to anchor the current discussions of Britishness within a historical context that is often forgotten and increasingly misrepresented.

Kingsnorth's review clarifies what is so different about our respective efforts to engage in a political debate about Britain's future. He finds my avowedly feminist and anti-racist perspective "suffocatingly politically correct", which says more about his perspective than mine. He attempts to articulate a purified form of English nationalism, paying scant attention to the untidy, complex and contested history of racism. In my view this makes his enthusiasm to identify "the real England" appear opportunistic and shallow.

 

Paul Kingsnorth: The heart of the problem

My review of Vron Ware's book Who Cares About Britishness? has evidently upset the author. I can't deny a twinge of guilt: as a fellow-writer, I know the frustration of a bad review, and the things it can make you say. So I'm not surprised to read Vron's retaliation about me, my review and indeed my own book, Real England, on OurKingdom.

I don't respond from pique, but because this is, at heart, a crucial debate about the future of England and Britain, and about two competing understandings of what constitutes "belonging". More than anything else, perhaps, it is about how that dread term "multiculturalism" has, in my view, undermined a shared sense of community in both England and Britain, and continues to do so.

Let's start at the beginning. Vron Ware has managed the remarkable feat, as I pointed out in my review, of writing an entire book about multiculturalism without once defining it. Her response, when this is pointed out, is to say "I am not interested in defining this term because it means so many different things to different constituencies." Er ... well, yes it does. Which is precisely why a writer's job is to define it for us, the readers; pin it down. Particularly if you are then going to spend 300 pages eulogising it.

But if Vron won't do it, let me try. In my view, there are two distinct things we might mean when we talk about living in a "multicultural" society. First, there's the on-the-ground reality of a nation in which a substantial minority of people - 8% in the 2001 census, and doubtless more now - define themselves as from "ethnic minorities". Many are descended from - or indeed are - Commonwealth immigrants who arrived in Britain from the second world war onwards, and many more have arrived from east-central Europe more recently. For the most part we all rub along with each other pretty well, in that very British way that requires no fancy intellectualising about our "identity". This is the reality of contemporary Britain: it contains many cultures and ethnicities, and I personally have very good reasons (which I'll come to in a while) for believing that this is a good thing.

Then there's the second definition: the "ism". "Multiculturalism", in this context, is an ideology; a theory; a political agenda which has existed in various forms since the 1960s and is now the dominant narrative about Britain in official circles, from education authorities to government ministers. It decrees that Britain - and especially England - is a post-colonial tabula rasa, onto which many distinct cultures have been dropped. There is no longer such a thing as a unifying or indigenous British or English culture - indeed, the very terms are "problematic".

Britain now is a "cosmopolitan" society in which no one cultural identity has pre-eminence, and in which Englishness, Polishness and Bangladeshiness must compete on equal terms. The nation's many "minorities" are not to be integrated into mainstream society ("integrated" is such a problematic word; and anyway, what is the mainstream?) but fenced off, theoretically if not physically: defined as "BMEs" [Black and Minority Ethnic], afforded "protection", treated as victims, spoken for. Descended from Pakistani immigrants but born in England? Sorry, you're still "Pakistani", or "Asian" or "minority ethnic". You can be British, if you like, because Britishness has been stripped of meaning and is therefore "inclusive" - but you can never be English (or, presumably, Scottish or Welsh, though this gets less attention) because Englishness is "racially coded". Attempts to define it are thus potentially racist; it's best if the English just shut up about it and get on with "celebrating diversity" instead.

This is the reality of the "multiculturalism" which Vron Ware hymns. It is a divisive ideology, divorced from place and history and largely meaningless to most people in today's Britain, whatever their ethnic group. But it is also all-pervasive, and this is what I picked up on in Vron's book. Throughout, she comes across people from ethnic-minority groups in Britain who reject this vision: who don't want to be seen as "minorities" or patronised by pressure- groups; who want to be British or, hell, even English.

Yet when I mentioned this in my review, I was accused of being "phobic about being seen to be anti-racist". This is pretty breathtaking - not least because it seems to be, quite literally, a meaningless sentence. I think Vron is trying to say that I'm not anti-racist. By which she presumably means that I am a racist of some kind. It's a curious way to react to a reviewer who highlights quotations from your own book.

