Interview with Sunder Katwala from British Future (Part 1)

My research and development phase for True Brits begins in earnest this month, starting with my having a chat with Sunder Katwala as mentioned in my last post. The questions I’ve asked are all of relevance to the play, so forgive it they seem a bit broad or haphazard:

What made you want to set up British Future? 

Well I think we felt there was a gap in terms of debates that this country wants to have, needs to have, I mean what British Future is about is “Could Britain be a country that’s confident about the country it is and the country it’s going to be?” but I think what we wanted to do differently is we wanted to engage with people who are anxious about that, not with the people who are already confident so I think what we’re trying to move away from was the debate where some people find a society changing quite fast, becoming more diverse, liberating, exhilarating and like it and other people find it unsettling and then you have the debate about whose emotion is right, in which the people who find it liberating try and persuade the people who find it unsettling that they don’t understand the world.

Our question is a different question: This is who we are now and how are we going to make it work? It’s a discussion I don’t think was happening, I mean we have quite a polarised debate and we’ve deliberately chosen the issues that are potentially toxic and polarising: immigration, identity, integration, opportunity and we have the view that we can make choices that we could have confidence in but it means taking anxiety more seriously I think than some people have.

How much does representation matter? Do you need to see someone who looks like you doing what you want in order to do it?

I think in the very broad sense, it matters that the country and institutions that represent the country feel as though they represent the country. What I’m sceptical about is a kind of counting heads multiculturism that tries to get the quotas and the fractions right, what we’re interested in is fair chances, no unfair barriers and I can feel represented by institutions that don’t get the exact proportions right if I feel there are fair opportunities and I think it’s important around issues of race, faith, other issues to have that kind of lens on if there is a big gap, why is the gap there and what are you doing about it, but I don’t want to get into a position where the responsibility to represent the idea of Britain as a multi-ethnic society falls on the shoulders of those who are black and Asian. It’s quite interesting that, for example, pioneering race legislation in this country was passed by parliaments that were all white, and that made it possible for other people to come through so I think we can be quite limiting. I think the answer is for people to be represented in proportionate numbers so they don’t carry the burdens of representation that the pioneer group did but I also think it’s important that we don’t overly pigeon-hole women into talking about childcare and minorities talking about minority issues because they should be shared responsibilities.

What do you think it means to be integrated?

I think one debate people have is that Britishness is quite loose, we just don’t know what integration is and at one level that is partly true and that is also a strength because it’s a civic multinational, multi-ethnic identity. It’s always had quite a lot of space in it because of the Celtic fringe and so on and so perhaps it was easier to pluralise Britishness than Germanness, and then people say “Well, but is it about anything?” and actually what I find quite reassuring is that while there’s this, I think, slightly thin argument that if you can’t find some exclusive property of it that doesn’t exist in any other country then it doesn’t mean anything, I don’t think that’s right because I think it’s about a felt belonging, and what shared perceptions of the group are shared by people who are in the group and how does that work. So the things we think about ourselves,  you know that there’s a distinctive sense of humour, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any jokes in Germany. It just means that we feel that our language, our literature, our humour is distinctive but that it also absorbs other influences and makes it part of that whole thing.

People have some very core issues or concerns that they expect, it can’t work without these things. Do we speak a common language? Do people observe the rule of law, the same rule of law? Do people respect the freedom of speech of others? Those things are absolutely foundational of a common citizenship. Then what’s quite interesting is that people don’t demand too much more, people don’t start saying I’m going to pass a law about what you’re going to wear or not going to wear if they’ve got those foundations so I think while there’s a demand for content in a diverse society, the content is quite liberal.

Do you think there’s a country that represents the best model of integration or is that a red herring?

I think you’ve got to do it in your national context, though the challenges are very similar. Generally, the more highly educated you are, the younger you are, the more confident you will be in an advanced democracy that you’re country can deal with change well. Whereas the older you are, the less educated, the less mobile you are actually, the less you’ll believe that. There are always concerns about basic economic pressures and then “who we are” questions. Now the “who we are” questions are going to be different in every country, they’ll be about the values that country has so, you know, the Dutch will say we risk losing Dutch tolerance, we need to protect, say, tolerance for gay rights from diversity and the French will have a view about secularism and so on. My view is that Britain is better at this than most other countries. I’m not saying it’s necessarily top of the league, it’s the least racist country in Europe I think. The Canadians for very distinct reasons do it very well in a very Canadian way because they managed to make pluralism part of their national identity, put a maple leaf on the flag, have a multilingual community. The British are interesting because I think we are the least racist country in Europe yet we’re a bit more concerned about immigration than everybody else is and working out how both of those things can be true is quite interesting. So it’s not an entirely happy story but I think there are more resources for “we are the new us” right now in Britain than you’d have perhaps in France or Italy.

Do you think large-scale national events, like the Olympics, have the power to shift or set a country’s perception of itself? 

I think to a large extent they have a really important function that nothing else replaces, the only caveat you have to put on it is an asterisk that says “it’s never enough.” It gives you an aspirational vision of the type of better selves you might like to be and you might imagine yourselves being and you can actually see and feel it and so what I think is powerful about the Danny Boyle ceremony is that it’s done in a creative way, it’s not done in a painting-by-numbers way. Personally, I think the closing ceremony was awful and I don’t feel attached to that but the opening ceremony wasn’t and it’s really good but then 27 million people are watching it and so there’s definitely a conversation going on that night among 27 million people and with all the fragmentation, and it’s brilliant obviously at one level because it offers you iPods and iPads and Netflix, but there are very few things now, you know even on Christmas Day people aren’t watching the same thing, there are very few 20 million plus collective experiences, so when you’ve got them – sporting events still do it at the very top level, funnily enough Royal events do it , so if you don’t like the fact that that’s the reason people have a thousand street parties, then before you chuck it I’d like to come up with another reason to have a thousand street parties otherwise you’re throwing away something that works. It’s partly because you’ve got an atomised, individualised society that people really like the things where they choose to come together and I don’t believe anyone was coerced into it, wanted to switch it all off.

I thought the Beijing opening ceremony was – I’m a bit biased here – was boring. It showed an ability to synchronise a large amount of people, but it sort of lacked wit and humour. Now the downside is that if you say “job done – look at that, we can do that, so job done.” An interesting case of this is France in ’98, it mattered a lot that they won the World Cup with the team they won it with and it was probably quite hard to be a French racist because you had to decide whether or not to celebrate winning the World Cup. But it didn’t make it that difficult to put Le Pen in the second round a few years later.  So if you decide that the story that you’d like to tell the rest of the world is this one, and that’s the story you’d like to tell yourself, you’re then offering the mirror to which you’re going to hold up yourselves to and if it turns out to be a false story…I think the story of London 2012 is a true-ish story about London and a sort of aspirational story about Britain and the other thing about it is that we told a story in 2005 ahead of the crash – promise of youth and opportunity and all that – and whether or not it’s still a story you can still believe in after the crash, it’s quite interesting to have established which stories we’d like to be true and then to work out what you’d have to do to keep it going over time.

What, if anything, did the Olympics mean to you personally?

At a personal level, what worked for me about it was…my eldest daughter was 7 and I was thinking “this might happen again by the time you’re 70” and we went to watch some athletic prelims and we went to watch equestrian and we watched some women’s football and there’s pictures and images of just being at the Olympics and you know, you kind of got that it was a really big thing at one level but not how big it was and I think it’d be really interesting to see what her reflections are on that in five years time, in ten or twenty years time, if you never get the Olympics back. I mean she turned into a massive Japanese football fan now, Japan is her country of choice because we watched Japan-France in the Olympics women’s football and there was a group of Japan fans chanting, you know,  “JAPAN!” clap-clap-clap, all the way through and they gave her a flag at the end so now in the World Cup she’ll be supporting Japan, not England – her view is that it’s unfair that if everyone’s going to support England, who’s going to support the other teams – and I suppose I’ve got to be cool with that…a bit.

That’s all for now, folks….part two tomorrow (EDIT: Can be found here). Also True Brits will get a closed reading at my alma mater, CSSD, in March, followed by the first public one at the Brockley Jack the month after. Can’t wait.

I want to make the process of writing this play transparent so people who attend the readings will be given a password to my Scribd account, onto which I’ve been uploading every draft of True Brits. Post-readings I will be uploading versions that explicitly mark what has changed between drafts and why. To cut out the noise from the rest of the blog, you can follow posts about the development process by clicking the tag “TBRD”.

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