Glasgow, United Kingdom – Muslims living in the UK feel more British than their white counterparts.
It’s a surprising statement that demands an explanation. In a study released in late June, the Institute for Social and Economic Research asked 40,000 households a series of questions, including how important, on a scale of one to ten, being British was to them.
People of Pakistani origin scored the highest with an average of 7.76, Bangladeshi and Indian groups came second and third, while the white population scored lowest – with an average of 6.58.
The report’s authors believe the results disprove suggestions that ethnic groups are unable to integrate into British society.
“Our research shows that people we might assume would feel very British, in fact do not – while others who we might assume would not associate themselves with feelings of Britishness, in fact do,” said Dr Alita Nandi, of the University of Essex.
The Understanding Society survey shows how “Britishness” has been successfully promoted as an open identity that is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. But it also raises a worrying question.
British, not English?
While England’s ethnic minorities say being British is important, they generally don’t describe themselves as English. What is it about Englishness that shuts out people who aren’t white?
English national identity is an issue that politicians have been reluctant to address.
Labour leader Ed Miliband touched on this in a recent speech delivered at London’s Festival Hall when he said: “We were too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. Connecting it to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease.”
“In Scotland, Scottishness has been sold as a multicultural identity and it does not have the same association with xenophobia as Englishness.”
– Professor John Curtice, Strathclyde University
He was referring to the way in which far-right racists, such as the English Defence League, appear to have contaminated the idea of what it means to be English.
Sunder Katwala, director of the London-based think-tank British Future, points out that 61 per cent of people think the St George’s flag stands for patriotism and pride, but one in three associate it with racism and extremism.
During this summer’s European football championship, the English flag was a common sight fluttering above shops and from car windows, as fans of all ethnicities got behind Roy Hodgson’s team.
But Katwala says: “The same flag might still have a more ambiguous meaning when fluttering from a South London pub on a rainy winter’s night.”
The debate is different in Scotland, where British identity is much weaker than in other parts of the UK. North of the border, Scottishness trumps Britishness even among ethnic minorities.
According to the report, if there are two persons who are similar in every respect other than country of residence, the person living in Scotland is predicted to report a Britishness score that is 1.04 points lower than a person living in London.
Professor John Curtice, from Strathclyde University, says: “In Scotland, Scottishness has been sold as a multicultural identity and it does not have the same association with xenophobia as Englishness.”
The country is gearing up for a referendum on leaving Britain and becoming an independent state. Both the “Yes” and “No” campaigns have young, articulate Muslim politicians in prominent positions. Identity is not an issue for either of them.
Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader, Anas Sarwar, whose family comes from Pakistan, says he classes himself as Scottish, although if he were asked for an identity he identified with more closely than that of his country, he would probably say “Glaswegian”.
“No matter what your background, give it a few years and you consider yourself Glaswegian. This city has been home to successive generations of immigrants. Irish and Jewish people have all settled here and been accepted.”
He adds: “The way Scotland deals with multiculturalism is a model that should be replicated throughout the UK and Europe.”
The Scottish National Party’s Humza Yousaf, who represents Glasgow in the Scottish parliament, says that questions of identity have become more fluid and unrestricted:
“If Scotland can have a confident civic patriotism, there is no reason to fear that this cannot happen in England too. After all, England has a good claim to have long been the most internally plural of the British nations “
– Sunder Katwala, direct of British Future
“Take my own example. As an Asian Scot born in Glasgow to a father from Pakistan and a mother from Kenya, I went on to marry my wife, Gail, who is a white Scot born in England to an English father and Scottish mother.
“I would challenge anyone to accurately define the identity of any children we may have in the future. Will they be a quarter Scottish, a quarter Pakistani, a quarter English?”
He adds: “It is not about where you come from, but where we are going together.”
Scots from all ethnic and religious backgrounds seem able to share in some version of Scottish national identity. Saying you are Scottish is a statement of civic identity, not ethnicity.
Think-tanker Sunder Katwala told Al Jazeera he would like to see the same energy expended to promote an inclusive Englishness: “If Scotland can have a confident civic patriotism, there is no reason to fear that this cannot happen in England too. After all, England has a good claim to have long been the most internally plural of the British nations.”
British national identity is increasingly linked with the past – whether that is the shared experience of Empire or the sacrifices made during World War II.
The Conservative-led government’s reforms to services such as the National Health Service also appear to weaken the idea of Britain as a national community, because a shared state depends on shared values.
Katwala points out that Viv Anderson became the first black football player to represent England – as long ago as 1978 – and the many immigrant contributions to English literature take in George Bernard Shaw, TS Eliot and Salman Rushdie.
Perhaps it’s time for a conversation about what it means to be English.
Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen