This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
Growing up in South London I was pretty comfortable in my own skin, developing a clear sense of who I was. With my friends and interests, I knew my limitations and my boundaries. Being the middle child in a large family gave me a sense of security, knowing where I was in my family’s pecking order with protection and warmth surrounded by my seven siblings.
But I was also aware that my sense of identity was complicated, which is hardly surprising given my family background. I’m British, English, a South Londoner and a Muslim of Pakistani–Asian heritage. Later in life I became a husband, father, political activist and community leader. It’s like an onion – peeling back layers of identities to reveal a different identity.
I’m convinced this multi-layered identity is a positive attribute, as I’m equipped to adapt and behave according to my surroundings, without compromising who I am, what I stand for, or where I come from. My multi-faceted makeup is drawn from my family’s background in Pakistan, my religion, growing up in diverse London, and further shaped during the formative, socially and politically polarised 1980s. For me, Britishness is complex, a sense shared by other immigrants, or children of immigrants, but also by those who’ve lived here for generations. And this complexity is a key strength – we share a history rich in ideas, in culture and in principles.
As a child, my attitude towards Britishness was very different. Britishness was experienced through a prism of the Union Flag, the flying of which was a hostile emblem for me and many other ethnic communities. Seeing it flying on council estates, I would walk briskly, assuming the occupiers weren’t friendly to someone of my ethnicity and religion.
Tales from my elder brothers, chased from the Shed End at Stamford Bridge, and being subjected to anti-Semitic abuse while I watched Wimbledon play Spurs in an FA Cup tie, meant it was many years before I plucked up the courage to return to a football match.
Growing older, I campaigned for highlighting the rises in racist crimes in London, particularly around the time of the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence. The latter coincided with the opening of a BNP bookshop, and I remember feeling genuine fear, seeing a Union Flag displayed at the premises. I visited Tower Hamlets in 1993–94 to campaign against a BNP councillor, and saw for the first time the Cross of St George displayed for political purposes.
But attitudes towards Britishness have evolved – it isn’t a static concept, mirrored by a simultaneous growth in people’s sense of Welshness, Scottishness and Englishness. And while some of my formative negative experiences with Britishness were provided by sport, it also contributed to reshaping my – and many people in this country’s – attitudes towards our flag and our sense of national identity.
During the 1980s, the toxicity of the Union Flag began to dissipate when I saw my sporting heroes Steve Ovett, Seb Coe and Allan Wells wrapped in it at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. And four years later in Los Angeles, Tessa Sanderson and Daley Thompson; they encapsulated the multi-ethnic country in which I was growing up. For many like me, this was a significant moment.
The Union Flag became less associated with the far right during the 1990s and more associated with national pride, coupled with a surge in the sense of identity associated with Wales, Scotland and England, as our islands came to terms with the new social and political conditions. As a British-Asian, I relate to those yearning for a sense of Englishness, Welshness and Scottishness. But I maintain that the ultimate sense of belonging comes from feeling positive about yourself within an inclusive British identity.
Sport can play a major role in self-identification, and Euro ‘96 encouraged a blossoming of Englishness. Not only was tournament football coming home, but it was also a homecoming for the Cross of St George, saved from political extremism, and placed centre-stage in a way it had not been for many ages. And every football tournament that England has qualified for since has been marked by St George’s flags proudly flying from cars, houses and workplaces.
By the late 1990s, the Labour government delivered its manifesto commitment to devolve power to Wales, Scotland and London – the permanence of these institutions is testimony to their success – but it unleashed a debate on what should be done with those areas of England not on the receiving end of devolved power.
Research by IPPR suggests that the growing sense of Englishness is distinct and not simply synonymous with Britishness. We mustn’t be fearful of this – increased Englishness needn’t be to the detriment of Britishness. It reinforces and enriches Britishness, just as Welsh and Scottish identities nest within an overall British ‘personality’.
John Major and I share a South London upbringing, but I never understood his romanticised view of Britishness as an idyll of warm beer and invincible green suburbs. It was – and remains – worlds away from the Britain I and many millions of others know. I don’t deny that elements of his vision once existed, and still linger in some corners of this island, but Britishness is as much about principles as it is symbols. We have a sense of fair play, of decency, of openness to ideas, culture and trade. Our belief in internationalism and human rights is underpinned by social justice – things the rest of the world looks to us to provide, and readily associates with these islands.
And they’re principles that have driven me during my life, shaped by the city I grew up in, the religion I practise, my education, my cultural interests and my family background. I chose a career in law, fuelled by a desire to pursue justice for the vulnerable and suppressed, becoming active in politics to champion the causes of social justice, with Labour being the vehicle to deliver this British sense of decency and human rights. British justice is exported across the globe, and the NHS, a universal welfare state, a society that promotes aspiration without losing sight of those most in need, are key principles of Britishness to which we can all relate.
Key to me is a sense of belonging vis-à-vis identity. When speaking to my family from Pakistan, there are things that they relate to me being British which aren’t about geography or DNA. I have a British passport, not an English passport. I’m seen as British – except when Pakistan beats England at cricket, when I’m suddenly English in their eyes.
There’s an irony in all of this; many of the things we assume to be quintessentially British – drinking tea, cricket, fish and chips – are rooted in our history of Empire and the waves of immigrants making this their home. What’s more British than fish and chips? But battered, deep-fried fish has roots in Eastern Europe, and fried, sliced potatoes in France. If anything sums up our ability to absorb and assimilate other identities and cultures that reinforce, enrich and deepen our sense of Britishness, it’s fish and chips.
Britain in 2012 is on the global stage. The Olympics are symbolic of our openness to the world, and welcoming people from across the planet to an event built on sporting behaviour is a classic British act. At the Olympics, I relish cheering on a British Scot, Chris Hoy, and a British Welshman, Dai Greene, as loudly as I root for England in the European Football Championships. That doesn’t mean I can’t cheer England on when they play Wales and Scotland in the Six Nations. Internal friendly rivalries, whether based on sport, culture or history, are a characteristic of modern Britain, and if channelled correctly, they bring a creative tension.
Many in Britain possess a distinct richness of identity, and this should be an immense source of pride, not something to be hijacked by extreme nationalistic tendencies, or those seeking to split our country into fragments. Patriotism is defined and emphasised by the richness of our other identities – be it Scottish, Welsh, English, Londoner, Yorkshire, the football team we support, our faith, or our ethnic background.
Recognising this isn’t an act of separatism; it’s a celebration of our differences and, at the same time, our similarities. Pretending there’s a homogenised British identity mistakenly ignores this complexity, more so as what it means to be British continues to evolve and develop.
I’ve lived with the notion of being separate but equal, and rejected it. I’m as much a part of modern Britain as those with evolving Scottish, Welsh and English identities, and our developing sense of Britishness is broad enough to encompass us all.
But our political structures must reflect this evolution – it’s precisely why devolution occurred in the late 1990s. New challenges will emerge, and ensuring decision-making is close to the people is the right thing to do. It’s often the case that identities are rooted in smaller geographical areas, and decision-making should better reflect this, but this needn’t detract one jot from Britishness. The sense of fair play, of social justice, of what’s right and wrong will remain deeply engrained in our psyche.
That’s why I’m optimistic about the future, and the Britain in which my children will grow up. The best of British is the best of many cultures, societies and identities. And while the colour of my skin and my religion are different, I share these principles, making me a fiercely proud Londoner and Englishman. And thoroughly British.
Sadiq Khan is the Labour MP for Tooting and the shadow justice secretary