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Neil Davidson

The myth of Britishness

(20 August 2005)

From Socialist Worker, No. 1964, 20 August 2005.
Copied from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Writer Neil Davidson examines the hypocrisy surrounding the debate on ‘Britishness’

The Lone Ranger and Tonto are trapped on the edge of a cliff by angry Native Americans. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Looks like we’re surrounded, Tonto.” Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we’, paleface?”

This is a politically correct version of an old joke.

Chutzpah is a useful Jewish term best illustrated by the story about the man who murders his parents then asks the court to let him off because he’s an orphan.

I am reminded of this joke by the current clamour for Muslims, and by implication, all non-whites and non-Christians, to adopt British culture and values.

Tory MP Boris Johnson expressed his shock in the Daily Telegraph that “too many Britons have absolutely no sense of allegiance to this country or its institutions”. Why might this be?

Johnson, we can be sure, has never suffered a racist attack. It is unlikely that he has ever been singled out for stop and search by the police on account of his hair-style, clothes or accent – bizarrely different though they are to those of the majority of people living in Britain.

We know that he has not been confined to a low paying job or forced to live in sub-standard housing. We can be certain that his religion – the state religion, at least in England – has not been attacked by commentators whose arrogance in denouncing it is equalled only by their ignorance of its tenets.

Yet if he had experienced these things, as Muslims regularly do, he might be less mystified as to why some of them feel a less than perfect allegiance to “this country and its institutions”.

In fact, what is remarkable is that, despite the way non-white immigrants to Britain have been treated over the last 60 years, they have nevertheless variously argued, pleaded, and demanded that they be treated as British.

They want British national identity to be extended to them on the same basis that it is to the English, the Scots and the Welsh.

The Irish are a more complex case, of course. Yet, despite all the rhetoric about equal opportunities and multiculturalism, in all that time the British state has maintained the levels of institutional racism that form the daily background to their lives.

But now the British political classes and their echo-chambers in the media are demanding that people whose

Britishness has been denied or downplayed for so long must abandon their religious identity.

These identities have in some cases at least been maintained as a defence against the hostility of their social environment, as a consolation for the pain which they have to endure.

We are informed that multiculturalism – which in this context means people being able to follow their preferred religious and cultural practices – is a form of apartheid.

Now if this meant that British society had forced many minority groups into segregated ghettos, it would be an interesting if wildly exaggerated analogy.

But the implication is rather that these groups have segregated themselves, subjected themselves to an internal exile because of their rejection of those good old British values of justice and fair play enjoyed by millions around the world from Ireland to India.

These are currently being displayed to the mysteriously unappreciative inhabitants of Iraq.

To put obstacles in the way of people becoming British, then to denounce them for failing to do so, takes chutzpah on a truly cosmic scale.

The insolence of these establishment demands is staggering, especially when we remember how Muslims in particular were once praised for the very characteristics for which they are now denounced.

In the 1970s, it was common for “Asian” people to be praised by right wingers for their supposed commitment to family values and small-scale capitalist enterprise.

And, if they were Muslims, they had a sternly moralistic religion as well. How different, it was claimed, were these virtuous shop-keepers from the feckless African-Caribbean one parent families who had failed to adapt to the “British way of life”.

Equally, Labour Party politicians were quite happy for Asians to remain ghettoised as long as they voted for their candidates. One politician now sitting in the House of Lords used to refer to the inhabitants of his Midlands constituency as “my Asians”.


One of the pleasures of Respect MP George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green & Bow is the blow it delivered to that kind of patronising complacency.

But now the propaganda needs of the ruling class are different. The tight, enclosed family characterised by religious observance is no longer seen as a model of middle class industry, but as an incubator of terrorism.

Patterns of community voting, now that the votes are no longer guaranteed to the Labour Party, are a thing of scandal, a demonstration of the way in which immature young minds are being influenced by clerics, quite possibly of foreign origin.

The cry goes up, “Why don’t they accept our values, our way of life?” Let’s take a closer look at these notions.

The definition of a national culture as “a whole way of life” was introduced by the brilliant but deeply reactionary poet and critic, T.S. Eliot.

