Gordon Brown, Michael Howard, Boris Johnson, David Blunkett and Trevor Phillips are just a few of the names that have dared to tackle the complex and controversial subject of British citizenship. The subject is complex, because Britain was always a convenient political identity to try to preserve an uncomfortable union between dominant England and its vanquished neighbours. It is controversial because its prominence has been brought about because one section of the British population – the Muslim community – has caused concerns. Most concerns have been dominated by allegations of a security threat by an ‘enemy within’, seemingly realised after the 7/7 bombings, but for those who had studied the issues for longer, concerns really emerged when the Muslim community in Europe had such a strong reactions to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. The blame was placed firmly on the policy of multiculturalism for institutionalising difference, the lack of a strong and distinct British identity and the failure of Islam to ‘reform’, meaning to secularise.
At best the responses produced to solving the problem of defining what is meant by ‘Britishness’ are, in my view, destined to fail. At worse, where they confuse security and religious reform with citizenship and identity, they could backfire spectacularly. It is measure of the failure of the debate that such a fundamental discussion has been framed as a reaction to specific events, and has placed the burdens of change upon one specific community.
Where should the blame lie?
Those who would blame Islam and Muslims for the failure to be well integrated stakeholders in society should pause for thought. It is easy to cite examples that Muslim US citizens fought against US troops in Afghanistan (John Walker Lindh for example) or that Muslims were amongst those rioting in Paris earlier this year. However, the images of an alienated black underclass in New Orleans, exposed by Hurricane Katrina, should pose an immediate challenge to complacent views that somehow other minorities are thoroughly assimilated. Furthermore the involvement of immigrants of more than one religion in the riots in Paris prompts the memory of similar riots in Brixton and Toxteth some years ago. If we are looking for a scapegoat there is more of a case to make for targeting French style secular assimilation, or the so-called American dream, than Muslims and their alleged failure to fully integrate into British society.
Fundamental mistakes: National identities, shared values and uniform ‘Britishness’
The contribution to this debate by Gordon Brown in his speech to the Fabian Society conference of 2006 was arguably the most significant contribution made thus far in the whole debate. Brown argued that Britain has a history in which people manage their multiple identities well. He felt that this was still possible as long as Britishness was built upon a shared history, a shared sense of purpose and shared underlying values.
In my view it is neither possible nor desirable to focus upon identities built on national identity, as articulated through an ‘official’ narrative, nor upon certain adopted values. It is simply not possible to unify people based upon such matters as a common history, heritage or shared cultural values. This is because it is almost impossible for people in a globalised world to share the same narrative of any nation’s history, particularly in countries with large immigrant minorities from ex-colonies. Furthermore, there is the ever increasing prominence of supranational identity – be it either European or Internationalist in outlook.