10 September, 2011
The identity game
I rarely read Cristina Odone's pieces in the Telegraph — I can get all the aggravation I need from my CiF addiction, ta very much — but this one sucked me in alright,
The riots brought out a nasty streak in thousands of looters – and in thousands of ordinary citizens too. They didn't kick in a shop window or make off with a pair of Nikes. But they gave their xenophobia free rein. While the sikhs, Turks and Poles drew praise for their efforts in defending their neighbourhoods and restoring order, hostile little Englanders gave vent to their paranoia: immigrants can't be patriots, was their mantra – and Muslims above all. (For a taste of these rants, have a look at the responses to my meek and mild article on immigrant patriots).
They'd do well to read the riveting study of Muslims and the Army, "Ties That Bind" which Policy Exchange has just published. Author Shiraz Maher discovers not only that almost 90 per cent of Muslims here feel British, but also that 79 per cent of low-skilled Muslims would consider joining the Army and just under 48 per cent of Muslim women said they would too.
Hmm. Startling numbers there. I'm not sure how they square with other polls of Muslims testing them for primary loyality to the Ummah, Shari'a, the righteousness of 9/11, etc. But I guess he who pays the pollster writes the questions. So let's just pick up the assertion that a significant proportion of UK-based Muslims "feel British" and run with that.
It's all very nice, Cristina, but it's only part of the story, isn't it? Identity is a two-way street. Your tame Union Flag-kissing Muslims can feel as British as they like, but that doesn't automatically mean that others, for example the "indigenous" British — remember us? — will necessarily reciprocate the sentiment.
Despite the best efforts of Bhikhu Parekh and his little posse, British identity is not a property available for vacant possession. There are incumbents. Folk like me. So do we clasp these keen wannabe new Brits to our cultural collective bosom? Maybe. Maybe not.
But hark! I can already hear the approaching hooves of a detachment of the Righteous, bearing their proud motto, "They were born here, so they're British. Or are you some kind of racist, hmm? End of. Innit."
Fraught area, this. I think a little bit of distance is needed to lend perspective.
Sunny Hundal, political blogger, professional angry wog and UK-born son of Punjabi immigrant parents, is always asserting (writings passim) that "you don't have to be White to be British". Indeed, last year Sunny, for some career-driven opportunistic reason or other I haven't fathomed out, spent several months demanding that he was now to be acknowledged as not only British, but English as well.
There are times when a spot of righteous whataboutery is your only man. And this is one of them. Let's consider a counterfactual scenario.
As best as I can guess from known family history and assorted circumstantial evidence, my ethnic background is a mixture of bog trotting Irish, Saxons probing north into the Midlands and Lancashire, and Norwegian Vikings settling in the Wirral and South Lancs. (I propose to ignore Oppenheimer's revisionist theories here: they don't really affect the overall conclusion.) There are persistent family rumours of an exotic minor aristocratic connection through dalliance between a serving wench and the young master at some country house in, er, Cheshire, but that's as exotic as it gets. OK, so I'm a six-foot blue-eyed Viking with dodgy eyesight and a penchant for cheap Polish lager.
Now in real life, my father did his wartime service in the RAF as ground crew; he was one of those jammy bastards who never left Albion's soil for the duration. When the Interval of Unpleasantness came to an end in 1945, he returned to Manchester and married his childhood sweetheart. My parents were raised in literally adjacent streets in Moston, where I was born in 1948 and where I grew up.
No ambiguity about my Britishness there, then.
OK, let's switch to the counterfactual. In this scenario my father, lacking the metalworking skills which landed him in the RAF, is drafted into the Army and posted "out East", where he ends up at the end of the war in the Punjab. He takes a shine to the place and believes he can make a living there in civvy street. His childhood sweetheart comes out to join him and I am born in 1948 in, shall we say, Chandigarh in newly independent India.
