Monday, April 30, 2007

Is it “racist” to describe yourself as “British”?

Some of the great and the good in Britain seem to think so. Below is an article from October 2000, originally in “The Guardian” which summarizes a semi-official British report to that effect. Following the “Guardian article are some comments from a Reuters article that is now offline

‘British’ a term of coded racism, says report

Home Secretary declares patriotism should not be left to the far right

The term “British” has racial connotations and will no longer serve as a description of the UK’s multicultural society, a report by an influential thinktank said last week. Its conclusion that the UK should be formally recognised as a multicultural society whose history needs to be “revised, rethought or jettisoned” attracted fierce criticism from Conservative MPs, who said it was an affront to the “native British” who needed to stand up for themselves. But Labour ministers have promised to study its findings in detail and are likely to give it a warm welcome.

The Runnymede Trust-sponsored Commission into the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, chaired by Lord Parekh, a Labour peer and political scientist, also suggests it is time to review the privileged position of the Anglican church in public life, and to take measures to boost the number of black and Asian faces in parliament.

But it is a short section on “the future of Britishness” in the wide-ranging 400-page report that has sparked most controversy. It says devolution, the Good Friday peace agreement and globalisation have undermined the notion of Britishness.

It rejects “Englishness” as an alternative: “To be English, as the term is in practice used, is to be white. Britishness is not ideal, but at least it appears acceptable, particularly when suitably qualified - Black British, Indian British, British Muslim and so on.

“However, there is one major and so far insuperable barrier. Britishness, as much as Englishness, has systematic, largely unspoken, racial connotations. Whiteness nowhere features as an explicit condition of being British, but it is widely understood that Englishness, and therefore by extension Britishness is racially coded.”

The report points out that it has been said, “there ain’t no black in the union jack,” and there is an assumption that whiteness and Britishness go together like roast beef and yorkshire pudding.

The failure to include in schools a rewritten history of Britain as an imperial force involving dominance in Ireland, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia is proving to be a disaster, the report claims. It argues that racial and cultural differences have been “written out of the national story”.

The report calls for the establishment of a human rights commission, action on discriminatory police stop-and-search policies, and the scrapping of the voucher system for asylum seekers. It says it is also time to review the connections between church and state. Such a review would have to look at how other religions are discriminated against in “customs related to civic religion, for example daily prayers at Westminster and various religious ceremonies, including memorial events, in local government; the law of blasphemy; and the coronation oath”.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, blamed the lack of patriotism of the political left for allowing the modern British identity to be seen as “narrow, exclusionary and conservative”. Mr Straw declared himself proud to be British. The challenge now, he said, was to meld the enormous range of races, accents and attitudes into a single shared identity. “This is made even more difficult by the way those on the left turned their backs on the concept of patriotism and left the field to those on the far right. Unlike the Runnymede Trust, I firmly believe there is a future for Britain and a future for Britishness.”

Mr Straw said George Orwell’s observation 50 years ago that in leftwing circles it was felt that there was something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman still applied today. “Orwell wrote that ‘it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God Save The King than of stealing from the poor box’.

“Given the tendency of some of the left to wash their hands of the whole notion of nationhood, it is perhaps not surprising that some people’s perception of Englishness and Britishness became a narrow, exclusionary, conservative one. That’s a view of Britishness that I don’t recognise,” Mr Straw added. “We all benefit, economically and socially, from our diversity and difference.”

Gerald Howarth, the Tory MP for Aldershot and a member of the Commons home affairs select committee, said the report represented social engineering on a massive scale. “It is an extraordinary affront to the 94% of the population which is not from ethnic minorities. The native British must stand up for themselves.”

Lord Tebbit, the former Tory party chairman, claimed the greatest conflicts in the world were the product of multicultural societies such as Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and the former Soviet Union. “Since no one is being held hostage in this kingdom, and those who arrived recently have come to get away from their own countries and enjoy the benefits of this country, the best way forward is integration rather than separation into cultural ghettoes,” he said.

Lord Parekh said his commission wanted to redefine what it means to be British. There is a very important role for a common national culture and a common civic nationality,” he said. “But we are requesting that this common culture needs to be discussed and renegotiated. It does not imply that it is not a coherent idea.”

Too often minority ethnic groups were seen at best as “welcome tenants”, not as common owners of the country. “The British national identity should be so defined that we all feel comfortable with it and we all feel proud to be British,” he said.

(Above article by Alan Travis, The Guardian Weekly, October 19, 2000)

Think tank ridiculed for 'Britishness' racism claim

Politicians and racial equality groups joined forces on Wednesday to ridicule a report by an influential think tank saying the terms "British" and "Britishness" were racist and needed replacing or qualifying. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair criticised the authors of the report for allowing "themselves, willingly or unwillingly, to have the whole debate (on national identity) skewed," his official spokesman told reporters.

The Commission into the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain's report argued that because English people are generally white, the term British was perceived to imply the same and so ignored the country's ethnic mix. The report -- which also said the United Kingdom's history books needed rewriting because race differences had been "written out of the national story" -- prompted widespread disbelief and derision.

"Britishness, as much as Englishness, has systematic, largely unspoken, racial connotations," an extract of the report published in the press said. "It is widely understood that Englishness and therefore by extension Britishness is racially coded." "There ain't no black in the Union Jack," it added, parodying a nationalist racist slogan and going on to criticise the government's asylum policy for creating "racial and ethnic divisions".

Defending the report, slammed as "scaremongering" and "politically correct garbage", Commission chairman Lord Parekh said Britain also needed to acknowledge its multi- religious as well as multi-ethnic mix. "There is no standard norm of being British. We often say in parliamentary debates Britain is a Christian society," he told BBC radio. "Now what could that possibly mean?" "We do say Britain is a multi-ethnic society, but we find it difficult to say Britain is also a multi-religious society or if you like a multi-national society...It is about time we defined British in an inclusive and plural kind of way."

Home Secretary Jack Straw, who launched the report, sought to play down the controversy it had sparked, saying the concept of Britishness was already "an inclusive plural one". "I am proud to be English and proud to be British," he said. "For a small island, we encompass an enormous range or races, accents and attitudes."

But British Racial Equality Commissioner Raj Chandran said the 400-page report sponsored by the Runnymede Trust -- a think tank which investigates religious and racial issues -- would dent race relations, not help them. "I am not impressed at all by this," said Chandran "It is...scaremongering." "(Parekh) is make himself feel British. Most of us in the race issue at the moment are immigrants born abroad. As I see it, this report is going to damage good race relations."

Others said the think tank's proposal that the United Kingdom's history needed to be "revised, rethought or jettisoned", was an affront to the vast majority of Britons. "(The report) is politically correct garbage," said Conservative MP Gerald Howarth. "It is an extraordinary affront to the 94 percent of the population which is not from ethnic minorities. The native British must stand up for themselves."

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