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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser