There are many ways of being British. This is a reality that politicians and others need to understand, explains Dr Bridget Byrne.
In response to the ‘Trojan horse’ controversy in Birmingham, David Cameron, Conservative Party leader has again stressed his belief in the need to emphasise ‘British values’. This is not a new approach.
In his 2006 party conference speech, Cameron argued that “every child in our country, wherever they come from, must know and deeply understand what it means to be British”. But, how do we know if we’re ‘British’? What does it mean to ‘deeply understand’ what ‘being British’ is?
Cameron suggests there is a single meaning of ‘being British’ and that it is a unique national characteristic. Although his description of British values – as freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, and respecting and upholding the rule of law – these might be expected to be values upheld in most nations and states.
However, the call to strengthen ‘British values’ strikes a chord with others who talk of a ‘crisis’ of national identity in Britain, and does not come exclusively from the political right and is often set in the context of debates about immigration.
For example, David Goodhart also argues that we need to reinvigorate our national identity. Goodhart sets up immigration as a major threat to this re-imagining and to the welfare state. He argues that (ethnic) diversity undermines community bonds and that it weakens people’s willingness to partake in collective welfare via the state.
Goodhart asserts that we need to be able to talk about racism without being immediately labelled as racist. Of course we should be able to talk about immigration policy without being accused of racism. But we also need to ensure that our debate isn’t racialised. We need to de-couple race from immigration. This involves more than pointing out that Polish/Bulgarian immigrants are white and yet some are opposed to their immigration.
A test of whether race, immigration and national identity were properly separated could be that it doesn’t take longer, or more generations, for the offspring of a black immigrant to become one of ‘us’ than it does for the ancestors of a white immigrant. Yet Goodhart explains that two of his grandfathers were American, but there is no suggestion that he would describe himself as a ‘third-generation immigrant’.
Yet, somewhat oddly, he describes Lenny Henry, who was born in Dudley, as a ‘Caribbean’ and continually refers to ethnic minority communities or individuals as second or third ‘generation’.
Goodhart’s approach to immigration conveys a narrow outlook and fear of difference. For example he is concerned about homes where English is not spoken (enough). He anxiously recites statistics from the 2009 labour survey which tell how various ethnic minorities ‘come from homes where another language is spoken’ and repeatedly worries about homes where English is not the primary language.
An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but the immigrant to England may expect intimate family practices around language to be under scrutiny. Many might argue that the ability to speak more than one language in a globalising world could be seen as a core strength that ethnic minorities bring to Britain. However for Goodhart, bi- or multi-lingualism, particularly in the home, is presented as a threat to the nation and, by implication, to ‘British values’.
Yet the finding that, for example, 64% of pupils of Chinese-origin and 78% of pupils of Bangladeshi-origin pupils come from homes where another language is spoken tells us nothing about the proficiency of English in those homes and in particular of the pupils surveyed. As the more recent 2011 Census tells us, less than half a percent of residents over three years old in England and Wales could not speak any English and only 2% could not speak English ‘well’.
Despite the evidence that immigrants to Britain want to, and can, speak English, Goodhart is not alone in his concern about language. For example, Labour leader Ed Miliband has said: ‘If you come to this country, you should learn English’. His tone is disciplinary and focuses on the alleged unwillingness of migrants to learn English, rather than the severe cuts in the provision of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.
Re-imagining nationhood in Britain would surely require a way of reframing Britishness and Englishness in a way that expressed a sense of value in and confidence about the diversity of Britain rather than a fearful response to it.
We need to understand that there will be many ways of being British. Indeed the 2011 Census has shown us that ethnic minorities in England have high levels of identification with Britishness. Our sense of ourselves, our emotional, social and economic ties with others are varied and stretch from the local, to the national and the global.
This should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.
- ONS Goodhart, D. (2013). The British Dream. Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration. London: Atlantic Books
- The views presented here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).