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What is the meaning of British?

Updated: 4 days ago

This week Shamima Begum was stripped of her UK citizenship. Today Bangladesh has said she isn’t welcome. So where does Shamima belong? And why is she no longer British?

Yesterday I attended a Tortoise ‘ThinkIn’ titled: What does it mean to be British now?

Designed as a ‘forum for civilised disagreement where everybody has a seat at the table’, it’s just over an hour where lots of well-healed London types get together to muse over what is going on in the world.

It’s refreshing and founder James Harding is going a long way to open out the newsroom format and educate on how news works (pair this with Andrew Marr’s brilliant book on journalism: My Trade). In one of Tortoise’s news round-ups I learnt: “If you’re new to news, it’s worth knowing what it is in the parlance of politics to throw a dead cat on the table. When there’s bad news all around, a politician drops a dead cat into the mix and everyone turns to look. Mr Javid would probably have done it anyway”. The bad news in this instance is Honda shutting down its plant in Swindon.

So what is the meaning of British now?

Well, it appears to be a minority thing. The people who just identify with being British are more likely to be Londoners or to report an ‘other’ national identity. But the majority of English people identify as English only, a trend that carries over for Scottish and Welsh people with their respective nationalities. The conversation last night meandered around individual lived experiences, including a charming 13-year-old called Digby who spoke up about National Identity classes he had at school and was an eye opening glimpse into a debate that Twitter would never be able to hold.

2011 census data

What stuck for me was a presentation on Leave voters and national identity. I was surprised to learn that having a migrant background was less of a factor on someone’s propensity to vote to leave the EU, instead it was more grounded in their location. That is to say that South Asians living in areas such as Southend-on-Sea were more likely to vote based on their postcode than their ancestors’ passports.

This then got me thinking about how I - as someone whose parents moved from India to London - have always associated with British Asian. Never English Asian, Welsh Asian, or Scottish Asian. When I take out the factor of London, I still hear from other people with South Asian heritage that Britishness is closer than any other identity.

There are millions of people in the UK who opt for the national identity of British whereas the majority of native people to the country choose English, Northern Irish, Scottish or Welsh. Indeed, when searching for ‘English Asian’ on Google, all results come back with British Asian. Englishness, it seems, is not something that someone without roots can lay claim to or identify with in the room or online.

Is that a problem?

Put simply: yes. The reasons behind Brexit are multifaceted but one thing is clear - the identity of the island is undergoing some serious introspection. We’re at a point where people of colour are questioning - and calling out - the lack of education around the Empire in schools. Where even job losses and a factory closure won’t deter Brexit voters in their beliefs and where a Muslim head of the Home Office is denying someone of their Britishness based on radical religious roots.

We’ve lost any feeling of cohesion that the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony fostered and surfaced something very important. Laying claim to being from here (being asked where are you from vs. where are you really from) is harder than ever before. Because people who are really from here are more likely to say they are English, Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh and people who are only one generation removed say they’re British.

If the ThinkIn taught me anything it’s this: as uncomfortable as it feels, it’s time we work out exactly what it means to British (or English, or Scottish, or Northern Irish or Welsh).


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