This is the second part of an exchange on national identity and belonging sparked by Paul Kingsnorth's review of Vron Ware's book. We will be publishing Vron's reply tomorrow.
Paul Kingsnorth (Oxford, author): My recent 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. Firstly 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 World War Two onwards, and many more have arrived from Eastern 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 sixties 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’, 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 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. 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 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.
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.