Below is a short ‘think-piece’ that I’ve written and due for publication in the first edition of the Birmingham based magazine, ‘Speak Out’. It’s closely derived from a column I wrote for the Birmingham Post.
If you’re interested in Britishness and being British? you can read my latest Birmingham Post article on the subject by clicking here.
Questions about citizenship and belonging have never been more intense than they are today. 7/7, immigration, proposed new equality legislation, citizenship tests and the burgeoning ‘war on terror’ have all had an impact on what it seems we as a society think it means to be a ‘citizen’ and to feel that you ‘belong’.
No doubt some of this has also underpinned the recent debates about what it means to be ‘British’. Here the Government has put forward suggestions that teenagers swear allegiance to Britain and the Queen when they leave school as a means of reinforcing a greater sense of having a British identity, whilst Gordon Brown has suggested establishing a ‘Britishness’ bank holiday. A recent YouGov poll also showed that 51% of the general public thought that Britishness should be taught in schools to improve young peoples’ sense of belonging and to make them into more rounded citizens.
Having been born in London, it’s interesting to see how my children – all born in the West Midlands – unquestionably belong here. Admittedly, we have not had to earn our British identity. Because both I and they are white being ‘British’ is something that is accepted as a given. Never has it been questioned, or not openly at least, despite having both Irish and Jewish heritages on competing sides of my family.
Unlike myself, my children have a strong emotional attachment to Birmingham and the West Midlands given that it was the place they were born and have since grown up. I do not have this emotional attachment but like almost 80% of the population – if the Government’s Citizenship Survey is accurate – I feel as though I belong in my local area quite irrespective of whether I have that same emotional attachment or not.
Almost unexplainably, my emotional attachment remains with Bermondsey in London: home to the Tabard Inn, a la Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ and regular haunt of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit. Despite it nearing twenty years since I last lived there, Bermondsey is where my heart remains. My head though tells me that today’s Bermondsey is far from where I belong and that I undeniably belong here in Birmingham.
It is my head then that tells me where my home is. Given that I now live here, work here, my children go to school here and that I may even eventually die here, Birmingham is where I belong. Given that I neither participate in anti-social behaviour nor do I have a penchant for criminal activity, I guess I’d also be described as a ‘good citizen’. All this whilst remaining a Londoner by definition.
To what extent then is an emotional attachment to somewhere else a barrier to belonging? And why do we worry so much about people maintaining their identities or keeping a part of the heritage in their hearts?
For me, whether the heart is attached to Mogadishu or Moseley, Kingston or Kingstanding, Warsaw or Weoley, Bermondsey or Bournville, it doesn’t stop your head from telling you where you belong. Yet in our quest for greater citizenship and belonging, we increasingly make unnecessary demands of those whose hearts may forever be elsewhere: asking them to ‘prove’ they belong, to ‘prove’ they are citizens, and to ‘prove’ they are British.
For many who have an attachment outside the UK, their experience of ‘Britishness’ may be very different from my own. As mentioned previously, I don’t have to earn or prove that I have it: it was attributed at birth without question. But for those who don’t look the same as me or don’t fit this profile, the same may not necessarily occur despite the possibility of them being second, third or even fourth generation British-born citizens. Despite having been a multicultural country for near half a century, notions of what it means to be British can still be seen and interpreted along overly simplistic ‘racialised’ lines.
This notion of Britishness was coined in the late 18th century, a time when the Empire and British monarchy were both extremely powerful throughout the world. This notion of what it meant to be British therefore emerged at a time when Britain was – in some people’s interpretation – truly ‘great’, hence the name ‘Great Britain’.
Following the major changes to have occurred in Britain since the end of the Second World War, most prominently the demise of the Empire and the influx of migrants from Commonwealth countries, much of what made Britain ‘great’ in this period has diminished, leaving the notion of what it is to be British as little more than a series of nostalgic moments in some far-off and distant past. As such, what we have traditionally understood being British to mean has been thrown into a state of flux, where the familiarities of the old world order – the ‘great’ Britain – no longer reflects either Britain in its contemporary setting of the 21st century or its position and role in an increasingly shrinking world.
What we know and understand about being British therefore fails to adequately answer the questions about who we are today. Because of this, a void requires filling that adequately explans this in a way that is meaningful for all in today’s Britain and not just those that maybe look like I or my children do. No surprise then that the politicians and commentators are panicking and left desperately scrabbling for ideas and answers to explain exactly who or what ‘we’ are.
Until we find ways to do this and negotiate around the obstacles created by our history, Britain will continue to make the experience of those who do not ‘look’ like they might be British increasingly difficult. Many will face interrogation and scrutiny, others unfounded mistrust, and some even outright xenophobia and racism in trying to make Britain their home. Whether this will be the same for those migrants that have recently arrived from Poland and indeed further east in Europe – given that they ‘look’ more like what traditional notions of being ‘British’ demands – only time will tell. But this in itself raises the question of when and how you might ever become British if you are never able to look the way traditional and historical notions tell you that you should. Irrespective of what the head tells you therefore, it’s the message that what we as a society and country send that will make the ultimate difference. No amount of citizenship lessons or national holidays will ever change these.
Due to the climate we currently live in, we don’t give people the opportunity to make Britain their home. Unlike my experience of being able to live, work and belong in Birmingham despite my heart remaining emotionally attached to London, many will never feel that they truly belong or that they can ever be citizens, many of whom will have been born and raised in Birmingham and who unquestionably belong in this diverse, vibrant and dynamic city.