Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Tariq Modood

“An Englishness open to all”

31 March 2017

University of Winchester

Prof Tariq Modood, University of Bristol


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  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.


In 1992, I published a short collection of essays entitled, ‘Not easy being British’. There were several sources of the ‘not easy’ part. Some of the essays were a direct response to the Salman Rushdie affair, which was raging at that time.  Another source was that I commented on and reflected on how most ethnic minorities did not want to be black but did want some kind of positive identity acceptance.  For example, an ethno-religious identity, like Muslim. Of course, that to some extent connected with the Rushdie affair itself.


But another aspect was, I argued, that most ethnic minorities wanted to be British, but it was not easy.  Why?  A couple of reasons. Of course, the facts of exclusion, discrimination, racism, colonial legacy; all those clusters of concerns was obviously one dominant reason.  But another was that there was very little public affirmation of British identity amongst the centre-left.  Amongst those most sympathetic to racial equality, to the concerns of ethnic minorities, to people who were politically pro-diversity, to them political blackness was ‘right on’ (I am talking about here the 1980s).  Political blackness was right on, ethnic minorities could be embraced, ethnic identities could be encouraged, religious identities perhaps not, but most critically national pride was suspect. 


As I grew up in the 1960s and the 1970s, mainly in London, I couldn’t understand why Enoch Powell and the National Front were allowed to have the national flag, the Union Jack, why they were allowed to talk about being British and said they were British and the centre-left responded in a very kind of confused way, not to challenge their ideas of Britishness so much as to try to displace such talk.  The self-effacement of being British amongst the centre-left made it difficult for people like me to say I was British and was proud to be British, that we were all British together.  It actually was ethnic minority intellectuals like Bhikhu Parekh, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy that began the revival of Britishness, that began the revival of the debates about Britishness and what shaped it historically and contemporarily on the centre-left that made it acceptable to say that being British was something important, which then later was taken up by New Labour.


The multiculturalist project of making ethnic minorities hyphenated British was so successful that it now seems that ethnic minorities in England are more affirming of a British identity than the white English and this is now said to be a problem.  How can ethnic minorities come to be included in an Englishness when they are so British?  This conference is about Diversity and English National Identity, so why have I been going on about the 1980s and 990s, why have I been going on about Britishness?


Two reasons.  In the 1970s and 1980s most anti-racists said it was impossible for ethnic minorities to feel British, that Britishness was something to do with whiteness, that it was shot through with racism and colonialism and needed to be deconstructed.  Well they were proved massively wrong because of course ethnic minorities, as I said a moment ago, are much more likely to identify with being British than other people in England.


Today many people are saying that ethnic minorities can only be British not English, that English national identity is too irredeemably ethnic and white, even racist.  That it rightly belongs to the EDL (English Defence League) to UKIP and to xenophobes.  Well I guess my response is, having been on the winning side once I reject such determinism and defeatism, there is nothing deterministic about what English identity can be and there is nothing deterministic about ethnic minorities, as it were failing, to become part of an appropriately diverse internally differentiated English national identity.  I believe that we can together make Englishness as inclusive and attractive to ethnic minorities that Britishness has become.  That’s one reason.


Secondly, ethnic minorities have helped to get all British people rethink what it means to be British, in particular to get an acceptance of the idea of hyphenated identities, of pride in being black British, British Indian, British Muslim and so on.  Not only do I think that is possible with English national identity too, but the idea of multiple identities and specially that of a hyphenated national identity can be used to develop the identity of British English, or English British.  Thus paradoxically one of the key ideas of a multi-culturalism that is said to be out of date or failed could be central to developing a pro-diversity and pro-British English national identity. 


The idea that there are many ways to be British owes to this country’s multinationalism, it’s multinational character and has been reworked by the idea of ethnic minorities and multiculturalism.  So it is only fitting that multiculturalism returns the favour and offers to English, Scottish, Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness and Northern Irishness the concept of hyphenated Britishness.  Of how to develop an identity such as Englishness that is bi-national rather than mono-national. This borrowing from multiculturalism is a bridge not only between the nations of Britain but also to a multiculturalist appreciation of Englishness.


The above was a talk given at the conference on ‘An Englishness Open to All’, organised by John Denham at the University of Winchester, 31 March, 2017. My latest thoughts on multiculturalism and national identity are A Multicultural Nationalism?



Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy and the founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol. He was made an MBE for services to social sciences and ethnic relations in 2001, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2004 and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2017. His latest book is Essays on Secularism and Multiculturalism (2019) and his website is




Privacy Settings