This conference formed the final stage of a British Council-Ditchley Foundation project to examine concepts of “Britishness” from a whole variety of viewpoints, but with a particular focus on the views of young people (between the ages of 18 and 30) from a wide range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Between the two conferences at Ditchley, in June 2006 and now in February 2007, events were organised by the British Council to connect up Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ireland/Northern Ireland and Poland in order to provide external feedback. The writer Vron Ware, who has been associated with the initiative throughout, will be publishing a book later this year entitled “Who Cares about Britishness?”, presented as a global view of the national identity debate.
This Note is therefore only part of the story of this initiative, but reflects a debate rich in contrasting experiences, highly personal perspectives and a universal wish for the subject to be handled with tolerance and wisdom. The written page cannot do justice to such colour and variety. But it is important to have an account of the main themes and of where consensus might or might not be possible. Ditchley, it has to be remembered, has the habit of gathering rational and articulate people around the table. Room must be left in the imagination of the reader for the impact of irrational, emotional and frustrated arguments which were not well represented at this event.
We drove head-on at an analysis of the ingredients of “Britishness”, even if for some of the participants there was a real question mark as to whether Britishness really mattered. Was identity even as fundamental as we often assumed? Most individuals could select from a menu of multiple identities and would have to think long and hard before answering the question “Where are you really from?”. Often it was only under the pressure of circumstances that an individual or a group focused on one particular identity: and an identity spike for a period of time rarely told the whole story. Even setting aside Britain’s global history and connections and the powerful recent effects of globalisation, a view of identities as expressed on the surface could easily lead to analytical distortions. Besides, whole groups of people had been missed out of “Britishness” either through an over-concentration on the apparent mobility of modern society or through historic amnesia.
The historians amongst us were inclined to look for long time-frames, tracing roots way back. Such an approach tended to place any crisis of identity in the older generations or in the minds of people whose Britishness had been stable for generations. Since the twentieth century seemed to have belonged in particular to the professional classes, it might be they, the ‘metropolitan elite’, who were terrified of the new Britain. We were asked to consider at one point the difference between the UK and France in this respect. In France, “citizenship” was a primary feature of national life, clear in its connotations. In the UK, it was left to the individual to decide what it meant or to worry not at all whether it meant anything important.
Out of this range of possible entry points into the subject, there were bound to be disconnects. We saw the pendulum shifting constantly from confidence to confusion and back again. Some felt that confusion was the reality and that insecurity was the condition of modernity. Nonetheless we had a good go at analysing the various components of national identity, allowing for as many of the myriad different perspectives as we could. History, values, behaviour, shared experience, security threats, faith, education, allegiances all staked their claim and all were regarded as relevant, even if the proportions for each were argued over. When we examined more carefully what this mix might mean, it became clear that, unless we were prepared to set aside the principle of equality amongst all British citizens, there was little chance of creating prescribed themes of identity. The majority of participants were therefore left feeling more comfortable with the concept of Britishness welling up from a whole host of things for which Britons and British groups stood, rather than as a set of qualities which could be laid out in a citizenship document or a Bill of Rights. This preference for a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach was itself regarded as a rather British way to approach the subject. It catered for those who did not accept that Britishness might be about what Britons did or generally liked to do. It also allowed for those inner feelings about human rights, democracy and their evolution in British history to be included in a way which made them more than just a sub-section of universal human rights and good citizenship values.
Most participants felt nervous about “narratives”. Story-telling often involved some artificiality or subterfuge. Whose narrative, anyway? Any narrative left certain things out. For this reason an awareness of – and indeed an acceptance of – the qualities that made up Britishness needed to be taught, but the issues went wider than education. There were parts of the population, often those parts with roots way down in British soil, who had issues with globalisation because it threatened their traditional approach. If ignorance was not deliberate, then it might be remedied by education. If it was, then it needed other forms of treatment.
