Identity crisis

Who Do We Think We Are? creating the new Britain

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin

In the final chapter of this, her latest work, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asks: "How do you conclude a book such as this?" Good question. But an even better one might be: "Why begin such a book as this in the first place?" For as she herself admits: "It is only one exploration of enormous issues, each of which could sprout a dozen different books." Too true. It is, indeed, a most confusing hotchpotch, raising in my mind yet another question: "How in Christ's, Allah's, Mohammad's, Jehovah's, etc, etc, etc, name, can I possibly review it?"

A quote from the blurb will explain my difficulty: "More than half a century after the large-scale migration of visible communities to this country, Britons are still grappling with the implications of these altered contours of our society. In a direct and hard-hitting investigation of both the private and public spheres of British life, Alibhai-Brown asks difficult questions and posits some complex responses in her interpretation of the massive transformations and realities of Britain now."

Phew. Unfortunately, the blurb does not exaggerate. If that is what the reader wants, that is what he will get. Taking E M Forster's admonition very much to heart, the author is determined to make us all - and by "all" she means not only black, brown, feminist, anti-feminist, old, young, rightist, leftist, but also every variety and kind of the same - connect. Not only, therefore, must we accept the desirability and inevitability of living in a multicultural, pluralist Britain - which most of us have - but also the obligation that this entails on all and every one of us to transform ourselves into a veritable walking human microcosm of New Britain. Tolerance of each other is not enough. We must all understand each other, merge into each other, become each other.

Taking that ideal as her point of departure, the author has spent a great deal of time and trouble trawling through the media and conducting her own interviews to show how far contemporary Britons fail to live up to it. For example, Charles Moore, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, is found guilty of holding "xenophobic delusions" about "hooded hordes" overrunning his beloved country; a publication called What Women Want is condemned for being interested only in what white women want; the journalist Polly Toynbee is indicted for supposing that all - rather than most - Muslims are male chauvinists, and so on and such like through 274 pages.

There is even, above the opening chapter of the book, a long quotation from an article of mine in which I write about "no longer feeling at home in contemporary Britain". This is included presumably to suggest that I am blaming this on the presence of coloured immigrants. Truth to tell, however, alien races are the last of my worries. In fact, I find the sight of blacks and browns reassuring, and feel much safer travelling home on public transport at night when they are around than when surrounded by white "youth", and much more at home on a bus with a black conductor than a white one. It is the white New Brit that I feel alienated from, not the blacks or browns, most of whom strike me as comfortingly old-fashioned. Mutual understanding, dear Yasmin, is a two-way business.

Although highly intelligent, observant and original, with lots of worthwhile things to say, Alibhai-Brown, in trying to "imagine the New Britain", has chosen an impossibly rubbery bone on which to chew. Not that "imagining the Old Britain", with all its class intricacies and overlappings, would have been much easier. Novelists are good at such imaginings, which is what they are for. Journalists and even sociologists, unless they have genius, are less so. Which is why this book resonates only when good writers such as Ben Okri are quoted.

Nor am I at all certain that a pluralist society can, or should be, nagged into connecting; into not colliding, yes, but surely beyond that, one of the advantages of a pluralist society is that people are not forced to love neighbours as themselves. It would be a marvellous thing if they did, and the Christian Churches have a duty to encourage their flocks to move in that direction; but whether it is wise for the state to do so is much less certain.

Not that Alibhai-Brown is unaware of this. There is very little of which she is unaware. For she herself puts her finger on the only fruitful way forward in a free society. "We [the British]", she writes, "don't yet have our own Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, writers who can blend the scents of politics and literature and diffuse their thoughts through the atmosphere, effecting the very way we all breathe." So that is what New Britain lacks - not so much laws as poetry. But this will take time. After all, Old England had been going for half a millennium before Shakespeare told us who we were. Meanwhile, I fear, books such as this one, which only exasperate and antagonise, are more part of the disease than part of the cure.

The author is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph