Interview with Sunder Katwala from British Future (Part 2)

Part 2 (Part 1 is here)! The role of state in national identity, the future of Britishness, Euro ’96, the prospect of Englishness and national anthems.

What role do you think the state should or does play in the creation/maintenance of a national identity?

I think national identities are different. I mean, look, in a liberal society you want to live in a society where you can choose your identity for yourself and you can balance different identities…local identity, regional identity, or say feminism or any political identity and that’s a very personal kind of thing. National identity is different because it’s underpinning our shared sense of citizenship and so parts of it, I just feel, we need to decide collectively not…you know whether or not you put bunting up or you don’t join in the Jubilee or don’t particularly want to fly a Union Jack during the Olympics but we have to agree some of the boundary conditions like “who’s in the club?” and you can’t decide that for yourself: “well, I feel British but you don’t accept me as British”, there’s a collective conversation, so the state can, in a way, create the space where the negotiation happens. In a new country, you do it when you’re making the constitution. In a country where it’s evolving you’ve got to somehow have a public and political conversation where you actually ratify the collective understandings and you say, “Not everyone agrees on everything but we now agree this, actually.” For example, about gay rights and marriage, or we agree this about ethnicity or we agree this about the scope of faith and the limits of faith and those things. How much faith or secular identity you have is up to you, but what the rules are of the public domain, we all have to be able to be in the room and then the state has to facilitate that.

But of course the state can’t do it if it tries to own people’s emotional attachments, and I think in Britain we have the potential to get that right because we dislike American style, almost compulsory patriotism, we bring more irony to the table. But we do surprise ourselves a bit, I think people who think “oh, citizenship ceremonies will never be British” should get along to them and find that people can have an emotional attachment and it’s a powerful wanting to express something publically and in a way the freedom to opt out of any of this stuff, like the freedom to opt out of wearing the poppy has to acknowledge the legitimacy of the choice to wear the poppy because it’s a collective act of remembrance. I think sometimes the liberal individualistic allergy to any of this is almost policing something that people want to do together in a free and open society. The state can provide some space for it to happen. At local level you can provide space in which contact can happen as long as you don’t try and micromanage the content that comes out of it.

Amongst calls for full devolution and burgeoning sense of Englishness, do you see a future for Britishness?

I think so because civic is plural, it always has been, and you only get to keep it if you decide to keep it. It requires consent and at the moment there’s probably quite strong majority consent in Scotland on the basis of having a really serious discussion, a referendum about it. That’s the unilateral decision – to be in or not – and then how you adjust it has to run in a negotiated way. There’s consent in Northern Ireland in a more complicated way because you have to accommodate the non-consent on fair terms, you can’t just say “we won”, there’s a big difference between now and the ‘20s version of majority rule in Northern Ireland. So you get to keep it, if you all want to keep it and you find a fair way to do it. Now, you’ve still got this…now you’ve got the problem of Englishness which is that it didn’t even know it was different for so long and now knows it’s different and it knows that it hasn’t been asked but it doesn’t know what it wants.

To some extent, the English have to turn up and do what the Scots have done which is to think about what they want and articulate it, because in my view the English primarily want cultural recognition and the chance to have a voice, not necessarily political structures. It becomes quite fuzzy, but actually cultural recognition is quite powerful and again there’s an unwillingness from some people to recognise that desire for cultural recognition of Englishness, but the people who are slightly allergic to it tend to think cultural recognition is really important for minorities. If cultural recognition matters, why wouldn’t it matter for everybody? There’s something uneven and asymmetric in devolution that’s got nothing to say about Englishness, multiculturalism that’s only about minorities and doesn’t actually give a role to most of the population.  My view is that national identity is a better frame to do that because everyone comes to that conversation, whereas multiculturalism as a conversation, I think minorities did a lot with it because they used it to articulate the version of national identity that would work for them and they thought they’d done the work that they needed to do but actually the majority of the population thought it was a debate of minorities, for minorities, about minorities, and how could 10% of the population redefine the national identity if other people were in the room? It feels to me that national identity is a much better frame to have the people who need to turn up to decide what we’re going to share.