This brought us to the question of allegiances. The words “nationalism” and “patriotism” did not occur in the conference’s terms of reference and took some time to enter the oral discussion. Yet we all knew they were powerful influences. Most participants accepted that patriotism could play a positive role, but we asked whether British nationalism was desirable or even possible in today’s world. Those that did not want to go that route needed to ask whether any other influences could be as powerful. It was suggested that allegiance, as a separate concept from identity, might be a luxury. It raised particularly difficult issues for those parts of British society who felt insecure in their surroundings and who might be under observation as possible causes of trouble. Developing a sense of allegiance would therefore not work in all cases, especially those where the attention of the security authorities was most focused. It was in this context, too, that reactions to British foreign policy – in this debate, a euphemism for Iraq – came up. It might test people’s allegiances to destruction if they were asked to accept actions abroad in their name to which they were fundamentally opposed.
It was helpful to have a small minority of participants who were not British and who could give some feedback on what it looked like from outside, done on this occasion with some wry humour. Participants were pleased that the British Council had taken the trouble to look for feedback from different parts of the world where the relationship with Britain was or had been significant. Even from a European viewpoint, within which there was a touch of surprise that Europe itself featured so little in talk of the British make-up, it appeared remarkable that the British should be going through this navel-gazing exercise when they seemed from the outside to be so sure of themselves. Could there be a case for turning our backs on this whole national nervous breakdown and reasserting our patriotism without self-consciousness?
We knew that we had to address the issue of terrorism, linked as it was in many people’s minds with the origins of the perpetrators of 7/7. Participants recognised straight away that it was a travesty to equate terrorism with the Islamic religion, but that did not satisfy everyone around the table that there was not an underlying tendency to make a constant linkage. Another kind of conference would have made this point much more vociferously. We were nevertheless all clear that British Muslims had to enjoy the same individual and group rights as any other citizens and that the roots of extreme violence had to be analysed precisely and correctly in each individual case. Some participants commented in this context that they did not accept that “the rules of the game had changed” after the tragedies of 7 July 2005. The rules of the game for a tolerant society, and the need to bring perpetrators of violent acts to justice, were exactly the same before and after that date.
The conference did not find it easy to move on to policy prescriptions. Even after an enlightening conversation about the ingredients of British national identity, it was a complex and difficult business to decide on priorities and get the relationship right between the different component parts. Looking after the institutions of British public life was not enough on its own. We were challenged from the beginning to look beyond policies for a central indicative idea, which we did not collectively discover. Nevertheless, most participants felt that there were certain approaches worth emphasising:
· What Britons did was in the end more important than the rhetoric. A fundamental requirement was even-handedness between all parts of the community, something which the typical British character should not find too difficult.
· Tolerance, however, sometimes had its limits and the bounds of decent British behaviour should be set with some firmness, with support from all parts of the community for action against those who crossed them.
· Accepting that Britishness was the result of what Britons were and did would be an important part of setting the right prescriptions for education, both civic and general, for support of the arts and other cultural activities and for any attempt at a written constitution. Those involved in these areas, not least in the encouragement of creativity in society, should be aiming at a fusion of experience and perspective which, even with all the elements of rapid change, would give a sense of common direction.
· Although we talked a lot about values, including “aspirational values”, and understood their importance, the majority of participants preferred to avoid an enumeration of them. They too easily turned to mush when that happened.
· The teaching and learning of English was regarded as a significant part of any policy mix, for some even a primary part.
Politicians, too thinly represented at the table, came in for a certain amount of stick. This again was a reflection of bottom-up over top-down. There were several calls for them to raise their game. Inspirational leadership was called for but not defined. We were left with the feeling that it was safer and wiser for political leaders to address this whole area obliquely, concentrating on establishing a healthy framework for a complex multicultural society without trying to preach how multiculturalism should work.
Yes, we did talk about Britishness on the one hand and Englishness, Scottishness, Irishness and Welshness on the other. Even parts of England could be separated out, with London regarded as quite different in many respects from other parts of the country. We recognised that someone born in Bangladesh or Jamaica could be British though not English. This was why the term ‘British’ had value. Yet we also heard about the turbaned Sikh who pointed to his kilt to show that he was Scottish. Perhaps this was the most fundamental point of all, that you are who you think you are, at this moment in this place. If Britain can accept you and give something to you, and you can reciprocate, then you have every right to consider yourself British.
