The debate on Britain’s national identity is something of a cause célèbre that has sharply divided opinion on both the Left and the Right. While the former deliberate over how to reconcile multiculturalism with a sense of common identity, some on the Right believe that the arrival of the Empire Windrush to Tilbury Docks condemned Shakespeare’s ‘blessed plot’ to perdition. ‘Britishness’ is an issue in which Gordon Brown has shown considerable interest. At a time when terrorism has once again raised the topic of community relations and integration, it is perhaps worth looking at the attitudes of different countries towards the very concept of national citizenship.
France prides itself on its motto of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ and the French state does not view people through the prism of race or religion; hence the French government is forbidden from keeping information on the racial and religious identities of its citizens. But appearances can be deceptive. Watching Euro 2014, one could be tempted to think that the diversity of l’equipe nationale is indicative of good race relations across the Channel. However, one only has to visit the banlieues of Paris and Marseilles to see the material deprivation suffered by many immigrant communities. Racial tension is never far from the surface. I remember reading an interview by a black player on the French team, in which he opined that he and his fellow players of African descent would not be regarded as being French if they were not on the national team. The colour-blind attitude of the French state is laudable in theory. In practice, however, ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ seems a long way off for many of the maghre bains.
Canadians have the right idea
A better example of an integrated society with a common sense of identity lays thousands of miles across the Atlantic. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain was known as ‘the father of New France’ and 400 years later, the bilingual and multicultural Canada he helped to found has grown into a paragon of diversity and tolerance. My admiration of Canada is no secret. Indeed, one cannot be fail to be seduced by the natural beauty of its landscape and the amicable nature of its citizens. But I am also intrigued by Canadian society, and how it has blossomed into a multi-ethnic, multicultural entity largely at ease with itself. French is still an official language of Canada, even though only 23% of Canadians now speak French as their first language, with the majority of francophones residing in Québec. The supermarket shelves of British Columbia, where there are relatively few French speakers, are stacked with boxes and bottles displaying information in both official languages as obligated by federal law (hence the term ‘cereal box bilingualism’.) The entire apparatus of the federal government is bilingual, to the dismay of some anglophones in the Prairie Provinces. Bilingualism is an expensive policy to maintain and many argue it is a way of ‘killing Québécois Home Rule with kindness’, to paraphrase a British historical term. But bilingualism also reflects a respect for minority rights and the inclusion of minorities within the national concept of Canada. The latter is a goal to which Britain must aspire.
A conspicuity of Canada is the way in which different ethnic and cultural groups interact. Vancouver and Toronto are the two most multicultural cities I have ever visited, but the difference between these Canadian metropolises and British cities is that diverse groups integrate and mix with each other to a much greater extent in the former. Moreover, this diversity is not restricted to urban conurbations. Even in rural areas, people from different races and cultures live together in relative harmony. Segregation is indisputably far more of an issue here in the UK.
What does being British mean?
In Britain, one of the most parochial mis-perceptions is the idea that being British means being white. A glance at the British Establishment does not do much to dispel this myth. In Canada, the current Governor-General is a Haitian-born woman of Caribbean descent. The previous Governor-General was a Chinese-Canadian woman born in Hong Kong. Historically, Britain is just as much a country of immigrants as Canada. Most of us have roots way beyond these shores. From Ireland to Germany to South Asia to the Caribbean, all are threads in the rich tapestry that is the United Kingdom. Of course we are a nation tainted by debt with cash loan lenders seemingly running rife on National TV, but it needs to be remembered that Winston Churchill once said opening up a quarrel between the past and present risked losing the future. In order for us to be able to move forward as a country, we must first accept who we are as a nation and how we have reached this point in our history.
A positive and mature idea of nationhood must embrace the plurality of ethnicities and cultures of which it is composed. But it must also embrace the concept of individual rights: the idea that each of us has basic rights as individuals that not are dependent upon our race, gender, age or sexual orientation, inter alia. In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the revered preamble to the Canadian Constitution, casts equality and individual freedoms as Holy Grails in Canadian politics. The 1985 Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada recognises that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian heritage. Québécois separatism is a fault line that has threatened several times to induce the break-up of Canada in the last 30 years. But separatism aside, Canada is a nation imbued with a sense of idealism. Idealism should be at the very centre of the ‘Britishness’ debate. In many ways, Gordon Brown’s appetite for celebratory national days leads him to evade the underlying issues relating to national citizenship. The question of how we bring together people from different communities so as to engender a spirit of solidarity is one to which no political party has so far offered any answers.
Any attempt to define ‘Britishness’ must first acknowledge the intrinsic diversity of our heritage. But it is time for us also to acknowledge that from wherever our ancestors came, whatever our race, religion or background, there is far more to unite than separate us. We are primary colours sharing a common easel. As the son of Mauritian parents, I possess the characteristic of being one of the grandsons and granddaughters of the British Empire, a characteristic which I share with people who can claim roots in every country from Ireland to Canada. History tells us why we are who we are and this recognition of our common history is long overdue.
Any debate about our national identity risks fanning the embers of prejudice. But we can extinguish this prejudice with our sense of idealism. Upon much worse things have countries been founded.