Bring England in from the Cold

By Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin | New Statesman (1996), July 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

Bring England in from the Cold


Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin, New Statesman (1996)


Suppressed English identity contributes to racism and prevents Britain from embracing modern realities. Wear your Union Jack underpants with pride

"You are a traitor. Just because you have married a bloody [sic] Englishman and have a half-caste bastard child, you think to defend the English. You have no shame. You are not an Indian woman." - Letter I received after I spoke on a radio programme asking if we had punished the English enough.

Since May I've been asked to speak at seven events on the apparently endlessly gripping subject of The British Identity. No. 8 is next week. We discuss the concept in elevated terms; hybridity, post-colonialism, postmodernism, diversity, new formations, new ethnicities. We engage with the politics of difference, of identity. We debate the Irish renaissance and globalisation. But we don't mention the English, except as the chief culprits of world exploitation.

These discussions are intended to help us break from an ignoble past, to cut the British identity from its dishonourable English roots and to free the world we now inhabit so that we can forge a New Nation. Les Back, author of New Ethnicities and Urban Culture, exemplifies the exhilaration of this position. Pitting himself against the old fogeys, those who "relate to the withering popularity of T S Eliot's vision of English culture", Back believes that "young people in British cities are embracing diversity in a seemingly inexhaustible combination of form and content, in ways which make Britishness or Englishness almost meaningless".

The problem is that the more the metropolitan elite assumes these concepts are meaningless, the more meaningful they become, especially as numerous forces unite to create new tensions and desires. We are at an extraordinary historical intersection this summer, when the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Raj coincides with Britain's final and sour departure from Hong Kong. The protracted, extravagant requiem for the last colony - which infuriated many ethnic minority Britons - proved that imperial fantasies still haunt and deeply affect the self-image of this country. As late as 1991, in Bruges, the quintessentially English Margaret Thatcher was still thundering on about the great and civilising British Empire. Hanging on to the idea of Empire when the Empire is gone has become a pathology, most of all for the English, because they do not have other aspirations to invest in, like the Scottish, Irish and Welsh. They are also threatened by further European integration and moves towards devolution.

Melanie Phillips accurately reflected this in the New Statesman recently: "For the Scots, the Welsh and . . . the Irish, European supranationalism offers a potential escape route from their already hateful cultural domination by England. But England is now threatened by a pincer movement."

What makes it even more difficult for the English is the fact that everyone else is busy building up tribal allegiances and claiming credibility by exaggerating the "crimes" of the English. The Scots not only talk of political restructuring, but declare themselves victims of colonialism, conveniently forgetting how many of them strutted around the colonies barking orders at the natives and relishing their sundowners. As Linda Grant wrote in the Guardian: "Much of the desire for self-government derives from a deep-seated antipathy to the English and a constant harking back to historic defeats . . . a bunch of racial essentialists who still want to give their notional idea of the English a good kicking."

This is not only unfair but unwise. Black, Asian and Irish Britons are urged constantly to think obsessively about their ancestral and religious identities. But when the English quietly start wondering about themselves they find no understanding. At one of these recent conferences the audience (of spirited lefties) was utterly disconcerted to hear myself and another black speaker promoting the idea of English identity. …

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