But anti-racism activists are worried that the terms of debate are increasingly being set by the far right. 

This week, the leader of the French National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, will address a black tie fund-raiser for the neo-fascist British National party (BNP), somewhere in the West Midlands.

Le Pen's past attempts to speak in the country have been disrupted by angry protests and this time round, the venue is being kept secret. But tickets are being sold at £80 ($144) a head.

The local Labour MP, Khalid Mahmud, was far from enthusiastic about Le Pen's visit.

"I don't want him to come here because his politics are deplorable and he's trying to sow discord between communities and increase racial hatred," he told Aljazeera.net.

But Mahmud argued that the French extremist should be allowed into the country because "he is a recognised democratic politician".

A scandal

Ashok Viswanathan of Operation Black Vote, which is leading a voter registration drive among black electors, described the decision to allow Le Pen in as "scandalous".

David Blunkett says asylum
seekers swamp UK schools

"It does nothing to engender the trust of black communities," he said. "If there is a ban on individuals like Louis Farrakhan entering the country, there is no reason why Le Pen should be allowed in."

The perception of government double standards on the race question has been strengthened by what some activists say has been an attempt by New Labour apparatchiks to steal the electoral clothes of the far right.

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has spoken of asylum seekers "swamping" British schools, and called for "ethnic minorities in Britain [to] adopt British norms of acceptability".

Oath imposed

Such outbursts may have been intended as a sop to racist press barons. But, if so, they did not work.

The Home Office was subsequently moved to introduce a citizenship ceremony involving an oath of allegiance to the Queen, which is now imposed upon migrants and asylum seekers.

"People need to be mindful of what they are saying," Viswanathan told Aljazeera.net. "The BNP has been helped immeasurably by the mainstream taking up the debate on citizenship which they began."

In press debate, the desire of ethnic minorities to define their own cultural identity has become synonymous with un-British behaviour.

On 5 April, the Blairite chief of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, provoked a storm when he called for an end to "multi-culturalism".

The week before that, the Home Office minister Beverley Hughes was forced to resign in disgrace over a case of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants whose visa applications were alleged to have not been properly checked.

Identity crisis

In such a climate, the recent announcement that British immigration officials were to begin fanning out across the Benelux Eurostar terminals to hunt down potential asylum seekers barely raised an eyebrow.

Migrants swear an
oath to the Queen

But while a sense of crisis has been fostered around the notion of British identity under threat, there has been precious little discussion about what "Britishness" actually means.

In all likelihood, most Britons are the descendants of immigrants, such as Romans, Danes, Vikings and Normans. Pure Britishness is a myth and "traditional" British pastimes from Morris dancing to high tea are now regarded with embarrassment.

The imperial trappings of Britishness - etiquette, honour, duty to Queen and country - are increasingly being eclipsed by a bland and Americanised corporate culture.

Off message

Some believe that the BNP has the potential to step into this vacuum at the heart of British identity with a false, simple and dangerous message: Britain is white.

Shahid Malik of the Commission for Racial Equality told Aljazeera.net that Trevor Phillips' attack on multi-culturalism was a bid to counter the appeal of the BNP.

"There has been an over emphasis on difference and a lack of acknowledgment of commonality in the past," he said.

"There is nothing wrong with highlighting things that ought to be core British values, such as democracy, fair play and tolerance."

Flying the flag

But these are universal liberal values and Malik is undecided as to how far specifically British symbols such as the Union Jack should be embraced.

"People must understand that being British
and Muslim is not mutually exclusive"

Shahid Malik,
Commission for Racial Equality

"The Union Jack should be reclaimed, but not the colonial flag as it was," he said. "It has to be a new inclusive Union Jack. We have as much right to be patriotic as anyone and people must understand that being British and Muslim is not mutually exclusive."

Until there is consensus about the scope of what being British actually includes though, this may be contested from the left and right.

For example, the question of whether descendants of slaves should be happy to sing "traditional" British anthems such as Rule Britannia with its "Britons never shall be slaves" refrain strikes at the heart of the issue.

Whitehall debate

For Viswanathan, the problem is that the parameters of the debate, which Phillips began were set in Whitehall.

"Britain is made up of a multiplicity of identities and not everyone identifies with being part of a nation. Some people feel strongly that they’re Londoners and are loyal to their region. Why should they have to have a national identity?"

Tellingly, both Viswanathan and Malik argue for a citizenship ceremony in which immigrants could swear allegiance to uphold constitutional values similar to those in the US.

Such an explicit fusion with American identity is, however, a long way off.

For now, expect more moral panics about immigrants, more scare stories about "Muslim terrorists" and, appropriately enough, more debate about identity cards.