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Kingsnorth's Englishness is "opportunistic and shallow"

About the author

Vron Ware is professor of sociology and gender studies at Kingston University and author of Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country.

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.

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 the UK. A large part of the book entails listening to young women and men struggling to define themselves within and beyond their national states, in Bangladesh, Kenya, Pakistan, India and Ireland. 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 willfully 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 UK 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 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 70s and early 80s is that I wanted to anchor the current discussions of Britishness within a historical context that is often forgotten and increasingly mis-represented.

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 'insufferably pc' 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.

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