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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Sunder Katwala

“An Englishness open to all”

31 March 2017

University of Winchester

Sunder Katwala, Director, British Future


This is a corrected transcript of talks given at the ‘An Englishness open to all’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 31 March 2017. Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.


Thanks, John, for inviting me.


British future is a non-partisan think tank. It is interested in this being an inclusive, confident, welcoming country but we are particularly interested in people who feel anxious about whether we are an inclusive society around questions of immigration, integration, identity, opportunity and fairness. So we are interested in exploring why people think about these issues, but also trying to intervene in the public domain in a way that could build more confidence in inclusive identities. It’s been going about 5 years.


Let me start by saying something about national identity, and Englishness: most people have a national identity, I think, before they develop a theory about their national identity.


But it can be quite important still to debate and to have theories about national identities because the theories have about them might affect the national identities that people choose to have, or feel that are open to them - though we can also study what people actually do and feel about these things.


So in that spirit, I thought I would just give you a few minutes of my life on the “Moreno scale” as a person in this country. The main point I want to start with is that nobody told my eight year old self that there was a question or doubt about whether I could be English or not.


I think I discovered that I was English between the ages of 7 and 8. In fact, I was English before I was British - purely chronologically, because the 1982 World Cup (in which England played) preceded the 1984 Olympic Games, at which Britain was the country that Daley Thompson and Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread and everyone else were winning medals for.

If you go back to the 1982 World Cup, England nearly didn’t qualify for the World Cup, but then they did qualify. As a 7 or 8 year old regular reader of the weekly Shoot! magazine I was very worried – because it wasn’t clear at all whether Kevin Keegan or Trevor Brooking were going to be fit to play in the World Cup. That was a massive subject of national debate and I was as involved with it as anybody else. The question was whether the start players should go into the World Cup squad, without being fit, on the hope that if we got close to the final they would be able to play or something.  So I was involved in this English national identity crisis of Kevin Keegan’s hamstring, or whatever injury it was, without being aware that some people might have thought that was nothing to do with me.


By the time I was 16 and Norman Tebbit had pronounced the cricket test that was more problematic, The problem for me was that I supported England at cricket - because you know we had been playing Australia the first time that I was watching any cricket on TV, so there wasn’t a massive class of loyalties there.  My dad supported India quite a lot, so the “cricket test” was a bit problematic for me. I thought I had to tone down my support of England at cricket - they were not very good anyway at this particular time. I wanted to support England, but without wanting to, you know, overtly endorse the sort of identity theories of the Conservative Government which I was beginning to develop some doubts about. It was also tricky, because my dad didn’t support England at cricket, he supported India.  It was many years later than I found out he even supported Australia against England in cricket, but he does support us against Pakistan, for which I suppose we should be truly grateful, though I am not sure what is going on there.


Of course, sport is not the only thing that national identity is involved with. But I actually think it has been a very important sphere of English identity - because it is the only things we’ve actually got as symbols in England in public often seem to be a football team, a rugby team and a cricket team. So that helps to explain why the symbolic debates about what English identity was about did happen through sport. It happens to be that black players started playing for England in 1977 or 1978 and that was becoming a normal thing.  But that was still contested at this point too.


When I was 10 years old, John Barnes scored a goal where he dribbled through the entire Brazilian defence in the Maracana Stadium. It was quite possibly the best goal England have ever scored, but the National Front organised support from Chelsea and Leeds were chanting one-nil because had made it two-nil, but they very much had the view that black goals didn’t count.  And so there was that debate going on, on the terraces of Englandgames, as to whether black goals count or not.

Now on the whole, by the 1990s I think that debate had gone entirely.  It is quite hard to go to football and not count the black goals, and still sort of cheer for the team that the black England players are part of. So people had to sort of decide whether they wanted to support the team on the pitch, or you know not support it, so to exit from that.  So I think sport was a very important place where we had these debates, but it was clearly contested I think in the 1980s in a very sharp way and then was not contested any more by the mid-90s.


By that time, England was hosting Euro 1996: - and there was a deliberate shift in the culture and identity of England as football hosts. “Football’s Coming Home”, the David Baddiel song, was about having a celebratory participatory form of English identity.  It was sort of nicked from what the Scots did and what the Dutch did - that you could go along and celebrate, you could wear your own national colours without singing songs like, “if it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts”, or forever going on about the IRA. But that change was a new thing for English support, and it made Englishness more inclusive if you were in the stadium.


So I always tended to think, many years ahead of London 2012 and so that we had sorted out these debates - could black and Asian people be English or British? - on the sporting field anyway. But now think the fact that we have sorted them out in sport and perhaps hadn’t entirely sorted them out elsewhere is why we need to take this beyond the stadium. Because we essentially have a normalised multi-ethnic English identity in sport - but if we only have am inclusive English identity in sport, maybe  we still don’t know the answer to the question - is there an Asian English, Black English identity even if people aren’t scoring goals for the national team? – if we have only done that in the stadium rather than beyond it too.


