One Britain One Nation
A few weeks ago, the online commentariat was set alight by a minor initiative localised entirely within Asian communities in West Yorkshire. One Britain One Nation Day, started by ex-policeman Kash Singh, involves a load of flag-waving and the singing of a creepy song about pledging allegiance to the British state. It claims to “promote, rejoice and celebrate the successes of our people under the common and collective identity of being British”. Another one of its aims is to “re-appropriate the flag of Great Britain so that it represents all people of good conscience, in order to promote and celebrate our common and collective identity”. Upon first glance, this is clearly a “community cohesion” project, not a hyper-Unionist brainwashing scheme. It seems quite evident that far from some grand orchestrated Tory plot, this was something that the government were very much bounced into lending their support to by a couple of overenthusiastic backbenchers. Among its endorsers are Joanna Lumley and the Muslim Council of Britain. Nonetheless, the fact that the UK-wide DfE has apparently lent the initiative its support is concerning and raises lots of questions.
The most common description of this scheme was “totalitarian”. Comparisons with North Korea abounded. A crude, assimilationist message largely directed at BAME people in England had inadvertently reached the eyes of (overwhelmingly white) Scottish and Welsh audiences, much to their horror. It should go without saying that no serious Unionist leadership could ever subject the people of the Celtic fringe to such propaganda, knowing full well how multi-national sensitivities make it impossible. The question begging to be asked then is – why is it okay for BAME Brits?
15% of the UK’s population belongs to minority communities, which is also roughly the same proportion of the population that inhabits Britain’s peripheral nations. Both are the subjects of their own “national questions”, and each these two different questions have been the animating forces driving all political developments in both England and Scotland in opposite directions. The social and political conflict over multiculturalism was an important point of articulation around which those who agitated for the UK’s exit from the EU rallied. More importantly, it has completely reshaped the politics of Europe and America beyond recognition. In sharp contrast, territorial separatist movements across the world are at an ebb, with the era of decolonisation giving way to increasingly consolidated nation-states in the post-cold-war world system. Nothing embodies this contrast as well as Lega, the largest party in the EU parliament today – which started out in the 90s by advocating independence for Northern Italy but rose to its current dominance by pivoting to anti-migration xenophobic politics.
Seen through this lens, Scotland’s interpretation of the national question is very much an outlier.
In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, British identity is something primarily wielded by the right and conservative forces. In England, it is primarily an identification with urban, cosmopolitan, remain-y and even somewhat progressive associations. Although some may point to this as a demonstration of the inherent flexibility of Britishness, it could more accurately be said that these are two distinct nationalisms altogether. At its root, this requires us to acknowledge the fact that meaning of Britishness to people in, say, Bradford or Bethnal Green, will be very different to the meaning of Britishness in Antrim or Ayrshire. The British state itself encourages this framing – most ethnic minority citizens filling out forms or partaking in the census will have to put down something like “British-Indian”, “British-Pakistani” or “British-Afro-Caribbean” on forms and cannot express a national identity for one of the home nations. White people have the luxury of nuanced and overlapping national identities, while black and brown people do not.
It is worth returning to the fact that this initiative has till date not been reproduced anywhere outside of the Bradford metropolitan area. West Yorkshire is in many ways an important crucible of the ethnic minority “national question”. It is home to one of Britain’s largest Asian communities. It was the flashpoint for widespread race riots in 2001, presaging New Labour’s pivot away from the relaxed cosmopolitanism of “Cool Britannia” towards the migrant-baiting authoritarian nationalism that would pave the way for the BNP, UKIP and Brexit. The eyes of Britain’s political class are focused on the by-election in Batley and Spen, infamous for a neo-Nazi act of racially-charged terror claiming MP Jo Cox’s life – but now ground zero for a moment of reckoning with the disillusionment of Asian voters sick of being taken for granted, all while white politicians use the campaign as a bully pulpit for legitimising racist tropes. In this context, a campaign for inter-ethnic community cohesion dressed in the Union Jack takes on a very different character to the one that the Scottish commentariat have ascribed it.
As long as Englishness remains a white ethnocentric identity and Celtic nations neglect the question of where non-whites fit into their national projects, an assimilationist civic Britishness will continue to be the default refuge of Britain’s BAME citizens. Cosmopolitan Britishness is a dead end in the long run, because Britain as a polity is on the way out – one day within our lifetimes it is very likely that England will be standing alone and will need to have a tough conversation about truly expanding “Englishness” into something that includes its black and brown citizens. However, that is still some way more advanced than the state of BAME assimilation in Scotland. Twee aphorisms from political leaders like “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns” are a thin band-aid concealing the reality that, despite the inclusive rhetoric, we are largely shut out from existential questions of national identity. If England is two generations behind us when it comes to discourse around devolution and regional affinities, Scotland/Wales/NI are at least a generation behind England when it comes to trying to actively resolve the question of how ethnic minorities are worked into the national tapestry.