Is there any such thing as British ethnicity?

Ethncity is officially "self-defined". Whether Cornish, Welsh, or Arab, you make a statement when you tick a box.

Which box do you tick on forms that ask for your ethnicity? I go for “Mixed [white/Asian]”. Because this is an option on most forms, I’d never really questioned it, or thought about how it would feel if I didn’t fit into any of the categories. My mother, however, speaks of how much she hated classifying her children as “other” before “white/Asian” made it on there.

Certainly, the word “other” has powerful negative associations. Perhaps that is why the list of options on the census form – which many other forms emulate – prompts such strong feelings. Interestingly, ethnicity data for the UK entirely relies on people’s self-definition. The Office for National Statistics explains:

Is a person's ethnic group self-defined? Yes. Membership of an ethnic group is something that is subjectively meaningful to the person concerned, and this is the principal basis for ethnic categorisation in the United Kingdom. So, in ethnic group questions, we are unable to base ethnic identification upon objective, quantifiable information as we would, say, for age or gender. And this means that we should rather ask people which group they see themselves as belonging to.

Having never had cause to question my own identity in this way, I’d always assumed that ethnicity was tied to race, while nationality denoted one's country of birth. But the term “ethnicity” is actually more slippery than this. The dictionary definition is “large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” This gives leeway for a whole set of identities to come under the bracket of “ethnicity”.

The debate that preceded last year’s census sheds some light on this. The National Association of British Arabs was active in campaigning for a new tick-box category of “Arab” to be introduced on the form. An article by their chairman set out their arguments:

The lack of recognition of Arabs as a separate ethnic group, and hence their exclusion, has serious consequences for the planning of services and monitoring of such problems as racial discrimination.

In areas where there are large clusters of Arabs such as central London, health authorities and educational bodies have taken such steps as translations of health guidance material in Arabic and the provision of translators in hospitals to cater for this.  However without more accurate data, such services will remain haphazard.

The campaign was ultimately successful, and “Arab” was included on the 2011 list, along with “Gypsy/traveller”, an ethnic group to which many of the arguments above apply.

No-one would dispute that Arabs – united across countries by a common language and culture – are a distinct ethnic group. But this simple notion of ethnicity is problematised by another campaign: for recognition of the “Cornish” as an ethnic group. MPs rejected a bid to include it as a tick-box option on the 2011 census. In response, Cornwall’s local government launched a campaign to encourage people to choose the “other” option, and write in “Cornish”. My first thought on reading this was that “Cornish”, surely, is a regional identity, rather than an ethnic one, but that stems from my assumption that ethnicity is tied to race. Certainly, Cornish separatists would disagree. The bid for “Cornish” ethnicity was based around the region’s distinct identity and language (though few speak it as a first language), and had it been successful, would have accorded Cornish identity a similar status to Welsh or Scottish.

Coming back to the dictionary definition above, this could well be considered valid. The common parlance of “ethnic prints” and “ethnic jewellery” associates the word with foreign cultures – indeed, “otherness” – but this is a non-starter: what makes a samosa more “ethnic” than a cream tea, if you think about the word meaning?

The far-right British National Party defines itself as the party of the “ethnic British”, as set against “ethnic minorities” who are supposedly taking over. But the fact that hundreds of thousands choose to describe their own ethnicity as Welsh, Scottish, or Cornish shows that “ethnic British” is a nebulous concept. Given that “ethnic” can refer to “regional” or “linguistic” groupings, who is to say that someone who is black but born and brought up in Britain cannot be ethnically British and ethnically Nigerian (for example) at the same time?

The box that you tick on a form might, on the surface, appear to be meaningless bureaucracy. But it goes right to the heart of national and ethnic identity, a burning issue for many people. Inclusion on the census form indicates whether the state accepts your self-definition; personal though it is, by definition, associating yourself with a particular group also makes an outward statement. Forced to make a choice, most people will go with the most literal option – eg. their race or country of origin. This makes sense: the nuances of self-definition and ethnicity are too wide-ranging to fit into a tick in a box.
 

The 2011 census. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue