The new Britishness

UK Muslims show that patriotism doesn't have to be the last refuge of a scoundrel (or the BNP)

Some time ago a few friends and I gathered around a dining table off the Edgware Road, just minutes away from Tony Blair's current London residence and directly above the Lebanese, Arab and Persian cafés that dominate the area. Which of us, we discussed, was happy to identify as British? Among the group were people whose heritage, either by birth or parental inheritance, included Indian, South African Indian, Muslim, Jewish and Irish Catholic. All of us gave weight to that part of who we were, but were also content to call ourselves "British". All apart from one, the sole genuine Wasp present, who said she considered herself first and foremost to be English.

I thought of that scene when I read a story headlined "UK Muslims are Europe's most patriotic" in the Sunday Times yesterday. For I suspect that the kind of patriotism the Open Society Institute report discovered was not unconnected with the Britishness to which my friends and I were willing to subscribe. Rooted in these islands, yes, not least because part of that Britishness is the right of abode, and citizenship here. Acknowledging the special place of the culture specifically deriving from centuries of tradition in these lands, but also drawing on those emanating from the many countries that once called themselves (often had to call themselves) British.

The term thus implies no uniformity of colour or religion, more a commitment to a diffuse idea, some common values -- "liberty, tolerance, fair play", as the Prime Minister put it in this article. They may sound a little hazy, or even obvious (isn't everyone in favour of liberty, tolerance and fair play? Well, actually, no, not when you look at so many states around the world). But we do know what they mean. We do know what they stand for.

For it is these values that allow this newer Britishness to rise above its past. The father of one of my friends, for instance, earned a doctorate at a prestigious Indian university, only to find when he went to teach in what was then Malaya that the British authorities refused to recognise his qualification, putting him on a lower pay grade. One of his pupils at that school, a classmate of my father-in-law, still recalls the astonishment they felt when one of the white teachers, J B Wilson (later to find fame as Anthony Burgess), addressed them as "gentlemen".

"He bowled me over. We thought then of the British as being the supreme power. They wouldn't want to mix with us. But here was this orang puteh [white man] who was able to relate to us."

Burgess's attitude was commendable, but that it was so exceptional does not speak to a high degree of enlightenment permeating Britain's treatment of colonies on the verge of independence.

More recently, I remember the joy the South African Indians I mention above felt about being able to cast their vote for the first time after the end of apartheid. But which government had provided the most succour to the old National Party regime? The British administration of Margaret Thatcher. Even now, many British people of mixed Irish and English background cannot help but be aware that, in the land of their fathers (as in my case), their ancestors were robbed of their property and their language, denied the vote and true freedom of religion for centuries, and even deliberately starved (during the Potato Famine), by the governments and rulers of their other parent's country.

It takes a very open and generous patriotism to be able to acknowledge these injustices but to consider them part of a wider, shared history that should not be used to sharpen grievances today. Not forgotten, but certainly in some sense forgiven. Tolerance in this context, then, is not just about a white indigenous population (whatever that means) accepting "others". It is about a greater community being tolerant and accepting of the fact that a major part of what binds it together is that former empire which often acted with great violence towards its "children".

This makes it a very different kind of patriotism from the kind that President Sarkozy has, rather ill-advisedly and possibly cynically, recently encouraged the French to debate. As his comments on the Swiss minaret ban show -- "What happened has nothing to do with the freedom of religious practice, or freedom of conscience," was his ludicrous claim -- his idea of identity is much narrower and more exclusive, as well as being deeply Eurocentric.

None of this is to say that "Englishness" should not be celebrated as part of Britishness, too. Yesterday I attended a christening in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, and treasured the very English experience of singing hymns by Charles Wesley while an old friend's son was baptised in that heart of Anglicanism. Even the rain whipping round the cathedral precincts as we stepped outside afterwards seemed comfortingly English. That particular identity, I would argue, should have its place, but as part of a wider one, not defining it. It is a balance, an accommodation, a polite and respectful acceptance of differences.

As I look to the future, I would like to hope that this kind of Britishness will only strengthen and not fall prey to the tactics of those who wish to stoke fear and division. If there appears to be a personal tone to what I have written above, that is because it is personal. Any children my wife and I have, after all, will be of mixed race and nationality, have an Irish surname, be brought up as Muslims, but have sufficient knowledge of their Christian heritage to enjoy, and see no contradiction in, standing round a piano singing choruses from Handel's Messiah, as we all did after the christening.

Will they, too, feel proud to be British? I would hope that no "patriot" would suggest there is any reason why they should not.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Show Hide image

The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.