What does it mean to be British?


A new UK think tank, British Future, has been set up to look into identity, integration, migration and opportunity in modern Britain.  Their new research report, Hopes and Fears, looks at what it means to be British in 2012.

Rachael Jolley went to interview the Director, Sunder Katwala about the report. The podcast also includes contributions from the round table discussion that launched it, featuring novelist Christie Watson, journalists Matthew D’Ancona and James Forsyth and researcher Promise Campbell.

Christie Watson (speaking at the launch of the report) : Everything we see, everything we associate with Britishness – the flag, British colours – for me screams far right,  because they’ve claimed it.  So what is exciting for me about this [new organisation British Future] is that we all need to talk about these things and claim Britishness back, talk about immigration in an open way.

From a personal perspective, my families thrives because we live in Britain.  We are very diverse, my partner is Nigerian Muslim, we are a multi faith family, we have dual heritage children, my step daughter is a black evangelical Christian, so we have a whole rainbow mixture family.  The fact that we exist and thrive in this country makes me very proud – and my partner very proud – to be British and feel that included.

Rachael Jolley talking to Sunder Katwala at his office in London:  The question about the United Kingdom and British identity seems to have kicked off in early 2012 – why do you think that has happened with so much enthusiasm,  and anxiety in some cases?

Sunder Katwala:  I think it is going to be a very interesting year for Britain, and that is a good opportunity for British Future, because we are hoping to open up the public debate about identity, about  the anxieties people feel whether that’s about integration or immigration, about the economy, or about fairness and economic opportunity.

This is bound to be a year when people are feeling anxious about economic and social issues, but we found in the polling we did for the Hopes and Fears report that people are feeling rather hopeful and have an appetite for national occasions like the Olympics and the golden jubilee, which I think reflect an appetite for more things that bring us together.

At the same time,  the whole question of ‘will we be British in 5 years time?’ is on the table.  Alex Salmond and the SNP[Scottish National Party] won the election and they get to put the question to Scottish people in a referendum in the next five years – ‘do you want to be British or not?’ That is a vote the Scottish people will have, though it is bound to profoundly reshape the identity of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, too – across the UK.  We will be remaking what it means to be British, if we decide that we still want to be British.

RJ:  You did some polling about what people in Wales, Scotland and England about Scottish independnece – what did that find?

SK: Scottish independence is still an unlikely outcome, because less than 1 in 3 people in Scotland support it .  What was interesting about our poll was that there were very similar levels of support of just under 30% in Scotland, in England and in Wales, with slightly more people in Scotland wanting to keep the union (54%) (whereas people in England and Wales were indifferent to the question).  So there is a hopeful sign there in that we don’t massively disagree, the English are happy for the Scots to have a parliament, though they might want a voice of their own.  Scottish and Welsh people also support the English having a parliament of whatever form they choose.  So there is a basic fairness issue that people seem to think applies to their part of the UK and everybody else’s which might be a hopeful moment for politicians who fear this will all end up with squabbling over who pays the bills, who subsidises whom.  It does seem we can sort this out on fair terms if we choose to do so.

British Future. The think tank was launched in January 2012

RJ:  Some people get really upset and worried about conversations about identity, they fear it feeds into nationalism in a negative way.

SK: There are definitely dangerous forms of nationalism and history offers us plenty of warnings about those.  People react to that in different ways.  The important lesson to take from history is that the best antidote to dangerous forms of atavistic nationalism are confident and inclusive civic forms of patriotism.  But people disagree about that and feel that any talk about identity is bound to be exclusive as well as inclusive so that any form of patriotism turns into jingoism.

Our poll suggests this isn’t the case.  British identity has become very inclusive.   It is important to two thirds of people in England and 60% of people in Scotland, more than that in Wales. But it is held most strongly by ethnic minority people in Britain who perhaps have felt they had to stake a claim to it, whereas the white majority perhaps took it for granted.  It proves to be quite open to strong forms of civic pride to people born outside Britain.  So we have in Britain already an inclusive and civic form of identity and I think there are now emerging strong identities that are national in Scotland, England and Wales and they’ll  have to be civic too – and I think Scottish Nationalists have done a lot of work in the last 20 or 30 years to make sure that Asian Scots are as Scottish as anybody else and as the conversation emerges in England, I think we’ll see efforts to emulate what has already happened in Scotland and Wales where those identities are inclusive.  You’re bound to have in England an English sense of belonging in 2012 that reflects what the English now are.  Anyone who offers you an all white Englishness that is ethnically based won’t even get off the starting base.

