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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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition