An intermittently Liberal anthology compiled by Jonathan Calder

Sunday, June 05, 2005  

The duffle-coat of Britishness
The manner in which people of different nationalities and ethnicities coexist in London, and to a lesser degree in other British cities and regions, is unmatched in Europe. Here is a peculiarly British way of tolerance. It starts, perhaps, with the habits of privacy and mutual indifference (“live and let live”, “an Englishman’s home is his castle”).

It continues with the baggy, undemanding nature of “Britishness”, a woolly duffle-coat of an identity that from the start had to embrace four national identities English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. Only in pragmatic, illogical Britain could a rugby match between England and Scotland be called a “home international”. But as the world has come back to the post-imperial island, so the duffle-coat of Britishness has stretched to accommodate many other identities.

In future censuses, we are told, we shall be able to categorise ourselves as “Afro-Caribbean English”, “Chinese Welsh”, or “Asian Scottish”. Gisela Stuart, herself a German-British MP, describes a neighbourhood in her Birmingham constituency that has a large Asian population. Since Asian parents want the best education for their children, and the best school in the neighbourhood is a convent school, they send their daughters there. Never mind the Catholicism; that can be expunged by Islamic instruction after school hours, at the local madrasah.

So there they sit, row upon row of girls in their Islamic headscarves, being taught maths, British history and, incidentally, the story of baby Jesus, by nuns in their Christian headscarves. A complete muddle, of course, but Europe will need more such muddling through if it is to make its tens of millions of Muslims feel at home.

Timothy Garton Ash Free World (2004)

posted by Jonathan Calder | 10:59 pm