The Melting Pot and the British Meltdown

7 May 2009

In this extract from Breaking up Britain Charlotte Williams questions the degree to which post-devolution identities are any more inclusive or egalitarian.

We are often reminded that devolution is a process and not some event that happened back in 1999. A process in which we were assured of the development of more open and inclusive governance, a refreshed democracy and a reworking of the old nationalist politics that provoked such a guarded response to the referendum for self government, in Wales at least. The rather simplistic axiom that prevailed at the time implied that independence or even partial independence from what was seen by many to be the oppressive grip of British , or more accurately English, rule would somehow ensure a collective sense of unity in the constituent parts of this re-nationalised Britain. A sense that national solidarity might just produce more egalitarian relationships is perhaps a folly of all proto nationalists but nevertheless it held sway. However, from within the ranks of Britain's ethnic minorities the schism that characterised their relationship to Britishness, had taken on a new dimension. Now that erstwhile ambivalent positioning, being somehow both of the place but not quite allowed to belong, would have to be reassessed in the light of the reasserted identity claims being made by the four nations.  How would they sit within the spectre of a reclaimed Welshness, Scottishness, Irishness? Did this new separateness offer the potential for a reconciliation with or retreat from the notion of Britishness?

The Enemy Within

The troubled relationship between cultural diversity and the defining requisites of nation have without doubt been amplified ever since the events of 7 July 2005. The spectre of the enemy within took on a whole new dimension when it became possible that the boy next door who went to the local school might just be capable of demonstrating an allegiance to something much more than national deference. Despite other unsettling processes that have ensued with increased globalisation, the anxiety surrounding the ‘war on terror' has provided the justification to drive forward new Labour's heavy-handed machinery for the policing of national identity. As the paranoia mounts the answer to all the nation's woes has become to reconstruct the monolith, Great Britain though the oft heard mantra of Britishness. Gordon Brown has been dubbed the ‘Bard of Britishness' in his undisguised efforts to resurrect a sense of national solidarity too many feel has been lost under the onslaught of increased multiculturalism. The call is out for ‘shared values', for a shared national citizenship that can overlay the fragmentary force of multiple identity claims. Over the coming decades we must learn not only to live together but to somehow leave the excesses of our differences behind in a ‘strong modern sense of patriot purpose' which can bind people together. Brown has qualified this:

‘..this British patriotism is, in my view, founded not on ethnicity nor on institutions we share and respect, but on enduring ideals which shape ourselves and our communities - values which in turn influence the way institutions evolve'

But there is little new here for Britain's black and ethnic minorities. In the absence of a sophisticated, potent and embedded political response to cultural diversity and plurality many are left untouched by the flag-waving politicking and assimilationist mandate that has characterised British race relations for so long. This formula flies in the face of the emergent and spontaneous nature of the formation of identities and of a vibrant history of a variegated UK.

Tom Nairn has identified several of the features that contribute to the folly of Gordon Brown attempting to revive an ailing Britishness.  " What Frankensetin-Brown has done is to exploit the semi-conscious, taken-for-granted nationalism of the English with a specious formula, a made-to-order patriotic uniform stitched together from bits of the Anglo-British (imperial) past and misunderstood fragments of the United States." Minorities ‘old' and minorities ‘new' will inevitably be wary of such state orchestrated manipulation of the national consciousness not least because it finds little resonance with their everyday lived experiences. Those of the old guard, the Welsh, the Scottish and the Irish have long resisted the incursions of what some have recognised as an ‘internal' or cultural colonialism, through the daily performance of acts of culture, custom, language, heritage and tradition. The imposition of a given identity could not assuredly take hold when it so consistently failed to acknowledge their contributions and their constructions of what it might mean to be British and other, nor would it hold any meaning for them if it meant they had to forsake their inheritances.  Likewise the ‘new' minorities, those who the Empire ensured would make some claim on Britishness; they too would bring their own mores, lifestyles and heritage to bear on that something called national identity. 

Tom Nairn's solution to this conundrum lies in an optimism for an independent Wales or Scotland. But why for example would sitting in the garden on St. David's Day under the softly billowing Welsh flag be any different to Brown's proposals, albeit rendered small, for reconciling the tensions between cultural diversity and nation?

From the threat to ‘our jobs and houses' in the post war period, to the threat to ‘our culture' in the 1980s, to the asylum seeker and Islamist terror threat of the 2000s, the response to the so-called alien wedge has been a twin strategy of structured assimilationism coupled with rigorous immigration control. In its latest manifestation, the melting-pot assumptions of post-war Britain, which demanded the slow relinquishing of the most obvious aspects of difference, have been reformulated towards the idea that you can be as different as you like - dress, eat, talk, walk your difference - as long as you subscribe to ‘shared values. Nairn memorably describes this as amounting to : "Be a whatever-you-like and welcome here as long as you pass The British Citizenship test, fly the flag in the front garden and go to war when requested." This version of a permissive multiculturalism means that the pot is still the pot with little reworking of the idea of Britain itself. 

Breaking up Britain may do no more than replicate the problem as we spin off in search of an all embracing Welshness or Scottishness without considering the new and novel ways in which identities converge, coalesce and emerge. The current disentangling of Englishness from Britishness which is underway following devolution holds more potential as it releases the appropriation of the term British from state to nation. Britain as a state is responsible for citizenship not identity, for the distribution of rewards and privileges, ensuring rights and access to welfare and security of all. The rest is for us to work out between us.

I would prefer to place my bets on the vibrancy, chanciness and spontaneity of an emergent multiculturalism built on a robust and autonomous civil society, on open institutions and political forums where local and national communities can debate, argue, struggle over and negotiate outcomes. Maybe the durability of Britain is ensured by all this contestation, such that it becomes relevant as a point of reference rather than something that accurately reflects how we live our lives.  The project is ours, it is all up for grabs and it is for us to work out. Nations endure if we will them.  It is not the State or any orchestrated notion of national identity that will capture the greatest investment.

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