RJ:  There are two big events for Britain this year, the Jubilee and Olympics –do you think that is what is feeding into this debate?

SK: The polling that British Future did found a strong appetite for these events – 64% of people thought the jubilee would lift the national mood, and only a slightly smaller number thought that about the Olympics, too.  That might be just that people like a festival, like a bank holiday.  But I think it tells us something more – that people are looking for moments and occasions that bring us together.  We like the individualistic freedoms of, for example, the internet – the ipad, the ipod, and the satellite channels so we can watch whatever we want whenever we want to, and when we have go all those freedoms to be ourselves in whatever way we want, we slightly miss the moments that bring us all together, so we are all doing the same thing, and all talk about the same thing – so I think street parties will probably be as popular in 2012 as they were in 1977.

But something else is happening too, which is that people are saying we are confident about modern Britain.  In our poll people were very optimistic about the positive gains they see immigration has brought to them culturally – especially in the area of food but also in film, music, art, literature and sport .  And at the same time they are interested in celebrating the 60th anniversary of the queen coming to the throne, celebrating the monarchy as part of British history.  So an idea that you have to choose to be modern or to have a past seems to be rejected by most people.  And I think that is very healthy because it would be difficult to persuade people in any country, perhaps especially in Britain that to be fair to newcomers or to be inclusive of everybody, or to have a civic and not ethnic identity you’ve got to have less of your own identity and history or not have a history. I think people would feel a sense of loss and tragedy in that.  But what we actually find is that most people can do both – be in favour of traditions and to make them inclusive.  And what we find is that the people who want that most is ethnic minorities.  That is good news for integration as long as we ask who fears being left out, who fears being left behind.

RJ  Do you think that British history has told a story that makes sense to most people?  It has been told through kings and queens.  Does it speak to how society today has evolved?

I think the reason people feel a connection to monarchy specifically, and it is the sort of thing people might take their children to go and see, is that you get a profound sense of something that goes back generations .  It is a living link to a very different age from the world we now  live in, and people are interested and engaged in what that tells us about this place, and this community and  how it’s changed.  People have a historic sense of that.

But I think it is very important to bring out a living sense of history in our communities, and have the history of how we changed and what we feel about that.  I think we’ve had too much anxiety about it – it’s a particular feature of post war Britain.  We seem to have an amnesia about  the history that created the society we now are because we thought it would be too difficult or too divisive to discuss it – because the history of British society today comes out of being an island nation, an insular nation but also a global nation, having an empire and losing it,  and asking people to come to Britain from that empire, or from the Commonwealth, to work in Britain in the NHS and in other ways.  So there is a profound way in which we shared a history – if you think of it, 2m soldiers from the Commonwealth fighting in the great wars in the British army, but we felt it would be divisive to talk about it in the classrooms because people would feel they were on opposite sides of the history of the empire and decolonisation.

But we are on the same side now of the society we are in now, and what it says to us about citizenship and equality and  rights, so if we don’t teach that history if we say we’ll talk about Henry VIII and his six wives because that is a story that doesn’t create any contention, or let’s talk about the Nazis because everyone’s on the same side, nobody likes the Nazis, and let’s teach about Geronimo and the American West (one of the most popular GCSE modules), but it’s not possible to teach the story of Britain and how we became this society because we’ve got a choice between teaching a 1950s  imperialism where we’ve want to paint the globe pink, or saying it was all terrible and shocking.  That would be an odd thing to do because we can have a confidence in the history that has made us who we are.

And the debates that have resonated throughout history.  Europe – are we part of Europe or not?  What is our relationship with North America?  What is our relationship with the developing world? These are debates that are being contested in every moment of history, but we can be informed by how we got here in terms of what we want to do about our identity and politics in the future.

Set out below are a few extracts from the roundtable discussion at the launch of British Future in January 2012, featuring James Forsyth of The Spectator, Promise Campbell, Matthew D’Ancona of the Sunday Telegraph and novelist and Costa prizewinner, Christie Watson.