Our Chair, who guided us through these minefields with sensitivity and steadiness, concluded that we could draw a sense of optimism from this debate, because we had shown that it was possible to have a healthy conversation on the whole issue. The elements of consensus on where we should be heading were encouraging. They included the points that we should not see national identity through any narrow prism such as terrorism; that we should identify and beware of the factors which caused distortions of the truth; that we needed to include all the many facets of British identity to make sense of any of them; that values were important but not everything; and that politicians needed to choose very carefully where they placed themselves. Within that sense of optimism was the feeling that time would mend most of the problems we were seeing now and that the underlying strength of British compromise, which had made our history more evolutionary than revolutionary over a thousand years, would find most of the answers.
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
Chairman: Baroness Prashar of Runnymede CBE
Life Peer, cross-bench (1999-); Chair, Judicial Appointments Commission (2006-); Non-Executive Director, ITV (2005-). Formerly: First Civil Service Commissioner (2000-05); Chairman, National Literacy Trust (2000-05); Chairman, The Parole Board (1997-2000). A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Sabrina Ahmad
Student of Media and Communications, Independent University, Bangladesh; Feature Writer, Star Lifestyle and Assignment Editor, Rising Stars.
Ms Nazmun Choudhury
Director, Hazrat Mohammad Instute, Dhaka (2006-); Associate, Syed Istiaq Ahmed and Associates (2006 ).
Mr Martin Rose
Director, The British Council, Canada (2006-). Formerly: Director, Counterpoint (2002-06), Brussels (1999-2002), Rome (1991-96), Baghdad (1989-90).
Ms Madhumita Bhattacharyya
Journalist and Communications Consultant, Calcutta (2006-). Formerly: Programme Officer, Group Development, Calcutta (2005-06); Principal Correspondent, The Telegraph (2000-05).
Dr Valentina Pisanty
Assistant Professor of Semiotics, University of Bergamo.
Ms Yvonne Owuor
Author; Associate, LV-ArtsxChange, USA (2006-); Formerly: Executive Director, Zanzibar International Film Festival, Tanzania (2003-05); Winner, Caine Book Prize (2003).
Ms Kamila Shamsie
Author and Journalist; visiting Assistant Professor, Hamilton College, New York.
Mr Muhammad Sheikh
President, Special Talent Exchange Program, a Cross Disability Organisation working in collaboration with the World Bank, Handicap International and Sight Savers International; President, Disabled Peoples’ International, Pakistan.
Ms Mariam Zaidi
MSc International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Formerly: Pakistan Ambassador, 11th IYLC Conference, Prague, Czech Republic (2006).
Mr Michael Binyon
Diplomatic Editor, The Times (1991-). Formerly: Foreign Correspondent Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels.
Sir Nigel Broomfield KCMG
Chairman, Leonard Cheshire (2005-). Formerly: Director, The Ditchley Foundation (1999-2004); HM Diplomatic Service (1969-97); Ambassador to Germany (1993-97) and the German Democratic Republic (1988-90). A Governor, the Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Dominic Casciani
Home Affairs, BBC News. Formerly: Community Affairs Correspondent, BBC News.
Ms Shami Chakrabarti
Director, Liberty (2003-). Formerly: In-house Counsel, Liberty (2001-03). A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Professor David Coleman
Professor in Demography, Department of Social Policy and Social work, University of Oxford (2002-). Formerly: Reader in Demography, University of Oxford (1996-2002).
Ms Marilyn Comrie
Chief Executive Officer, LeaderGen Ltd; Board Member, Ethnic Minority Business Forum North West; Member, African Union Private Sector Forum.
Mr Richard Cull
MA Student, Newspaper Journalism, University of Ulster (2006-).
Dr Mark Currie
Civil Servant, Learning, Training and Development: Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Northern Ireland Office.
Mr Philip Dodd
Chairman, Made in China (2004-); Visiting Professor, University of the Arts, London (2004-); Advisor, Chaoyang Government, Beijing. Formerly: Director, ICA (197-2004); Editor, Sight and Sound, BFI (1990-97); Deputy Editor, New Statesman and Society (1989-90). Author and Broadcaster.
Mr David Goodhart
Founder and Editor, ‘Prospect’ Magazine. Formerly: Bonn Correspondent, The Financial Times (1988 91). Author. A Member, Ditchley Foundation Programme Committee.
