In some corner of an English fashion week . . .

We are being bombarded with opinions, which all stem from a white British judge's definition of what racism is. Hereafter, Sir William Macpherson replaces Franz Fanon, W E B Dubois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and C L R James as the authority on this 400-year-old experience. I never thought the day would come.

In 1632, the Frenchman Rene Descartes, fed up with astronomers and scientists seeking to interpret Aristotle, mixing brews of science and the Bible until all became confused and nobody knew where to begin and where to end, declared: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am). Now, some professional blacks declare "I am black, therefore I am".

I am out and about on a Channel 4 commission, making three one-hour documentaries on the white tribe. Huge changes are afoot in what we once described as the British Isles. Scotland is on the way to independence. Yes, independence; for an ex-colonial, that is an inevitability. All the states that once constituted the British Empire moved from the half-way house of self- government and on to independence. So, too, will Wales. Trust me, it is just a matter of time, a historical process tried and tested.

Likewise, the Protestants in Northern Ireland will be forced by economic necessity to join their brothers and sisters in the south in an independent, united Ireland. This is their last gasp, as we all move into Europe. So we are left with England and the English, with whom we Caribbeans have shared a 400-year-old intimacy, sometimes brutal and oppressive, at other times much less so. We have become inseparable. Till death do us part, so to speak.

My journey for Channel 4 is to discover whether Englishness is alive and in what form it expresses itself. I began the quest at home, right here in Brixton. One stallholder in Brixton market decried my journey as an intellectual pursuit. He could not be bothered, he said, he had no time for abstract definitions, no time even to have a nervous breakdown. Yet after a little probing he returned to the folly of the empire. We continue to rule the world, he said, getting things right in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone and I suppose in South Africa, where Peter Mandelson is said to be advising the ANC on how to win votes in Durban and Soweto. He was very polite, though, and interested in whether I could convince the English to say what they really felt: that to be English is to be white.

I visited St Matthew's church in Brixton, where religion and hedonism live in the same house. The church has been gutted for years and replaced in part by a throbbing discotheque. Across the street the monotone beat of garage music, made palatable by Ecstasy, violates every Christian principle. I wondered aloud who gives licences for bars and wild music opposite a house of prayer, allowing the clientele to drift across the road and piss on consecrated ground. I had to skip over broken beer bottles to witness the handful of blacks and even fewer whites recite the Magnificat. Two tribes faced each other with irreligiousness in the ascendant and a dying Anglicanism gasping for air.

Then I went on to London Fashion Week. I was there to discover whether there was an English statement in the world of fashion. Stacey Mulligan, whose models paraded loose and flowing garments in dark colours adorned with Jackson Pollock prints, assured me that Englishness in fashion eschews bright colours, that it is laid-back and relaxed, that it tends to seduce subtly rather than command attention. Her voice was as warm as the cashmere on show and although tired, very tired, she seemed moved by my interest. Here, Englishness is alive, polite, not flaunting its self-assurance.

The world of Marks and Spencer is not permanent in the scheme of fashion. Somehow, there is something creatively new battling to emerge here at Fashion Week and, I hope, in the rest of English pursuits. Time will tell.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?