2007 - 2021

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.

Comments (11)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I think the closest comparison is the USA rather than North Korea (although the latter shares a system of hereditary monarchy, it is much less entrenched than in the British Empire): the school pledge of allegiance, its enforcement and its dissenters. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_the_Pledge_of_Allegiance

    Pride is such a reactionary vice, and an odd sin for a presumably Christian-ruled country to champion. Clearly, we have got so much wrong, it seems entirely inappropriate to be talking about great global collective efforts to save the environment from destruction by ourselves, while puffing ourselves up with pride about our alleged achievements. Self-criticism is generally more helpful, analysing the past without fear or favour the stepping stone to an improved future.

    And problematically for this kind of England+Wales+Scotland+NorthernIreland formulation, there are other parts of the British Empire under the same flag, but often with fewer rights, and some without representation at all. What do children on the British offshore tax havens sing about these days? What about those people of the ‘team’ who don’t have a vote? Who are still treated like the colonial subjects they are?

    Apparently a statue of Queen Elizabeth II was targeted in Canada after the new discovery of hundreds of little graves of indigenous children murdered by the residential school system (I read a fatality rate of 1 in 10). That has been the reality for kids of the British Empire. Let’s see them write a song about that.

  2. Colin Robinson says:

    Yep, I’ve long banged on about the tension between ethnic and civic nationalism, between the nationalism of exclusive bloodlines and heritage and that of shared citizenship, between identity and our assimilation thereunto on the one hand, and diversity and the integration of that diversity into a peaceful and productive communal order of restrained dissonance on the other.

    I can see the original civic intention behind the OBON movement – unity in diversity; unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation – that shifts focus from unity based on a mere tolerance of physical, cultural, linguistic, social, religious, political, ideological and/or psychological differences towards a more complex unity based on an understanding that difference enriches our social interactions. However, it has been seized upon and hijacked by the assimilation brigade and turned into something of an identitarian project, which has b*gg*r*d it completely.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Sounds a bit Hughie Green to me

  4. Wul says:

    Good article, it got me thinking.

    I had no idea this initiative was aimed mainly at people from BAME backgrounds. If we substituted “England” for “Britain” and the St George’s Cross for the Union flag in the celebrations how would that have be perceived? “We are England and we have one dream….” Does entry to the club of being English have a higher bar than the catch-all “Britishness” that we are all invited into?

    And in Scotland?

    How do I feel when BAME Scots declare “I am Scottish”? The only feeling I notice is one of slight smugness (dare I say pride?) which in itself reveals a sense of “other” and of entitlement. “I am pleased that this person and/or their ancestors has found Scotland to be a place they happily call home”. Scotland being, naturally, my country and them being a welcome “arrival”. Even though they may have been born here and so were their parents! So I clearly still have some distance to travel.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      It’s not that far, Wul. It’s just a case of disentangling nationality from ethnicity.

  5. Susan Macdiarmid says:

    I had been under the impression that British- ness was the province of right wing leavers throughout the UK. Also that Scotland was ahead of the game in social inclusiveness. I do live in very rural Scotland. Have I become isolated from the truth?

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      My impression is that the concept of ‘Britishness’ is changing as society changes. Conservatives tend to hearken back to the passing ‘heritage’ concept, while progressives are looking to forge a new one that better reflects the evolving social reality.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      Regardless of the SNP’s record in govt their attitudes to immigration and immigrants has been exemplary. Not once have I noticed them attempting to appease the far right for the sake of a vote. You’re not isolated from the truth Susan but you’re probably well insulated from Scotland’s shame who seem to be concentrated in the centre west. British is no longer a nationality, it’s a mentality.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        ‘British is no longer a nationality, it’s a mentality.’

        That’s a good way of putting it, Tom. Nations are imagined communities; Britain has been struggling to reimagine itself since its deconstruction as an imperial power from the middle of the last century. In postmodern societies like our own, culture war has replaced class war as the main driver of history.

  6. Niemand says:

    Good article Tejas: fair and nuanced and asking great questions.

    What it means to be English is changing, slowly. Recent research showed, apparently, that 10% of English white citizens believe you must be white to be English (and presumably a bit more than that). Interestingly some 7% of ethnic minorities also think that. Either way that is a much lower figure than I expected. Now is certainly time to embrace the notion that being English is no longer an ethnicity. As you say, Britishness was an easy substitute, avoiding the issue really, but that is waning, not just because the whole concept is under severe strain but also a gradual shift is happening in thinking about what ‘English’ means. This is good. Much of this is part of the so-called ongoing culture wars and there is a long way to go, but change is happening. The recent racist outbursts from English racists after the Euro final have been countered again and again by very numerous good people from across the spectrum. The racists have power because they have a massively amplified voice these days, far outweighing their actual number. They will not prevail.

    So the question for here is simple – is the same process happening with Scottishness? Being open and welcoming in terms of immigration is one thing, but isn’t the same as saying you are regarded as Scottish, let alone as the white person born here with generations going back aways.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Sadly, some migrants to Scotland still feel a need to assimilate and assume tartan trimmings, at least outwardly, to be accepted. I think we’ve still a long way to go before we can claim to be truly plural rather than singularly ‘Scottish’.

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