“I’m a Londoner, I’m European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband.”
So said Sadiq Khan, the newly elected London mayor, in a recent interview with the New York Times. His victory generated great interest and comment around the globe, and mainly for the fact that one of the greatest Western capital cities had elected a Muslim as its mayor by overwhelming popular vote. Flying in the face of the widespread fear and divisiveness swirling around the whole subject of Muslims in the West, the result stands as a powerful symbol of unity amidst difference; a testament to the sanity of the general electorate in not being swayed by prejudice.
It made me feel proud to be a Londoner, and also I was reflecting on Sadiq Khan’s quote: how it expresses ease at holding multiple identities, and the sense of healthy belonging that goes along with that. It’s healthy to hold a nested hierarchy of identities like a Russian doll: you can be a Sikh, a Liverpudlian, a Briton, a European and a global human being, for example, with no inherent conflict.
I live in a bastion of Britishness, a borough where one of the highest proportions of all its residents identify with what they consider their country – Britain. I also very much consider myself British and am very happy to think of this as my primary national identity; so I guess I live in the right place. Where is this stronghold of Britishness in our Sceptered Isle? Well, what might come to mind could be somewhere like Tunbridge Wells or a small village in comfortable Hampshire or Dorset, or any location where the Daily Mail or Express dominates the dailies. But Royal Tunbridge Wells residents are far less than half as likely to identify themselves as British than in my home borough. It’s the London East End borough of Tower Hamlets, which doesn’t have a ‘Royal’ epithet either.
Data from the most recent national census of 2011 shows very clearly that all the boroughs in the country with the highest number of respondents picking British as their primary identity are London ones. And it pretty much correlates with the much greater ethnic diversity of these boroughs. It’s repeated outside London too, where the ‘most British’ places are Slough, Leicester, Luton and Birmingham – all places with high levels of ethnic diversity. Elsewhere in England, much greater percentages of the population picked being English as their primary identity: in Tunbridge Wells, 63% picked English in contrast to Tower Hamlets’ 25%. Interesting, isn’t it?
My wife was canvassing in Tower Hamlets for the recent London Mayoral election. She told me something interesting in how she had door knocked several flats where the Bengali woman of the house couldn’t speak English. Their children translated and the ladies turned out to be well informed about the election and planning to vote Labour. But what was particularly interesting to me was how they were unanimously against Britain remaining in the EU; this was because they didn’t want foreigners in Brussels telling us British what to do. Although they didn’t speak English, they clearly had a very strong sense of Britishness and of belonging.
Yet we have the interesting situation where long established or native Britons – indigenous Britons even? – I can’t find the right word for the older white British stock – are not as sure as more recent immigrants of their own sense of Britishness.
At roughly the same time as Sadiq Khan’s interview with the New York Times, I read an interview in the Times (of London) with the ex-minister of finance for Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, . Yanis Varouvakis is always insightful and brilliant and he has a very good understanding of the British, having lived for many years here at one point in his life.He volunteered in the interview that:
‘The British seem to be ill at ease with their Britishness. It’s always confused me. The Germans are not ill at ease with their Germanness, or the Greeks with their Greekness. But the Brits are constantly itching. They are always at war with their own nature. I find this adorable But, at the same time, puzzling.’
Now Yanis’ statement doesn’t surprise me at all, having spent a long time studying our peculiar country. In my experience, immigrants do tend to be more at ease with their Britishness than native Britons. Why that might be so, is a whole other subject and one which I’ve attempted to explore in my book, Being British: Our Once & Future Selves.