But perhaps this is also what she means when she accuses me of beating British Muslims with metaphorical sticks. In my review, I highlighted a section of Vron's book in which the author attempts to deny that there is any problem within south Asian communities in Britain as regards the position of women. This is a good example of where the whole multicultural house of cards comes tumbling down. Desperate (or should I say "phobic"?) not to appear racist, Vron needs to pretend that there are no real negatives to living in "BME" communities in Britain. So there is, for example, no problem with violence towards women in south Asian communities; after all, white men hit their wives as well, right?

Right, of course - but there are few honour killings within the Polish community as far as I know. It's well known, especially by British women of Asian origin, that male domination within the more traditional elements of this community is a real problem. A true feminist, surely, would want to acknowledge this? But not Vron: anyone who brings its up is apparently questioning Muslims' "right to belong, whether in England or the whole of the UK - or in Europe for that matter"' Got that? Mention the culturally-specific incidences of male violence within some Muslim communities and you're with Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician whose "rivers of blood" speech in 1968 was a racist landmark. And who suffers from this stance? The victims of that violence - powerless Muslim women. How do we square this circle? We don't: we pretend it doesn't exist, and call anyone who mentions it a racist.

And it gets to the heart of the problem: utter confusion. Vron seems to assume that all critics of multiculturalism come from the political right. Well, here's the shocker: I'm an anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist environmentalist - all "isms" that should surely meet with Vron's approval. And I think that multiculturalism - the official "ism", as distinct from the on-the-ground reality - is bad for absolutely everyone.

Perhaps I should come clean about my personal investment in this argument. Not only was my grandmother an immigrant - meaning that my own "racial coding" would probably not meet British National Party (BNP) requirements for true Englishness - but my parents-in-law were immigrants from India in the 1970s. This makes my wife, in the charming PC terms of which Vron is so fond, a "BME", and my daughter of "mixed ethnicity". It also means, according to both the BNP and Vron Ware, that neither of them can be truly English for, apparently, Englishness is "racially coded" - only for white people.

This would be news to my wife, who considers herself as English as me. But it is not news to me, for I have heard it many times before, and it angers me. I'll confess that Vron's book made me angry too. Angry because I want to live in an England - and a Britain - whose people, of all ethnicities, are united by place and a common purpose, not divided by race and mutual suspicion. Vron says that I "(do) not really address the question of who counts as English", and that "this makes [my] enthusiasm to identify 'the real England' appear opportunistic and shallow". I'm not sure what opportunity I'm supposed to be seizing (certainly not the opportunity for a decent book advance) but the "real England" I attempt to identify in my book is anything but shallow. It is, in fact, deep-rooted: in place, landscape and the cultures which spring from it.

And that's the real point: culture springs from place, and "Britishness" or "Englishness", as concepts divorced from the physical reality of Britain or England, are meaningless. My book explores the deep connection that many in England feel to their places; how this forges their identity and why they fight for it. Some of those people are from ethnic minorities. They are also English, because they were born and live and work and fight in England; because it is their home and they are changing it and it is changing them. They are not ghettoised, reduced to statistics, treated like foreigners in their own land. They are English because they choose to belong here.

Also in openDemocracy on English national identity: Roger Scruton, "England: an identity in question" (1 May 2007) Neal Ascherson, "Who needs a constitution?" (22 May 2007) David Hayes: "Ozymandias on the Solway" (7 July 2007) Patrick Wright, "Real England? Reflections on Broadway Market?" (23 April 2008)

Vron wraps up her response to me by asserting that I "attempt to articulate a purified form of English nationalism, paying scant attention to the untidy, complex and contested history of racism". I have no idea what a "purified form of English nationalism" is (what would an impure form look like? Cloudier?) but I can tell Vron this for free: I am more than aware of the history of racism, and I think that the multiculturalist project perpetuates it. The England I would like to see, is one in which we all have a part in forging English cultural and institutional identity; an identity which unites us around our locations and our aspirations for the future, whilst being aware of our pasts - and paying scant attention to our ethnicity.

