Who cares about Britishness?

Paul Kingsnorth
19 May 2008

Paul Kingsnorth reviews Who cares about Britishness? by Vron Ware.

(Ware, Arcadia Books, July 2007, 180pp)

It doesn’t seem an especially good start to this book-length exploration of the fading essence of ‘Britishness’ that even its author openly admits to not caring very much about the question posed by its title. That title, writes Vron Ware, ‘wasn’t even a question, it was more of a reply.’ When she began the project, she explains, she didn’t care about Britishness herself. The trouble is that she doesn’t seem to care by the end either, and along the way she hasn’t persuaded us that we should. Quite the opposite, in fact: if this confused and self-negating book is the best that ‘Britishness’ can do, then the long-heralded end of the union might turn out to be rather a good thing. One suspects that the book’s sponsors, the British Council, were hoping for rather a different conclusion.

Ware lays her cards on the table in the first few pages. Britain, she writes, ‘may be a country, but it is not really a place.’ When you come through the channel tunnel, you are informed that you have arrived in England, and the signs at Heathrow welcome you to London. Britain is not a nation at all, but a composite of four nations. It has, she observes, ‘a standing army but not a football team. It has an anthem, a flag and a queen’, but no patron saint and no constitution. These are all good points, but Ware goes further. Britain, she reckons, is essentially rubbish. The most noticeable things about the Brits are their ‘flaws’: ‘they drink too much, swear too much, blame the government for everything and laugh at themselves when things get rough.’ Pretty much the only good thing about this poor bloody country, in fact, is ‘its record of functioning multiculturalism.’ In other words, the best thing about Britain is the bits that aren’t British.

What is it, then, apart from the political determination of its governing classes, which holds this messy historical accident of a nation together? What makes it what it is? This is the question that Ware is supposed to be answering, and to be fair to her it is a hard, perhaps an impossible, one. Just look at Gordon Brown’s floundering attempts to make ‘Britishness’ sing in our hearts. Or, come to that, the words of his fellow Celtic British nationalist Neil Kinnock who, in the book’s foreword, makes the usual liberal case for the historical illegitimacy of Britain (we’re a ‘mongrel nation’, the Empire was bad, etc) but then flinches from the obvious conclusion and decides that, after all, Britishness is a good and necessary thing which just needs to be ‘re-invented’ – perhaps, the reader may mischievously think, to get his beloved Labour party out of a tricky political fix.

Ware has chosen to try and make her project work by using the device of asking foreigners – many of them from countries formerly colonised by Britain – what ‘Britishness’ means. This is an intriguing idea and, in the right hands, could have yielded some fascinating results. And there are some intriguing nuggets in this book, gleaned from many conversations with immigrants now living in Britain and from people in other countries whose perspective on this hoary old debate can be refreshing.

Some of them are intriguingly counter-intuitive. Ware interviews Tariq, a student from Lahore, Pakistan, who is studying for a PhD at Leeds University. He is astonished to see people wearing veils on the streets of Britain. Expecting to arrive in Bronte country he was surprised to see Bradford’s council estates, and even more surprised to see Bradford. Tariq would prefer the Britain of the past – a Victorian nation of hard work and self discipline, not the ‘benefit culture’ he thinks it has become. He is astonished that British mosques are employing ‘crazy’ imams from rural Pakistan who ‘would never get a job over there.’ His British-Pakistani barber tells him to pray for his wife who is having trouble conceiving because he doesn’t trust doctors. ‘They are living in the Stone Age’, he says, shocked. He wants to go back to Pakistan because ‘it seems so primitive’ in Britain. ‘This country’, he declares, ‘has a problem on its hands.’

The book could do with more of this kind of insight, from all sides of the debate. There are other examples – a man from Britain’s Chinese community, for example, complains to a Muslim friend that Muslims are getting all the media attention and the Chinese are being ignored. His friend tells him to be thankful. Roxana from Colombia observes that ‘London is a place for lonely people.’ Ware asks Bano, a young Muslim woman from Blackburn, whether ‘a strongly defined national identity is a useful device for protecting and supporting minorities.’ ‘Not if you keep calling us minorities’, Bano shoots back. Such ghettoisation, she insists, makes it much harder for anyone who isn’t white to ever feel British.

