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
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.