Who do they think we are?

November 2, 2007

What does 'Britishness' mean to people living in former colonies and to migrants newly arrived in the UK? Vron Ware decided to find out. The concept of national identity is in crisis. Despite Gordon Brown's best efforts to breathe life into something called "Britishness", in this age of neoliberalism, climate change and global communication, governments can no more dictate and describe our collective identities than control the weather.

This is not to say that the task of defining the core values that British citizens might be required to sign up to is a waste of time. But with increasing talk of "indigenous Brits" versus criminal migrant workers, and the reappearance of immigration control as a central political issue, the so-called public debates feel depressingly insular and nationalist. Many citizens with recent attachment to the UK sense that their right to belong is under question.

The tortuous history of Britain's imperial ambitions, from the slave trade to the invasion of Mesopotamia, means that Britishness is a concept that travels with heavy global baggage. In collaboration with Counterpoint, the British Council's cultural relations think-tank, I recently carried out research for a book, Who Cares about Britishness?, which investigates what it looks like from the vantage point of countries once colonised by Britain. My journey took me to South Asia, Kenya and Ireland to talk to young people about the relevance of national identity in their lives and to ask them what Britain might look like from their point of view.

The currency of post-colonial Britishness was perhaps best demonstrated in Nairobi, where I met a group of students, youth workers and journalists over two days of intense discussion. We began by taking it in turns to answer the question: which part of you is British?

"Kenya itself is a British construct," said one, ruefully. "We can't escape that aspect. Why are there so many expats here and so much of our families over there?" Another said: "I was brought up in the British system, so it's hard to define. Most of what is me is British."

"For me, Britishness is the idea that the world is shaped with you at the centre," said a young woman from Cameroon, a country that still registers the distinct legacies of British and French colonial rule. "It's the feeling that you are better than anyone else. Even their version of colonialism is supposed to be better." She quickly pointed out that she was glad she did not grow up in the French part of her country.

"The mentality of colonialism has affected us like secondhand smoke," observed Binyavanga Wainaina, a writer who was facilitating the session. "I think we give too much credit to the imperialists, though. It's difficult to pinpoint what's British and what's Western. The way we dress, for instance, or having an individualistic approach. The love of money, the fact that a lot of us even think in English. Is this British or American?"

Later that day Binyavanga made another acute diagnosis: "The worst place in the world to be young is in an old country where there is no place for the young."

He was speaking partly from his own experience of living in the UK where, as in other Western European countries, the proportion of young to old people is the inverse of that in most developing nations. Demographic data from 2005 showed that 18 per cent of the UK population was less than 15 years old, compared with 43 per cent in Kenya. In 2006 the median age in Britain was 40, while in Kenya and its neighbouring countries it was just 18. And no one in the room had heard of Asbos.

A second component of my research involved talking to young migrants in Britain, as well as people whose families had recently settled here. Overseas students offer a particularly interesting perspective - not least because quality of life is one of the factors that influence prospective applicants.

I met Tariq on the train from London to Leeds and discovered that he was from Lahore but was currently studying at Leeds University. I asked him how he found living in England.

"I studied English literature for my first and second degrees," he told me. "When I got a place at Leeds I thought I was coming to live in Bronte country - you know, the Yorkshire Moors and all that. I was so shocked when I got here. It couldn't have been more different from what I imagined.

"I was used to the gothic architecture that the British left behind in Pakistan and was so surprised at the modern buildings here, especially the council estates."

Like many overseas students from former colonies, Tariq's earlier educational experience and expectations of life in the UK were shaped by the impact of British colonial rule in his home country. He arrived from Lahore expecting a rather Victorian sense of Britishness. For him the country was associated with imperial qualities: being innovative, rational, hard-working, seeing a job through to the end. This was overlaid with martial values such as discipline and self-control. He was bound to get a shock in Yorkshire's clubbing capital.

But it wasn't just the hedonism. "I think the Victorians were more focused, less lazy. Now there is more of a benefit culture."

He also had strong views about the Muslim communities he met in the North. "You would be surprised how crazy the imams are who come here," he said. "They are from rural areas of Pakistan and would never get a job over there."

He told me a story about his barber, an immigrant from rural Pakistan, whose wife was having trouble conceiving and asked customers to pray for them. "Why don't you just go to the doctor?" Tariq asked. "He told me that prayers had worked for his brother-in-law and he was sure it would help them."

Tariq was scandalised. "They are living in the Stone Age," he told me. "This country really has a problem on its hands."

"'What, in England they wear veils?' That's what my friends in Pakistan say when I tell them about what goes on here. You'd be lucky to see one in Lahore."

A few weeks later I heard a different perspective from Altaf. He had taken a break from training as a journalist in Mumbai to do voluntary work in Sheffield. His experiences there had opened his eyes to the way that Islam was perceived by mainstream society in the UK.

For a start, he said, people are amazed that a Muslim from India speaks so well. Their ignorance about his religion was beginning to make him feel his identity was under threat.

"I definitely sense a reaction that you're either with us or against us. It's like you are presumed guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent. I've noticed that in the headlines Islam is always attached to criminal activity. They always make it look as though what those criminals do is connected to their religion."

The views of young people growing up in countries not just shaped, but often created, by Britain were frequently coloured by their palpable anger at the UK's role in Iraq. This was often matched by rage and frustration at the state of politics in their own backyards. Sharing in their conversations about identity as they talked in urgent tones about local issues of inequality, exclusion, racism and bigotry gave me a glimpse of a rapidly converging global generation able to think beyond, as well as within, the space of the postcolonial nation.

Vron Ware is a research fellow in culture and citizenship at the Open University. Her book Who Cares about Britishness? A Global View of the National Identity Debate is published by Arcadia, £11.99.

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