It was taken up by the socialist writer Raymond Williams. It is, however, an incredibly dangerous idea for the left to embrace, as recent events have proved.

First, a living culture is not static. It is not something which at some point in history can be declared finished, and to which everybody thereafter must conform.

The culture is whatever the people who live within a society do at any one time, with all the contradictions that involves. In that sense, multiculturalism is simply a social fact, not a social policy, and cannot be undone.

Second, cultures have never been purely national, less so than ever today. Why should they be anyway?

In a recent article in the New Statesman magazine called, Why Britain is Great the historian Tristram Hunt praises David Blunkett for “speaking of his patriotic ardour for English music, poetry, drama and humour”.

If Blunkett is seriously saying that he appreciates these things more than the culture of other countries simply because they are English then he’s an even bigger fool than we had supposed.

This a naked appeal to nationalism which no one takes seriously other than as a stick to beat the immigrant population or their descendants. The people who talk about the superiority of British national culture watch US films, eat Indian food, buy German cars, take their holidays in Italy

Third, and most important, there is no culture can be said to embody a single set of values.

Leave aside the absurdity of claiming values such as “tolerance” and “justice” as particularly British as if other people did not also embrace them.

By this I do not mean that each different class or group has its own culture but that the values within each culture are contested.

The values of the managers of British Airways are not the same as those of the mainly white union members who struck in support of mainly Asian sacked workers.

These differences in values are ultimately based on differences of class interest – the great unmentionable in this entire debate.

When Hunt writes, “Like other Western and non-Western nations, we have a history of promoting the type of gender, racial and sexual equality reviled by misogynistic mujahids”, we should respond like Tonto.

Every single attempt to broaden democracy in Britain, from the first attempts to extend the vote, through decolonisation, to the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality has been forced from the hand of the ruling class.

Here we have another example of that old ruling class chutzpah again. First, resist democratic reform until it is no longer safe to resist. Then, claim the achievement of these reforms, which you fought like hell to prevent, as part of our national heritage.


I am not arguing, incidentally, that the left needs to create an alternative national history to counter that of the right – the people’s story as a counter to our island story. This is a strategy that has always proved disastrous in that it remains fixated on the nation.

There is one final argument which is used to attack the Muslim population. This is slightly more subtle, in that it does not rely on exclusively British values, but on the universal values of the Enlightenment.

Now I agree that we need to defend the Enlightenment against irrationality, but perhaps we should start at home, or with our closest ally.

The president of the US favours intelligent design as an explanation for the origins of life. Schools in several US states are now teaching creationism as an alternative to Darwinism. And gay marriages will continue to go unrecognised because of what is written – along with prohibitions on eating shellfish, owls and other abominations – in the Book of Leviticus.

It is certainly clear that socialists need to take a stand against these forces of darkness and unreason.

Indeed, non-Christians might reasonably ask what it is in the Bible that apparently compels Tony Blair to bomb, invade or occupy five countries in eight years. Is it statements such as, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword”?

But this is not what pro-war columnists Nick Cohen or Francis Wheen mean by defending the Enlightenment. What they mean is that Muslims should be forced to stop allowing their religion to influence their lives.

For these people “the Enlightenment” is only a series of rational beliefs based on evidence. Except when it comes to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, of course. Like the existence of Allah, they are an article of faith.

But the Enlightenment, or at least the radicalised Enlightenment associated with Marxism, is more than this. It is not enough to denounce people for being deluded by their priests or imams.

We have to understand what in their social conditions might lead people to accept these beliefs in the first place and to do so as a basis for engaging with them in joint activity.

To say to Muslims – or people of any faith community – that they must agree to abandon their beliefs before we will deign to have a conversation or join a march with them is the worst kind of sectarian abstention.

It is also to make the elitist assumption that other people are incapable of changing their minds through the process of action and discussion. One of the most significant events in recent years has been the mass entry into active political life of the Muslim population in the anti-war movement.

It is this, not the harangues of those demanding adherence to some mythical British “culture” or “values”, that has allowed people from different groups to see themselves as one – not as British, but as part of the worldwide resistance to war and capitalist globalisation.

Neil Davidson was the joint winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2003 for his book Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692–1746. This is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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