Neurotic Britishness: why are we threatened by the multi-lingual home?


Recent calls for 'renewed' identities in the UK mean little so long as they fail to assess the role of the state in a multicultural society. Certainly, a fundamental recognition is needed: that it is easier to be a global citizen when you are confident in the fulfilment of your rights as a national citizen.

Bridget Byrne
21 May 2013

The Global Poverty Project asks us to proclaim ‘I am a global citizen’ as a declaration against poverty and to ‘change the world’. In a similar spirit, Oxfam UK has learning packs for teachers to guide their teaching on global citizenship. These are clearly well-intentioned campaigns which seek to highlight the injustices of extreme poverty and to foster a sense of the world as an interconnected place. Yet the idea of a ‘global citizen’, whilst seemingly universal and equitable is far from unbounded and still marked with inequality. The global citizen is more likely to be imagined as the one that can take action to fight poverty, rather than the person who is living in poverty. Campaigning against poverty, or even buying sustainable local products (one common tag line is ‘think global, act local’) are acts more likely to be recognized as an action of global citizenship than a migrant crossing a state border – legally or illegally. 

It is easier to be a global citizen when you are confident in the fulfilment of your rights as a national citizen. In the long decade since 9/11, alongside increasing calls for ‘global citizenship’, we also see the rising demand that nation-states should strengthen their abilities to monitor and control national-state borders. It is perhaps at the border that the idea of the ‘global citizen’ is most challenged. You do not leave or enter a country as a ‘global citizen’, but as a national citizen and passports, the national documents of identification, do matter. What passport you hold will also determine how easy it is to cross international borders – not all passports are equal. Indeed not all bearers of the same national passport are equal – increasingly travellers are ‘profiled’ by factors such as race, gender, place of birth, age and travel history which leads to accelerated passage through border zones for some and increased scrutiny of others. National sovereignty continues to be rigorously defended and exercised by the state. As Hannah Arendt argued: ‘sovereignty is nowhere more absolute than in matters of emigration, naturalization, nationality, and expulsion' (Arendt 1958: 278). Citizenship of a nation state is therefore critical even while it remains unequal. 

Citizenship not only enables movement across borders, but also secures rights to residence and political and social rights. Within the state, there are many ‘internal borders’ which also police access to rights. Recently David Cameron suggested the restriction of welfare provision to British citizens only – suggesting that doctors will have to scrutinise passports before they treat patients. Or, more likely, only certain groups and individuals would be suspected of not being British and they alone would face the situation of having to prove their status. So we are clearly still tied into a state-based citizenship which defines the relationship between individuals and the state and also between individuals both within and beyond the state. One of the features shaping this relationship is the way state citizenship is intricately bound up with national identity – Arendt saw this as the conquest of the state by the nation. National identity is often spoken about in terms of identity, belonging and loyalty rather than rights and, in Britain as a multi-national state, national identity and citizenship are in a particularly complicated relationship As Bernard Crick  (Crick 1991: 90) pointed out: ‘I am a citizen of a country with no agreed colloquial name.’ 

Part of the confusion around citizenship in Britain is also due to the complex relationship between nationality and citizenship arising out of the post-colonial legacy. Under the 1981 Immigration Act, six categories of citizen were established each with differing rights (only one, British citizenship automatically carries a right of abode in Britain). Few British passport holders, when asked where they came from would answer ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ which is how their citizenship is described on the passport. Public and political debate on the nature of Britishness, its relationship with Englishness and Scottishness and Welshness have a very long history and have been particularly intense since the 1980s, sometimes fuelled by devolution and debates around Europe (Billig, 2006). 

These debates have also helped to shape the debates on citizenship. In his 2006 Party Conference speech, David Cameron declared that ‘every child in our country, wherever they come from, must know and deeply understand what it means to be British’.

But, how do we know if we’re ‘British’ and what does it mean to ‘deeply understand’ what being ‘British’ is? One of the problems with this call is that it suggests that there is a single meaning of ‘being British’ which fails to account for different experiences of being British. Britishness is often suggested as being in ‘crisis’, with that suggestion that we have ‘lost’ a sense of who we are. This relies on a particular reading of the past – where ‘we’ once knew who ‘we’ were, often with the suggestion that this was because the ‘we’ had more meaning and was more unified at some time in the past. But as Ted Cantle has pointed out elsewhere in Our Kingdom, both nations and national identities are constantly in flux, particularly perhaps when nationhood is shaped by processes of empire building.

David Goodhart argues that we need to reinvigorate our national identity - although he is flexible as to whether this should be an identity based on Englishness or Britishness. In The British Dream. Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration (Goodhart 2013), Goodhart sets up immigration as a major threat to this re-imagining and indeed as a major threat to the continuing survival of the welfare state. He argues that (ethnic) diversity undermines the bonds which communities need and that it weakens people’s willingness to partake in collective welfare via the state. Goodhart asserts that we need to be able to talk about immigration without being immediately labelled as racist and he also joins in the chorus of those who have proclaimed the failure of multiculturalism. 

It should of course be true that we should be able to talk about immigration policy without being accused of racism, but that would mean that we would have to ensure that our debate wasn’t racialised. We would have to de-couple race from immigration. This involves more than pointing out that Polish immigrants are white and yet some are opposed to their recent immigration in large numbers. We would need to know, for instance, that it doesn’t take longer, or more generations, for the offspring of a black immigrant to become one of ‘us’ than it does for the ancestors of a white immigrant. For example, Goodhart explains that two of his grandfathers were American, but there is no suggestion that he would describe himself as a ‘third-generation immigrant’. Yet, somewhat oddly, he describes Lenny Henry, who was born in Dudley, as a ‘Caribbean’ and continually refers to ethnic minority communities or individuals as second or third ‘generation’.