James Forsyth, Promise Campbell and Matthew D’Ancona at the launch of British Future

James Forsyth:   If you want to discuss British values, they sound awfully like you are ripping off the Americans, for the simple reason that America was essentially founded by products of the English civil war and the Scottish enlightenment.  So those great American founding texts all reflect British political thought and British political values,  so any attempt to define Britishness in terms of those values just sounds like you are trying to make Britain sound like another version of the United States, which isn’t politically appealing.   So you end up with the very bland list of values like those [Gordon] Brown used to articulate which, because no one could disagree with them, lacked any resonance with the public

…..One of the things about Britishness is that it isn’t entirely logical.  These institutions like the monarchy and the house of lords, we strip them of most of their powers and then they can stay.  I think the British attitude to the monarchy is well summed up by the way we lopped the king’s head off before anyone else, but then we knew we’d put them in their place and then they can remain, they can come back and stay – I think that is quite an important part of Britishness, that we don’t feel the need to follow things through entirely to a logical conclusion!

…In some ways I think we in this country have essentially parked the debate on the monarchy for long as the queen is on the throne. She has done so long, everyone thinks she doing a good job, no one wants to say anything negative and I think that will carry them through the Jubilee.  I think the royal family are astute enough to  do it on the cheap.  It will be like the royal wedding, there will be lots of street parties, the BBC and the press will give it a very fair wind. And I think it will get through. The Olympics presents more of a challenge because one of the things about Britishness is a resistance to authority and a slight bolshiness. For example, I think that having Zil lanes [traffic lanes reserved for Olympic traffic] for the first time in this country will be something people won’t like.  But it will also be a wonderful testament to the flexibility of Britishness, because the British Olympic committee have gone round the world finding people who’ve got claims to a British passport through a grandparent here or there, to up our count for medals.  You’ll see people just as lustily celebrating someone who didn’t know they were British until someone from the British Olympic Federation called them up three years ago.  It will be rather like the English cricket team, it will be a wonderful testament to a flexible approach to national identity.

Promise Campbell:  I think for me what it actually means to be British is pretty much narrowed down to my experience and growing up in London. So, for me London is this pocket of Britain, that is just so diverse and eclectic  and so very different from anywhere else.  Apart from my 3 years in Cambridge, I have never lived anywhere else but London.  So my  view of what it means to be British is reduced to London. [ Did Cambridge feel different?]  Cambridge did feel incredibly different. In Cambridge I not only discovered I was black, but also that I was female and working class!

…This debate is interesting because some people are almost anxious about the idea or reality of being British.  But I am quite proud of being Britiish.  And it is almost acceptable for me to say I am happy to be British , But it’s not for others.  I had a conversation with a local councillor last week, who was upset about a local heritage being pulled down in the London Borough of Brent.  We were in a meeting and she said I am 4th or 5th generation Brent, and I am absolutely  livid about this building being demolished.  I found it fascinating that she was as excited about Brent as I was.  When I tried to have a conversation with her, she was defensive and said, ‘I hope I didn’t offend you.’ I said, ‘No, I love Brent, I grew up here, don’t be afraid to say you love Brent.’  She said that because the discourse has been hijacked by the far right a lot of people feel marginalised about talking about their sense of identity, afraid of expressing their Britishness.  It has almost become acceptable for some people to claim Britain and to say I am quite proud of being British, and some people not to. That saddens me.

Matthew D’Ancona: The values that we are talking about when we talk about Britishness tend to be expressed by institutions, and of course one of the institute we are going to celebrate this year in a big way is the monarchy, which is , of course, the central expression of British continuity. But it is a big mistake to think that the only institutions that express Britishness are the old ones – the monarchy, parliament, the courts and so on.  The 20th century delivered 2 institutions that are hugely expressive of British values – one is the BBC and the other is the NHS.  Even in its small and rather more marginal way, the national lottery apparently dug quickly into a sense of British fun and jollity and music hall atmosphere , it too become an institution very very fast.

So I think one has to be very careful in these debates when talking about what Britishiness is, not to underestimate the capacity of this country to evolve and to evolve progressively

Christie Watson As a writer I know we write about ourselves.  Unfortunately until the media is less Oxbridge white, middle class and male, we aren’t going to have as many perspectives on Britishness as we’d hope to.

We really need to open up to diversity.  [Is it a narrow debate?] At the moment it is.  [Is that getting worse or better?] . Well, in terms of race it is probably getting better from a diversity point of view.  But the vast majority of journalists that I’ve ever come across are Oxbridge, so it’s back to the class issue.  Because we write about ourselves, we are writing from a very single viewpoint at the moment, I think we need to diversify and look at the whole of journalism, how things are reported and by whom

This podcast was presented and produced by Rachael Jolley


James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator

Novelist Christie Watson trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street.  Her novel Tiny Sunbirds Far Away won the Costa first novel award 2011

Matthew D’Ancona is political columnist on The Sunday Telegraph

Promise Campbell is a researcher for Global Counsel.