Why We Love Britain; SATURDAY ESSAY

Article excerpt


The Runnymede Trust would have us believe Britain is deeply racist.

Here a leading Indian writer argues that the extraordinary success of Asians here is because of British attitudes, not in spite of them

by Swapan Dasgupta

THE years I spent living in Britain were intensely enjoyable and have left a lasting impression on me.

So much so that at an Indo-British Association dinner earlier this month, the British chairman Lord Paul chided me gently for being as much British as Indian. It did not hurt my national pride.

Nor was I offended at a dinner in London last summer when an earnest Asian member of the House of Lords took umbrage at my observations on the destructive potential of the race relations industry in Britain.

'Do you know what we call people like you?' she asked, her voice dripping with disapproval. 'Oh yes,' I replied. 'Coconuts. But that's a statement of fact, not an indictment.' She was not amused. She wouldn't be. She was a stereotype garnished in prevailing doctrines of political correctness.

Britain, it is immensely fashionable to argue, is class-ridden, racist and exclusionary. The prevailing image, as the Runnymede Trust report The Future Of Multi-Ethnic Britain put it unambiguously, is 'Englandcentred, indeed southern England-centred, and leaves millions of people out of the picture'.

Its underlying 'whiteness' supposedly negates the possibility of nonwhites (the more evocative term 'foreigners' appears to have disappeared from contemporary usage) having either a good time or enjoying the optimum benefits of citizenship. How wrong the Runnymede Trust is.

That Britain has an image problem is undeniable. India is a country whose links with Britain are longstanding and formidable. The relationship between the two is defined by what Enoch Powell, a closet Indophile, described to me 15 years ago as 'a shared infatuation'.

Apart from history, Britain and India are linked by trade, travel, networking and sheer familiarity.

London remains India's gateway to the entire Western world, and the capital has been an important relocating point for bankers and multinational executives since the early Eighties. In the past five years, there has also been a trickle of entrepreneurs from India to Britain.

And yet there is an image problem. Nowhere is this more acutely reflected than in the English language media in India.

DESPITE overwhelming familiarity - all the major newspapers have correspondents in London, the BBC enjoys an awesome reputation and there are syndication arrangements with many of the British newspapers - the chattering classes persist with a stereotype of Britain that is not terribly dissimilar to Lord Parekh's contentious report for the Runnymede Trust.

Almost no newspaper comment on Britain is complete without a snide reference to a 'colonial hangover' and institutional racism. Three years ago, when the then Indian prime minister, Inder Gujral, spoke disparagingly of Britain as a 'third-rate power', he was applauded. If modern Britain shows all the signs of harbouring a sense of post-imperial guilt, a section of the Indian Establishment revels in postcolonial recrimination.

The politically correct perception of Britain in India is a mirror-image of the British hard-Left view of its own society. With multiculturalism and postcolonial studies being thriving industries across the Atlantic, where funding is generous, there is an understandable trend in India to follow the prevailing fashion.

If British nationhood is painted as essentially racist and excessively English, notions of Indian nationhood are decried as being overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindu and tinged with high culture. Just as multiculturalism has been made into a fetish in Britain, there have been attempts to overdo the celebration of 'composite culture' in India. …