I grow up fully bilingual to native standard in both Punjabi and English, with the required smattering of Hindi thrown in. Fully au fait with and comfortable with Punjabi life, though retaining my nominally Christian heritage. Picture me in your mind's eye perhaps 40 years ago, if you will, a six-foot, pallid young man with blue eyes and hair the generic turd brown colour of the North European. Picture me answering back to local racists with a fluent flow of Punjabi profanities that would make Sunny blush, let alone his mother.
So, in that scenario, could I claim to be Indian? Or indeed Punjabi? Would that claim be accepted by the local "indigenous" Indians? And if not, why should I extend the corresponding courtesy to Sunny or to any other South Asian resident in the UK, whether born and raised here or not?
You want me to be inclusive, then rather than screaming "racist" at me, try convincing me that your "all the same colour under the skin" inclusivity is a universal principle.
So let's get back to Sunny's question, "Do you have to be White to be British?" It's a real "Do you still beat your wife?" question, that one. Well it is if you answer yes or no as the questioner wants you to. I am going to answer differently.
Do you have to be White to be British? It helps. The British are a North European ethnic group (or long established amalgam of several such groups if you prefer it that way) with a North European secular Protestant culture. To be accepted as fully integrated British it does help to be able to pass the John Smith test. By this I mean that if Jan Kowalski, the UK-born and raised son of Polish immigrants, changes his name to John Smith, nobody would know that his family had not been here since King Ælfred burnt those bloody cakes. Until you looked it up on Wikipedia, did you know that Denis "Adenoids" McShane was a UK-born Irish Pole. But if the similarly placed Vijay Patel, born in the UK of Gujarati parents, tried the same stunt nobody would believe him.
So yes, being White, and preferably North European White, does help. That's the way the cookie crumbles. But what of the others? I'd say it's a slower process, a process which may not run to completion for all. Intermarriage helps. Cultural assimilation helps. I know a chap of Jamaican parentage born in London, entirely British in his speech and attitudes. His Jamaican heritage is part of his background, not his foreground, just as my known Irish and putative Viking heritages are little more than distant semimythical background to me. In the present I am English and therein lie my cultural, political and tribal loyalties.
But some, even unto the 3rd and 4th generation, may in the end remain alien, or might at best become "country members" of the British club.
Tariq Khan, let us say, may speak English with a native command and a Brummagem accent, but if he speaks Urdu indoors, goes regularly to mosque, spends his evenings watching Pakistani satellite TV, flies "home" to visit the folks in Peshawar or Karachi every year and is negotiating to marry off his daughter to a nephew from "back home", just where do his political, cultural and tribal loyalties lie? You can't just be British only when you're going down the DWP office.
There's more to this than simply where you were born and your entitlement to a British passport. This goes beyond the simplistic yes-no shibboleths of the Righteous.
As for Sunny-ji, I'd conclude that he's not British, he's a Punjabi expat with British citizenship and living in the UK. His loyalties lie with his Desi tribe, not with us palefaces.
Does any of this matter? Potentially, yes, if you need to answer the question: in whose interests is this country ultimately to be run?
By the Great Spotted Phallus of Samarkand, that confused it. This is the selection of advertisements that Blogger offered me after accepting and posting the above,
The algorithms must have been spinning like an oozlum bird on crack.
Or if that's too 'violent': "Would you regard yourself as more British if it would guarantee you and your family would continue to get benefits?"
And never will be...
Well what are they bloody waiting for, permission?
XX They'd do well to read the riveting study of Muslims and the Army,XX
Aye. It was IRA "policy" in the 70s and 80s to send their volunteers to join the Brit army and T.A, as well.
Hmmm...Nothing to do with the fact that large areas of what is nominally called England now look and feel like the third world, fly-blown shit holes that these paedophile venerating god botherers orginate from then ? Perish the thought.
The fact that you can so casually refer to this mythical beast in the correct context, proves beyond doubt that you really are English, and of a certain age, too.