David Lammy has shown what it truly means to be English

To be a member of a nation is to be part of a culture which is always changing. 

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The English patriot started out as a dissident. The free-born Englishman was once a staple of rebel rhetoric and the preferred description of those who were critical of the royal court. This was the type of patriotism that the conservative Samuel Johnson referred to as the last refuge of the scoundrel.  

What a long way we have come from patriotism of this sort, to judge from a conversation on Monday (29 March) between David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, and Jean, a caller to the LBC radio station. Jean asked Lammy how it is possible for him to be both “African-Caribbean” and English. The implication was obvious enough. Lammy cannot be English because he is black. This short exchange, which went viral online, revealed the confusion which is so common when people in these islands discuss their identity. Last week, if the previous census is any guide, 30 million people will have said that they identify as English rather than British. The question counts.

These islands have a particular historical tangle because we are a multinational state. The nations of England, Scotland and Wales make up the entity known as Great Britain; Northern Ireland is added to form the United Kingdom. The British Isles is a geographical term  to which the Irish government objects  which includes the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and even sometimes the Channel Islands. Britain is, in truth, a state but not that rich an identity. Most people feel English, Scottish or Welsh before they are British. The caller to LBC suggested that she had no problem with Mr Lammy describing himself as black British. He just couldn’t claim to be English. It is no wonder that many people from minority ethnic backgrounds will tell the census that they prefer to be British rather than English.

This terrible conceptual confusion is by no means the preserve of callers to LBC, sadly. The separate ideas of race, nation and ethnicity have all been jumbled up, sometimes even by people whose hearts are in the right place. “Race”, strictly speaking, is a social fiction that purveys false biology. It is a matter of political choice, not biological inevitability, to attach significance to visible characteristics such as skin colour. It is a further illegitimate choice if we then start to predict behavioural patterns from skin colour. As Lammy himself said on LBC, he longs for the day when he no longer has to be in the conversation about being black.

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He may be a long time waiting because the terms “race” and “ethnicity” are elided in most debates today. In the 1970s this move, to define race as cultural difference, was the tactic of the more sophisticated racists. Culture in fact has nothing to do with “race”. Lammy rightly schooled his caller about the white West Indians who are considerably more Caribbean, culturally, than he, a Tottenham man, ever will be. When we use the term “ethnicity” we mean a culture or a way of life and a country such as England now contains many ethnicities.

England does remain, for all its diversity, a nation, and that is a third category that sets commentators into a spin. There are two ways to define the idea of being English. The first is historical but that, as Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English Identity (2003) shows, is by no means uncomplicated. Jean, the LBC caller, said she was English because she could trace her name back to the Middle Ages. Kumar’s investigation into “the moment of Englishness” finds no such origin.

I would struggle for entry myself on these grounds. Anybody called Collins is not going to have to search long for Irish ancestry, and having a Welsh father does my credentials as a free-born Englishman no good. Yet I have always felt as English as suet pudding, as George Orwell might have put it. At this point it is tempting to start on the second way to define a nation, which lies in the hopeless enterprise of determining national character.

Every attempt to define Englishness descends into an account of the author’s biography and cultural tastes. I have my own list. It includes Victoria Wood, Philip Larkin, Isaiah Berlin, Lord’s cricket ground, Charles Dickens, Richmal Crompton, PG Wodehouse and Manchester Town Hall. But so what? You probably have your own list, which will add up to your own mental English landscape. Your reflections will probably be regional, too. The linguist David Crystal has pointed out that England is very unusual in that accents change every 25 miles. We have always been a nation of fragments, a nation of many cultures.

The critical point, entirely lost on Jean but for which the classy and gracious Lammy stands, is that being English is not about heritage and it is not even about values. You can think what you like as far as I care and you can do whatever you like, within the law. To be a member of a nation is to share its space and its institutions and to be part of a culture which is always changing. Immigration adds to the range of ways of being English. Cultures bond and merge and a man born in north London, who was a chorister at Peterborough Cathedral, is English. Indeed, the only heartening thing about this depressing episode was the Conservative minister Nadim Zahawi rightly calling Mr Lammy “a great Englishman”.

The way to negotiate the mess of identity is to be clear about our concepts and generous in how we apply them. Just for once I can attest to how this is done. In 2001 I chaired the speech by the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, in which he described chicken tikka masala, a blend of British and Indian influences, as the national dish. I have tried not to live a life so that it supplies ready metaphors for columns but on that day I met my wife, who is of Indian origin. I can tell Jean that this is not, as she told David Lammy, pollution. This is how cultures grow and how identities form.

 [See also: Stephen Bush: Why the British empire alone cannot explain the politics of the present

Philip Collins is a New Statesman columnist and contributing writer. 

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