Bano’s objection to Ware’s question gets to the heart of the problem with this book: it is suffocatingly PC. So much so that it sometimes seems to have fallen through a wormhole in space in 1986 and emerged in the present day. Ware’s background is in writing anti-racist and feminist literature, and her reference points – as she points out ad nauseum throughout the book – are in battles against the National Front circa 1979 and the strenuous defence of a very 1980s version of ‘multiculturalism.’ Every few pages, it seems, we are treated to an anecdote in which she bravely stands up to fascists as a teenager in Buckinghamshire, or soapboxes about white western imperialism and the prejudice of the pasty-faced natives. Ware is not just agnostic about Britain and Britishness; she openly dislikes it. To her, Britain’s only saving grace is its population of foreigners. Not only that, but she seems to know very little about Britain as a place, as distinct from an idea (neither do most of her interviewees but they, unlike the author, have a pretty good excuse), save for a few London boroughs and a couple of northern industrial cities. Most of Britain, and most of its people, don’t even make an appearance.

The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, Ware utterly fails to answer – or even, in most cases, ask – the question which the book’s title poses. And secondly, she is forced to skate over the many cracks which are currently appearing in Britain’s multicultural ideology – cracks which, ironically, are highlighted again and again throughout the book not by foaming, white-skinned Daily Mail columnists but by the very ‘minorities’ who she is so convinced have been its beneficiaries.

Bano, in Blackburn, explains the problem well. Growing up in Sheffield, Bano – though aware of her Muslim and Asian heritage – always felt British. She went to an ethnically mixed school where people rubbed along. Then she moved to Blackburn aged fourteen and started at a school whose intake was 95% Asian. Suddenly, she says, she didn’t feel British anymore.

Bano’s point is clear to the reader, and painful to read: attending an ‘Asian’ school, in which the teachers focused on her ‘Asian’ identity, she felt immediately different to the rest of the country. She had been ghettoised. She was now a ‘minority’ rather than just another British citizen. At this point, her friend Amar joins the conversation. ‘People live in an Asian ghetto, they go to the state school which is mostly Asian, they have their mosques … The system is designed like that’, he says. ‘In my day there were no “minority” teachers, but I had a better experience … If you have to give up your identity as British, you will never belong.’

Bano and Amar have highlighted the painful paradox at the heart of the multicultural experiment: the act of defining people as ‘minorities’ in order to better defend their rights also ghettoises them; sets them apart from the mainstream. A generation of this has led to areas of Britain in which ethnic and racial segregation are now a reality. Multiculturalism has led to less, not more, integration and more, not less, communal tension.

Yet Ware cannot see it. She is ‘surprised’ by Bano’s story, and she doesn’t really take it anywhere. Instead, she falls back into her comfort zone: ‘multiculturalism’ (which she never, incidentally, defines) is a good thing because – well, because it just is. The unacknowledged contradictions are highlighted again when Peray, a Turkish Muslim woman, tells her of a ‘Safer Schools’ conference she had attended. A member of the audience suggested that some young men needed to be told it was wrong to sexually harass women. Peray takes this as an ‘Islamophobic’ slight and retorts that such things simply never happen in Muslim culture. Ware reports this approvingly: but who does she think she is helping by doing so? Some Muslim women in Britain suffer terribly at the hands of men whose actions are, whether Peray wants to admit it or not, tacitly or openly sanctioned by their communities in the name of culture or religion or both. Women’s refuges are full of them. For Peray, and Ware, to suggest that this is not the case does no-one any favours – least of all the most vulnerable people in society.

There were a number of books that could have been written here: a genuine inquiry into the nature of ‘Britishness’, perhaps; a spirited defence (starting with a definition) of multiculturalism; or an honest exploration of the pros and cons of life in multi-ethnic Britain. Ware seems to have tried to combine all three, and has ended up succeeding in none of them. By the end, all we are a left with is a frustrating series of questions.

If this is what Britain has come to, Gordon Brown is in even more trouble than we thought.

Paul Kingsnorth’s new book Real England: the battle against the bland is published by Portobello. www.realengland.co.uk

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