Much of the debate around nationhood and particularly multiculturalism can be understood within the production of what Engin Isin calls ‘neurotic citizenship’ (Isin 2004). For Isin, anxiety has been constructed as the norm for citizens and governance has become about managing or tranquilising those anxieties. The home and border are two critical sites of these productions of a sense of risk and the governance of risks (thus the concept of ‘homeland security’). The home is constructed as the ultimate space of security and the domain for managing anxiety. But homes can also be seen as a threat to the security of the nation. William Walters calls this ‘domopolitics’ where the relationship between home, nation and security are reconfigured which ‘rationalizes a series of security measures in the name of a particular conception of home’ (Walters 2004: 241). It’s also worth noting that the concept of home generally implies a set of gendered relations, threats to which can also provoke anxiety.

This neurosis around the home and incursions to the nation by others can be seen in David Goodhard’s concern about homes where English is not spoken (enough). He anxiously recites statistics from the 2009 labour survey which tell how various ethnic minorities ‘come from homes where another language is spoken’ (Goodhart 2013: 57) and repeatedly asserts the dangers of homes where English is not the primary language. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but the immigrant to England may expect the intimate family practices of home language to be under scrutiny. Here Britishness is presented as threatened within the domestic space of the home and most threatened by the failure of mothers in particular to speak English. Many might argue that the ability to speak more than one language in a globalising world could be seen as a core strength that ethnic minorities bring to Britain. However within this anxious neurosis bi- or multi-lingualism, particularly in the home, is presented as a threat to the nation. Yet the finding that, for example, 64 percent of pupils of Chinese-origin and 78 percent of pupils of Bangladeshi-origin pupils come from homes where another language is spoken tells us nothing about the proficiency of English in those homes and in particular of the pupils surveyed. 

As the more recent 2011 Census tells us, less than half a percent of residents over 3 years old in England and Wales could not speak any English and only 2 percent could not speak English ‘well’ (2013). Despite the evidence that immigrants to Britain want to, and can, speak English, the refrain of the need to coerce them to learn English continues, across the political spectrum. For example Labour Leader Ed Miliband on a visit to Crawley on 30th April 2013 argued: ‘If you come to this country, you should learn English’.

Miliband was standing on a wooden pallet in Crawley town centre, echoing the successful campaigning of John Major’s soapbox, designed to show him as a man of the people speaking to the people. His tone is disciplinary and focuses on the apparent unwillingness of migrants to learn English rather than the severe cuts in the provision of ESOL classes and the impact this has on new arrival’s capacity to participate fully in the social, political, economic and cultural life of Britain. The injunction to immigrants feeds anxieties about a Britishness apparently under threat from those who cross its borders and settle here.

Re-imagining nationhood in Britain would surely require a way of reframing Britishness and Englishness in a way that expressed a sense of value in and confidence about the diversity of Britain rather than a neurotic response to it. Diversity needs to be embraced as a fact not a threat. Those who claim that multiculturalism has failed tend not to acknowledge that ‘multicultural’ means very different things in different contexts and that there has not been a coherent policy in Britain which can be called ‘state multiculturalism’. Nonetheless, however you consider the politics of multiculturalism, Britain surely is a multicultural society with a diversity of religious, ethnic, classed, regional, gendered and sexual cultures. Neither John Major’s spinsters cycling to Evensong, nor Gordon Brown’s list of ‘classic’ literature representing British values were able to encapsulate how a diverse post-colonial nationhood might be understood.

One problem with the current trend of critiquing all that is ‘multicultural’ is that it becomes impossible to positively reassert a multi-cultural, multi-national nation. This does not have to mean a naïve celebration of ‘saris, samba and samosas’ without paying real attention to the politics of who gets to represent and speak for different ‘communities’. Nor does it mean that we can proclaim an end to racism and racialised hostility and inequality in Britain (as Goodhart claims against a wealth of evidence to the contrary). Rather it requires a re-assessment of Britishness which is not built on racialised superiority and which adapts our sense of ourselves in a way which takes us somewhere other than a melancholic remembrance of things past (Gilroy 2004). This would suggest that there will be many ways of being British, and also that the British will have many ways of being ‘global’. One of the features of our multicultural society, as Nira Yuval-Davis (Yuval-Davis 2008) points out, is that citizenship is ‘multi-layered’. Our sense of ourselves, our emotional, social and economic ties with others are varied and stretch from the local, to the national and the global. This should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.


ONS (2013). 2011 Census: Quick Statistics for England and Wales, March 2011, Organisation of National Statistics.

Arendt, H. (1958). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Cleveland and New York, Meridian Books.

Crick, B. (1991). The English and the British. National Identities. The Constitution of the United Kingdom. B. Crick. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers: 90-105.

Gilroy, P. (2004). After Empire. Melancholia or convivial culture? Abingdon, Routledge.

Goodhart, D. (2013). The British Dream. Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration. London, Atlantic Books.

Isin, E. F. (2004). "The neurotic citizen." Citizenship Studies 8(3): 217-235.

Walters, W. (2004). "Secure Borders, Safe Haven, Domopolitics." Citizenship Studies 8(3): 237-260.

Yuval-Davis (2008). Intersectionality, citizenship and contemporary politics of belonging. Contesting Citizenship. B. Siim and J. Squires. London and New York, Routledge: 159-173.

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