The majority identity can be civic, shared, plural and non-ethnic, but it’s got to have content on offer, an emotional appeal for settled indigenous Britons whose families go back ten generations as well as people whose families go back three generations as well as somebody at a citizenship ceremony after being here five years who’s choosing to become part of the community and it wants to welcome that person on equal terms in a way where everyone else can still recognise the community that they’re joining is the one they belong to.

Was there a moment in your life that you felt particularly British or English?

I think I always felt British and English and I felt both before I knew it was a complicated question. It became a complicated question when I was a teenager and there were two matters – for me it’s all about sports in different ways because it was the era I was growing up in, the place I was growing up in, but Norman Tebbit’s cricket test was problematic for me, about 1990, I’m about 16, because I always supported England and suddenly…I don’t particularly want to switch to support India though my Dad supports India but I don’t have a problem with my Dad supporting India, but now supporting England has become a sort of test of political allegiance so you support England in a quiet way, so it puts me off for a little bit because something that was normal has become politicised and you’re in a moment in the debate where it feels a bit contested and you’re suddenly aware the club you thought you were part of…some people are asking you about it. And then Euro 96 felt to me, in terms of Englishness, it felt like a moment when Englishness sorted itself out and you suddenly felt we’d turned up to the party, it’s not only the Scots and the Dutch who can turn up and enjoy themselves while the English sing “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts” and “we’re going to smash up your towns to prove we won the Second World War” or something, so it really felt it sorted itself out.

Now looking back on that, and it was kind of a 2012-ish moment, there was an element of surprising euphoria partly because you’re not really expecting England to be any good and then they beat the Dutch very well, and partly because of the mood in which it was contained was evidently positive celebratory, all inclusive, what’s puzzling now for me is that we didn’t seem to do anything with it in terms of Englishness. It was just before devolution and we stuck with quite a plural sporting Englishness and no public Englishness at all and at different moments people then said, “if it turns up it’ll be bloody horrible, won’t it?” as if we’ll get a kind of NF (National Front) Englishness and you’re thinking, “well I’ve seen that that isn’t the one people want, why can’t we bring back the one people want?” Now, with a pretty rubbish football team, it’s another reason to not only do it through football but to just do it without needing to win a penalty shootout but we got stalled on that when we actually had the answer because Football’s Coming Home is quite rooted in an traditional ownership, a pride, you know, country that invents the game, exports the game, it’s quite a globalised pride – a country that invites the world and then celebrates its distinctive role.

So a form of patriotism…and the difference between patriotism and aggressive nationalism is that you can be special without being superior and Football’s Coming Home has that quality to it, and actually I’m quite proud we got to the semi-finals and lost, it’s not like you expect them to actually win it and that’s a bit different from what I think people always thought the hangover was, which is that not winning this test match, this football game is always a sort of lament for the loss of Empire, and actually we got over that, we learned to lose at cricket and football. Now, winning Wimbledon, doing well in the Olympics…whether we can psychologically handle that as a country remains to be seen. We know what to do with losing…the risk actually is…beating the Australians once or twice, it’s “can you believe it? We’re beating the Australians!” Doing it every time, you worry you’ll turn into the Australians, and no one wants to turn into the Australians.

What would be your choice for an English national anthem?

I would definitely have one because it’s a category error, bit of a mistake, to not. I think it annoys everybody really, the English don’t feel they’ve got something and the Scots and so on are like “Why have you appropriated it?” and I’d have Jerusalem because I think people can settle on it, it is quite English, left and right can find different things in it, this imaginary utopian idealised slightly made up version. I think it can be inclusive and I don’t see that the alternatives…I wouldn’t have Land of Hope and Glory, that feels rather British, so I think Jerusalem should be it, but I think we should get on with it.

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