Ms Sasha Havlicek
Executive Director, Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Club of Three (2006-). Formerly: Senior Director, Centre for Border Cooperation, EastWest Institute, Brussels.
Mr Peter Hewitt
Chief Executive, Arts Council England (1998-). Formerly: Corporate Affairs Director, Tees HA (1997 98); Chief Executive, Northern Arts (1992-97).
Mr Nick Johnson
Director, Policy and Public Sector, Commission for Racial Equality.
Mr Paul Kirkman
Deputy director (Arts), Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Formerly: Deputy Director, HM Treasury; Private Secretary to the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry
Mr Paul Lewis
The Guardian. Formerly: President, Cambridge University Students’ Union.
Dr Anatol Lieven
Senior Research Fellow, New America Foundation, Washington (2005-). Formerly: Senior Associate, The Carnegie Foundation (2000-05); Central European Correspondent, The Financial Times (1997-98).
Mr John Lloyd
Director of Journalism, Reuters Institute, University of Oxford; Contributing Editor, The Financial Times; Columnist, The Financial Times Magazine (2003-). Formerly: Associate Editor, The New Statesman (1996-2003); Moscow Bureau Chief, Financial times (1991-96).
Mr Rajay Naik
Trustee: Phoenix Education Trust (2006-); National Youth Agency (2006-); Non-Executive Director, Changemakers Ltd (2006-); British Youth Council (2005-); Director, English Secondary Students Association (2005-).
Ms Elaine Nesbitt
British Council, Northern Ireland. Formerly: Project Manager, Czech Republic (2003-04).
Mr Robert Ness
Director UK, British Council. Formerly: British Council Portugal (2000-03); Cyprus (1997-2000); Johannesburg (1992-97).
Ms Elizabeth Padmore
Independent Consultant and International Advisor (2006-); Member, Council for the Royal Institute for International Affairs; Member, Advisory Board, Youth Business International. Formerly: Parner and Global Director, Policy and Corporate Affairs, Accenture (1995-2006). A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Sujata Sen
Director East India, British Council, India. Formerly: Journalist and Publisher.
Mr Philip Stephens
Associate Editor and Senior Commentator, Financial Times. Formerly: Financial Times: Economics Editor, Political Editor and Editor, UK Edition; Correspondent, Reuters, London and Brussels. Author. A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Graeme Thomas
Head of UK Outreach, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London.
Ms Helen Tse
Attorney, Walkers Law firm, Cayman Islands (2006-). Formerly: Head, China Business Desk (North of England) and Solicitor, International Structuring Department, PriceWaterHouseCooper (2003-06).
Mr Colin Tweedy LVO OBE
Chief Executive. Arts and Business (1983-); Chairman, Comité Européen pour le Rapprochement de l’Economie et de la Culture; Director, Oxford Stage Company; Director, Marinsky Theatre Trust (1999-).
Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers KCB CMG MBE
Adjutant General (2005-). Formerly: Military Secretary and Chief Executive, Army Personnel Centre (2003-05); Deputy Commanding General, Joint Task Force 7 and Senior British Military Representative, Iraq (2003); Chief of Staff, HQ Land Command (2000-03).
Dr Vron Ware
Project Writer, The British Council (2006-). Formerly: Writer, Film Maker and Academic (1983-2005); Editor, Searchlight (1980-83).
Mr David Willetts MP
Member of Parliament Conservative, Havant (1992-); Shadow Education and Skills Secretary (2005-). Formerly: Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (2005); Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (2001-05). Author. Member, Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation. A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Miss Christina Papatheodorou
Development Manager, Young Enterprise London; InterAction Leadership Programme, Kenya and UK. Formerly: Design Team Consultant, Global Youth Connect.
Mr Altaf Abid
Programme Assistant, Faith in Leadership Programme, Learn to Lead, Sheffield (2006-).
Ms Bokani Tshidzu
BSc Student, Politics and Economics, University of Bath; President, University of Bath Debating Society (2006-).
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/UNITED KINGDOM
Professor Linda Colley
Shelby MC Davis 1958 Professor of History, University of Princeton (2003-). Formerly: Senior Leverhulme Research Professorship in History, London School of Economics (1998-2003).