This, at the end of it all, seems to be the key difference between Vron and I. I am aware that an identity, a culture, needs to spring from and be nourished by a place. England is such a place, and so is Britain - they are not academic concepts, they are landscapes, urban and rural: the present woven from the past, the cultural from the literal and material. The English people are the people of England, whatever their colour or religion. My "nationalism" is intended to be a forward-looking, unifying project which brings them together; Vron's multiculturalism, by contrast, is backward-looking, guilt-ridden, race-obsessed and divisive. And I'd rather look to the future than stay marooned in the politics of the past.

 

Vron Ware: The climate and the choice

For those who may be reading this, who perhaps haven't come across my work before, I will say the following, simply and clearly, without any accusations of who is racist, race-obsessed, stuck in the past and guilt-ridden.

My book on Britishness begins with an exploration of what makes people feel at home in this country. It starts with a scene of ordinary life, in a café in Leytonstone, drinking tea with two young-ish British community workers with family origins in Somalia and India. We talk about shops, bars, housing, school and other mundane topics, including their experiences of growing up in the neighbourhood. Although it is debatable whether London fits into this discussion, since it is a world city with about one in three born outside the country, I wanted the conversation to illustrate the complex mixture of ingredients that allow individuals to feel a sense of belonging and connection to any particular place. I was intrigued by what Leytonstone had to offer as it was a part of London with which I was unfamiliar. When someone says they take being British for granted, but are proud to be from Leytonstone, it makes you curious.

Later in the same chapter I describe how I asked a young woman whose parents were from Pakistan whether she preferred Oxford, where she had been born, to Banbury, where she moved as a child. I listened to her talking about her experiences of growing up in Banbury, a very English place to which she was very attached partly because her parents still lived there. The fact that we had this conversation in Pakistan, where she was visiting relatives (including a cousin who had grown up in the UK and gone back to live in Rawalpindi) was largely incidental. I included it in my book as I thought it reflected a confident, transnational identification with two countries, strongly rooted in a particular place, but strengthened by an awareness of the family history outside it that had taken her there.

I could go on, but I hope I have made it clear that Paul and I agree that identity and culture have a dynamic relationship with place, landscape and locality. In this section I included an episode from my own experience in order to show that I too, English born and bred, had come from somewhere local but had not always felt at home there. I also wanted to include an insight I learned from writers such as VS Naipaul and Zygmunt Bauman: we can gain a better perspective on what is familiar if we deliberately allow ourselves to become estranged from it. For some this happens with exile and displacement. For others it needs conscious work and a readiness to listen to strangers.

Identity is often both simple and complicated at the same time. It is also about choice not just fate and here too Paul and I agree. For him, people from ethnic minorities are free to choose to belong here, and that's enough to make them English. Of course it's right to affirm that they can make a deliberate choice to identify themselves as English. This does not alter the fact that many people, whose Englishness is not in question, are not prepared to recognise that ethnic minorities are eligible to make that claim. It is not me who is saying, as Kingsnorth alleges, that Englishness is "only for white people" and I simply can't understand why he doesn't get this point. Fortunately there are signs that this rigid alignment of colour, culture and national identity is beginning to shift. As Mark Perryman and others have argued elsewhere, spectator sport is one area where England is revealed as a remarkably affable and open-minded community. Note that this is because of concerted efforts to eradicate racism from football. It did not happen organically.

But Paul blames multiculturalism for making minorities feel as though they don't belong. He liked that part of my book where I quote young people from Lancashire saying how they hated their monocultural, segregated schools. But rather than caricature his views as crudely as he has done mine, I will carefully reiterate my own position. I have to say that when he says that my book is "a hymn to multiculturalism", I wonder if he has read the same one that I wrote.

Who Cares About Britishness? is an exploration of the global relevance of national identity, rooted in the history and geography of Britishness. After the first chapter on home and belonging, the book I wrote takes the form of a travel narrative in which I interweave some of these local voices with episodes and conversations from my journey to cities in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kenya and Ireland. The final chapter is called "organise, don't agonise" and it explores some of the ways that young people in these different countries, including England and Northern Ireland, are actively trying to intervene to work for social justice. The word "cares" is deliberately intended to have a double meaning, clearly lost on Paul.

I will set aside the fact that the book was partly an attempt to draw attention to Britain's relationship with the rest of the world. I realise from reading subsequent comments on this forum that this aspect is not - at least yet - of great interest to OurKingdom participants. But it should be.

My position is this: to be anti-racist means identifying and opposing the corrosive forms of racism that continue to diminish all our lives in this country. It is no more about treating people differently according to colour, ethnicity and faith than it is an excuse to denounce all white people as racist. It means being alert to expressions of race-hatred, xenophobia and supremacism (not just of race and ethnicity but also culture and civilisation) wherever they are found, and making an effort to demonstrate why and how they poison our public and communal lives. To me, anti-racism is a form of political practice, with its own genealogy and ideological influences, that is entirely separate from the doctrine that Paul characterises as multiculturalism. I think this has become a straw figure which is why I said above that I was not in a hurry to define it. But first Paul insists that my "entire book" is a eulogy to something he loathes, and then he obsesses about the fact that I did not "pin it down".

After 2001 it became fashionable to blame "multiculturalism" for the way that life in some northern mill-towns had become virtually segregated. All the problems caused by neglect, default, ineptitude, bad planning, well-meaning initiatives, and the impact of de-industrialisation were attributed to what seemed in retrospect a faulty but coherent national ideology developed in the 1960s and foisted on the British public with no consultation. I believe it is essential to understand the local histories of post-1945 immigration if we are to deal with the consequences now.

In my book I recounted a episode from the 1960s campaign by Sikhs to wear turbans on the buses in order to remind younger people of the complex struggles of earlier eras. I tried to show that what happened in Wolverhampton was very different from events in Manchester, Bradford, London and other cities where it became an issue. I wanted to argue that each centre of settlement has its own history of negotiating immigration, and this has had lasting impact on patterns of housing, education, political representation and so on.

In recent years government policy has developed a focus on social cohesion in an attempt to distance itself from what has happened before, and even the adjective "multicultural" has become derided. It has become tainted with the charge of advocating separation, "special treatment" for minorities and advocating cultural relativism (particularly with regard to gender relations). The term "multiculturalism" has also become confused with the language of anti-racism which was apparently devalued by its fixation on diversity and minority rights.

This, by the way, is what I meant when I said that Paul was phobic about not being seen to be anti-racist. It would seem that it is no longer acceptable to speak about racism since it is "divisive" and smacks of "political correctness". If I thought he was being racist I would say so, but it is a serious charge and I don't for a minute think he is, and I have read his work carefully. I didn't need to know those details about his family. His decision to personalise the argument in that way is symptomatic of his inability to understand anti-racism as politics.

In this climate it is more important than ever not to delude ourselves that we have moved beyond the need to talk about racism openly. The vociferous commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech in the mainstream media this past year is evidence of a real ambivalence on the question of what it means to be English and who can rightfully belong.

A comment on OurKingdom is an indication of how this current not only survives but is being amplified in the present: "It simply hasn't been possible to integrate the number of newcomers that have arrived, and their arrival (combined with a native population that didn't want, or ask, to be multicultural) has displaced or destroyed urban, white, mostly working class, communities (see Billy Bragg [who now lives in Dorset] or Michael Collins)." This statement, which ventriloquises the resentment of the white working class rather than expressing openly the views of the author, gives voice to an old lament. Countless writers have shown how English nationalism has long been entwined with a strong sense of grievance that it is foreigners who are damaging this country, and that it is "real" English natives (and now landscapes) who are being injured as a result. Breaking that causal connection requires sustained, sensitive and imaginative labour.

It is not enough to wish away the connections between racism, xenophobia and nationalism and to pretend that the politics of belonging involves nothing more than an immigrant's decision to make a commitment to her or his adopted country. Let there be no misunderstanding. It is naïve beyond belief to advocate a renewed English nationalism in 2008 without addressing the way that immigration has resurfaced on the national political agenda once more. Let's not kid ourselves that the BNP is the only organisation either to take advantage of the growing inequality, poverty and powerlessness that tend to push people towards racism, or to speak on behalf of whole sections of society (like the "white working class") in order to make a populist appeal.

Those of us who glimpse a more inclusive, non-racist and non-racial vision of life in England have to make our own choices to reject any form of nationalism that is complicit with racism.

 

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