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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.