So the challenge of making Englishness inclusive is to normalise it, to normalise it in politics, to normalise it in society, to normalise it outside of sport when it has been normalised in sport already.


What British Future, did in the summer of 2016, which was during the referendum, but also when the European football championships were on, was to create a small sort of social media campaign called #WeAreAllEngland and to just ask people to just share pictures on Instagram or Facebook of supporting England.  And we came to Southampton to do that on St George’s Day, we went to Blackburn and met up with a local madrassa’s football team, where young people were playing football there and they ran around with the England flags and talked about why they wanted England to win the tournament; and we went to Dartford for St George’s Day. The Blackburn thing where we made a one minute film it ended up in the Daily Star, I mean we thought it was pretty normal - 8 year olds playing football are supporting England in the football. But that made a headline “Muslim kids support Roy’s boys” literally on a news page of the Daily Star!  So if the bar is still set that low, I think, we might as well jump it. This was a deliberately multi-ethnic, multi-faith campaign supported by the Islamic Society of Britain and a range of inter-faith networks, as well as by the Centre for English Identity here in Winchester. What we were all trying to do was to show how this was an everybody thing, not a minority-based thing, but something that minorities are part of along with everybody else, because that is the emerging norm.


A couple of reflections on that: I mean it was a relatively small campaign, about 12,000 people did it but it had you know media coverage on the BBC Asian Network in the East and in the Daily Star, so it was doing that thing of trying to expand that awareness of what the norm is now. I do think unfamiliar language needs to become more familiar here, we have the thing of Black English Identity, if the football team are playing but we don’t have the language of being “black English” and “Asian English” to go with it, perhaps because we created a norm in the 1990s that British was the inclusive citizenship identity, so there was a sense that if we have pluralised that identity, of being British, then perhaps the other identity (English) was going to stay more ethnic. That was pre-devolution, so I now think there is more awareness that we need to pluralise all the national identities - and perhaps more happened to do that in the early 1990s in Scotland than in England.


I think there is also big generational shift here among the white English and among the ethnic minority English. I think “birth-right” has quite a lot to do with it, in a way that hasn’t been noticed, in making Englishness a less ethnically defined category.  I think the English-born English ethnic minorities increasingly came to think that it’s kind of obvious that they could also choose to be English (or not), whereas their parents and their grandparents – who were migrants to Britain - just don’t think that was ever offered to them.  I had a really interesting conversation about this campaign, I was doing an event like this one, alongside Alf Dubs, the Labour peer. So I was saying we are doing this and everyone can join in, you could join in. But he said, but I can’t join in; I am very supportive of the message, but I don’t think I am English. So I asked him, well if Sunder Katwala can be English, why can’t Alf Dubs be English?  And he said, “But that’s different, because you were born here, so of course you can be English”. And I was struck that Alf had come to this country as a four year old, on the Kindertransport, and many decades later, he has got to the House of Lords. And he said that this was literally the first time anyone had said “do you know the category of being English is open to you?”, or invited him to be part of it, so I thought that was a very interesting anecdotal example of this difference between migrants to England and their children who were born here.


Another thing we did just to open a new debate, which is unfamiliar but necessary, is to hold an event called ‘A very English Islam’ which I think is a brand new debate that hasn’t been had yet. We did that in Woking, at the memorial ground for the Muslim soldiers that were buried there a hundred years ago.  But the first mosque in England was in Surrey, not in East London, in Woking because that’s just what happened to happen.  So having a debate about an emerging “English Islam” as well as a “British Islam” is a new debate that is more unfamiliar, maybe a little more difficult to have at first, which may find that it has more resistance, but I think it is part of that gradual, normalising agenda that fits with the social reality.


So John I think what you are doing with St George’s Day is very important and this is the narrative I think we were using with ‘We are all England’. That was to say, of course we could recognise and celebrate St George’s Day as something that can bring us together. You know many people in England go out and have a drink for St Patrick’s Day, so we should celebrate St George’s Day as well, and let’s invite everybody to the party.  What I found interesting is that, while many people think that is a good thing to do, there were two groups who think that its maybe quite unlikely that it will work. One of those groups may worry, because they think “I sometimes feel I am not allowed to say I am proud to be English, or people think I am a racist”, so there is some surprise that we are going to mark it, and some surprise that anybody else might come to the party. I think some ethnic minority participants are surprised that if somebody throws that party, that they will be welcome to turn up.


So I think there’s a surprising level of reassurance in both of those directions when we do show that we can throw a St George’s Day event and invite everybody to the party – and that both of those groups are surprised to see that it can work, which helps to show that English identity can belong to everybody in England who feels that they are part of it.





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