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Constitutional conventions: best practice

Ware v Kingsnorth II

This is Vron Ware's reply to Paul Kingsnorth. We will be publishing the entire exchange in one document on oD over the weekend.

Vron Ware (London, author): For those who may be reading this, who perhaps haven't come across my work before, I will say this, 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.

Thoughts on multiculturalism

Vron Ware (London, author): It has become fashionable now to deride multiculturalism as 'over', disastrous, etc, but I still think it is important to try to write a more complex and faithful history of how things have developed in this country, with all the mistakes, successes, and other consequences. I don't see how we can have a constructive, political discussion about where we want to go in the future without this - and that applies to all the component parts of the UK, not just England.

For those paying attention throughout the 70s 80s and 90s, it was clear that that successive governments were avoiding taking a principled position on questions of racism and exclusion, whether in relation to housing, education, equal opportunities, national identity and so on. What has happened since the 2001 riots in mill towns, and particularly since the London bombings, is that 'multiculturalism' appears, with hindsight, to have been a coherent ideology sowing the seeds for the conflicts and crises we have now. This both obscures the rich ways that people have muddled along together in particular places, and gives the adjective 'multicultural' a bad name (although it still functions as a default for 'mixed', diverse, etc). It also masks the endemic racism that allowed certain places to practice segregation either by default or by bad planning.

A great change has happened over the last fifty years that has created a country that will never again be homogenous in the way it once was. Maybe it's better to stop talking about 'multiculturalism' altogether and find some different ways (and words) to make that recent and contested past useful in our current debates.

Kingsnorth's Englishness is "opportunistic and shallow"

This is a response by Vron Ware to Paul Kingsnorth's review of her book Who Cares About Britishness? in which she sets out the fundamental differences between her approach to national identity and that of Kingsnorth in Real England.

Vron Ware (author): I bought Paul Kingsnorth's book Real England 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. 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 debate (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 postcolonial country at ease with itself and alive to the value of a cosmopolitan future.