The New Statesman Essay 3 - The quest for a British identity

Citizenship tests? Yes, but let's first agree on our own values

Growing up in Australia in the 1950s, I was very familiar with the assisted migration scheme that attracted thousands of families from postwar Europe. But on a recent family visit to the Hebridean island of Islay, I discovered that my father's great-grandparents had been assisted migrants more than a century earlier, when Scottish landlords, determined to rid their lands of "surplus" population, helped thousands to travel to new settlements in the Antipodean colonies.

This discovery changed my perception of my nationality. I felt both more Scottish and more Australian - and, paradoxically, more British, too.

I grew up British in Australia. Mine was a generation brought up on British history (I learnt more at primary school about the Viking and Norman invaders than I ever did about Australian Aborigines or the early white explorers). Our political and legal traditions were British, and so were our cultural reference points. We read British children's books, sang English Christmas carols and ate plum pudding in midsummer, with the temperature in the 90s. The national anthem was still "God Save the Queen", and this was long before Australia acknowledged the appalling wrongs done to its original people, let alone developed the self-confident national identity we saw at last year's Sydney Olympics.

So I am not surprised when a Sikh friend in my Leicester constituency tells me about his British origins in East Africa: "My father worked for the British civil service. My uncle served in the British army. We are British." He is still angry about the device of British overseas citizenship - which stripped the right of entry from those who were born British in Uganda, Kenya and the rest of the non-white British Commonwealth. He, and many of my British Asian friends, grew up British - as well as Indian, Pakistani and Hindu, Sikh or Muslim - in the Indian subcontinent, East Africa or South Africa.

Their experience of Britishness was very different from mine. They were targets of racism; I, a white, middle-class Australian, was not. But if we do not understand the sense of Britishness felt by all those British citizens who grew up in the Commonwealth, then we miss a crucial aspect of the debate about multiculturalism. The history of Britain's different ethnic and religious communities, complex and contested as it is, is part of modern British history; and their identity is part of the contemporary British identity.

These family histories are histories of migration. It is time to abandon the idea that migration is something that other people do to Britain, and remember that migration is what we have been doing to the world for centuries. Britain, as a free and wealthy country, would be a magnet in any case for people seeking a better life and for those fleeing impoverished, war-torn lands. But the magnet is a thousand times stronger for those connected to Britain by history, language, culture and family.

We should also remember that our diversity brings not only cultural richness, but also economic and competitive advantage. In this global economy, the globe is at home in Britain. The new generation of British Asian, Caribbean and African professionals and entrepreneurs not only grow businesses here, they also create trade and investment links abroad. Both Germany and Britain want to recruit people from India who have IT skills that Europe urgently needs; but as one Indian business leader asked a senior German politician: "Why would Indians want to go and live in Germany when they feel at home in Britain?"

Not everyone who settles in the UK wants to become a British citizen. But most do. As David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has said, acquiring British citizenship should be more than a bureaucratic process. Australia has long expected "new Australians" to learn English and something of the laws and values of their new country; in return, their new status is publicly celebrated in citizenship ceremonies. Requiring applicants for British citizenship to learn English should hardly be contentious; that it is so is a sign of how muddled we have become about multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism matters. It mattered particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when new generations of migrants arrived, when racism was overt and often violent, and when we needed as a country to learn to respect and celebrate our growing diversity. But multiculturalism is no longer enough. Too often, multiculturalism has meant putting people into minority boxes - assuming, for instance, religious beliefs when none exist, or expecting a writer who happens to be black or Asian to speak for a whole community.

Particularly after 11 September, we need firmer foundations. Those foundations - essentially, the liberal values of the Enlightenment - include freedom of religious belief and worship. But that does not mean tolerating - and failing to prosecute as criminal offences - the hatred preached by some religious leaders, any more than we should tolerate the racism of right-wing extremists. Nor can it mean compromising on respect for the equal dignity and freedom of women and men.

Thirty years ago, women in Britain began to speak out against domestic violence, naming a crime that had previously been almost unmentionable. We have not always been so robust when it comes to girls denied a full education, or domestic violence or forced marriages - not the same thing as arranged marriages - within minority ethnic communities. White liberals and feminists have never hesitated to criticise male prejudice and violence within our own communities, but too many of us have felt inhibited by the fear of being, or being called, racist.

As the Labour MP Ann Cryer found when she argued that marriage partners brought here from the Indian subcontinent should be asked to learn English, cultural relativism is alive and well. How insulting, we are told, to suggest that some values are better than others. But with our own long history of religious conflict, we are entitled to prefer religious tolerance to a state that recognises only one true faith. We are entitled to insist that every human being is equal and to organise our national affairs accordingly.We have a responsibility to give newcomers the opportunity to learn English, and we are entitled to expect husbands to let their wives take up this offer.

How, then, do we approach the issue of faith schools? As our state education system already embraces Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish and other religious schools, we cannot continue to hold out against other faiths. Nor, I think, is the French route of a secular education system open to us. There is substantial evidence that our existing state faith schools are more effective at providing the strong leadership, ethos and discipline that enable pupils of all abilities to flourish. A programme to secularise faith schools would be a diversion from the real priority of strengthening underperforming schools and supporting the most disadvantaged pupils - and would no doubt lead many of the present comprehensive faith schools to join the private sector, deepening divisions in both community and education.

So we should offer inclusion in the state system to schools of every faith - but we should also be tough in our requirements of those schools. We cannot, for instance, embrace the private Islamic girls' school that recently sought to discuss its application for state funding with the local director of education - but refused to allow him to meet any of the women teachers.

The dilemma for progressive people is to reconcile the principle of non-discrimination with the increasingly urgent need to integrate our communities and bring up our children with shared values, as well as a belief in the value of diversity. Alongside greater variety among our schools, we also need to find new ways of integrating them. As Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, has argued, we could draw all faith schools into partnerships - a new faith school, for instance, could be linked with a Church of England school and a secular comprehensive, so that the three shared religious education and the teaching of civics. We should also support local education authorities which believe that - although having some new faith schools will widen parents' choice and enrich the local community - there must not be so many of them that they ghettoise all the children of any particular faith.

We could also develop a new "faith standard" for all schools, explaining to parents what the school provides in its collective act of worship, how it looks after pupils of different religions or no religion, how it approaches religious education, and how it celebrates the festivals of the different religions. Working out what a "faith standard" should require, from families and from schools, could help the primary teacher I met recently, who was struggling to cope with Muslim pupils, recently arrived, who had been forbidden by their parents to watch television during Ramadan - a huge disruption to classes that routinely use videos as teaching aids.

So what values do we want to promote with new British citizens? Quite apart from issues raised by ethnic and religious diversity, "being British" is hotly contested territory in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Defining our common values is not a matter for the government alone. We should engage British citizens themselves in defining that citizenship. Already, local government, health authorities and others have used citizens' juries to great effect in helping to resolve difficult policy issues. Initially developed in Britain by the Institute for Public Policy Research, citizens' juries and people's panels allow a representative group to hear and cross-examine "expert" witnesses, and to form their own opinion - not as an instant response to pollsters, but on the basis of shared reflection and deliberation.

We should create networks of citizens' panels, involving young people in schools and colleges, as well as adults of all communities. We should ask them: what does it mean to you to be British? What are the values that we should all, as British citizens, have in common? There are some mean and narrow definitions of Britishness, but it is our best self that we want to celebrate and to offer to new citizens. The left has always believed in social responsibilities as well as individual rights. We should seize the opportunity to define a self-confident, inclusive, British citizenship.

Patricia Hewitt is MP for Leicester West, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and Minister for Women

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The ignorance of the Islamophobes