Lord Taylor of Warwick rose to call attention to the concept of Britishness in the context of the cultural, historical, constitutional and ethical tradition of the peoples of these islands; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, a British national newspaper once asked its readers what it means to be British. One of the responses that it received was:
“Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign”.
That is a vivid example of why being British is not defined or explained by narrow national, ethnic or geographical origin. However, we need to understand the concept in order to adequately face the challenges of modern Britain in a fast-changing world. The question of British identity in the context of its culture, history, constitution and ethical tradition is topical and important. That is why the issue has been addressed in recent speeches by the Prime Minister, the leaders of the two main opposition parties and, two days ago, by the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith.
There is a saying, “We should all choose our parents carefully”. For understandable reasons, that advice, though well intended, is difficult to follow. However, my parents had the good sense to ensure that I was born and brought up in a place that some regard as paradise. It is arguably one of the most beautiful and exotic spots in the world. It is called Birmingham, just off the M6 motorway, by the old gas works. This link to Birmingham I proudly share with the Minister.
What Birmingham in the 1950s perhaps lacked in scenic beauty, it made up for in its new vitality and diversity. My parents were part of the “Windrush” generation that came from a genuine paradise: Jamaica in the West Indies. They came from a group of islands in the Caribbean whose inhabitants arguably had a stronger sense of what “British” meant than those actually born and raised here. My mother’s ancestry was part Anglo-Irish. My father served as a sergeant in the British Eighth Army, otherwise known as the Desert Rats. Among his proudest possessions were medals that he won for his part in the battle of Anzio in Italy during the Second World War.
My parents were part of a generation of immigrants who came to Britain with a genuine love for the British flag, British royalty and British literature. After the war, my father demobbed to Birmingham in the country that he called the “motherland”. However, to his shock, he quickly found that the streets were more cold than gold. He was immediately asked, “When are you going back to your real home in Jamaica?”. He thought that he was home. Hope turned to despair when he realised that the only job that he could get was as a cleaner in the local factory. As a qualified accountant, he had hoped for something better. He became further disillusioned when, looking for a room to rent, he saw sign after sign in house windows stating, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. Immigration quickly became a divisive and emotive issue. People did not realise that immigration had not started in the 1950s. Britain is a nation of immigrants: Danes, Normans, Irish, Russian, French, Indonesian, Spanish, Huguenots, Jews, Chinese, Indians, Polish, Pakistanis, German, United States, Africans and others.
Fortunately, my parents and many immigrants like them did not flee in the midst of racism. They chose to stay and to make a life for themselves. The fact that my father, Derief Taylor, was talented enough to sign as a professional cricketer for Warwickshire eventually took him off the factory floor and into the hall of fame at the Warwickshire stadium, where his photograph remains as a memory of his achievements. However, it was only after two seasons, when he had scored 126 not out against Leicestershire, that he finally believed that he would never have to clean any more toilets at the Lucas factory. Cricket was not just a sport to him; it was his way out of poverty and racism. When I was a child, he often used to say to me, “Boy, one day I want to see you at Lord’s”. I think that he meant Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Since then, many members of ethnic minorities in Britain have made themselves icons and role models, in particular in sport and entertainment. My father and other immigrants have shown that being British can allow you to be valued for your actions and not for your accents. Many descendants of the “Windrush” generation also experienced racism, but they learnt the skills to bloom where they were planted.
Being British is not determined by racial or geographical origin; it is about national values and hallmarks. These include the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, social justice, fair play, freedom of speech and equality of opportunity. Britain created the mother of Parliaments, and its legal system has been copied around the world by other countries. However, it could be strongly argued that some of these traditional values have been under attack in recent years. The attempts to curb the right to a trial by jury, the restriction of free speech under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and the proposal to imprison for 42 days without charge are seen by many as a serious erosion of British values.
The development of the British as multiracial and multicultural is positive and dynamic. My own three children see themselves as typical proud Londoners, being a mixture of Afro-Caribbean, Polish, Scottish, Russian, Irish and Indian. Aren’t we all? This multicultural ethos is important and welcome. Diversity and respect for difference are healthy, but over the years there has developed a regrettable imbalance between multiculture and integration. We must remain proud of our racial and cultural roots, but this must be balanced by encouragement and a willingness to become integrated within a common British identity. This does not mean assimilation. One can be British and Afro-Caribbean; one can be British and Chinese.
I have to agree with Sir Trevor Phillips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, that Britain is becoming more divided by race and religion. He said:
“We are sleepwalking our way to segregation. We are becoming strangers to each other”.
I agree with his view that we should not put people in boxes that not only separate them but end up treating them unequally. As he said, this means that, “people are different, but in some key areas, if you live in a society, you have to play by the rules that we have all agreed”.
The imbalance between multiculture and integration as a policy has led not to cohesion, national unity and a sense of community but to isolation, alienation and even hostile communities. Research by Policy Exchange found evidence of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism among young British Muslims. Almost a third surveyed said that they would prefer to live under Sharia law. This is not the way forward. It produces young adults with multiple identities, with some torn between two versions of themselves. One identity is designed to fit in with modern British secular society, but the other feels called by a religious fervour, at odds with the modern world around it. This background of hostility culminated in the bombings and attempted bombings that we have experienced in Britain in recent years, so this issue is critical and must be addressed.
The terrorists seek to rule by the law of force, not by the force of law, but we must build bridges, not walls, between racial and cultural groups in Britain. It is vital that people from different communities feel a sense of being included in the British identity, alongside their other cultural identity. Treating them as monolithic blocks rather than as equal members of society has been both divisive and patronising. Either we learn to pull together or we learn to be pulled apart.
How can we nurture this concept of being British? We have to recognise that Britain has failed to create a sense of national identity embraced by all, regardless of their faith or ethnic origins, in the way in which America has. We need a stronger sense of inclusive identity. The Life in the United Kingdom Advisory Group said:
“To be British seems to us to mean that we respect the laws, the democratic political structures, and give our allegiance to the state … in return for its protection. To be British is to respect those over-arching … institutions, values and beliefs that bind us all, the different nations and cultures together in peace and in a legal order … To be British does not mean assimilation into a common culture so that original identities are lost”.
I am at one with that definition.
As to nurturing a sense of what is British, I refer first to the English language, which needs to be more strongly promoted. We are fortunate in Britain that the international language of business, the internet and popular culture is English. Some of the world’s most respected writers, old and new, are British. It is essential that new immigrants learn to speak English so that they can communicate with the rest of society. I understand the rationale behind the Government’s multicultural approach, which has led to a growth in the translation of public documents and signs into mother-tongue languages, but this has actually undermined integration and cohesion.
Secondly, I support the principle of a language and knowledge test that will equip new migrants with skills and information. The test should be a meaningful proof that the applicants have made a genuine effort to become more aware of British society, but not so onerous as to be an unnecessary obstacle. The test comprises 24 multiple-choice questions with a required pass mark of 75 per cent. I had a look at the type of questions asked. These are a couple of examples:
“What are the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe? How is European law organised?”.
After the Irish no vote against the Lisbon treaty, with the resulting muddle and war of words, I wonder how confidently any of us could answer that question. Other test questions for immigrants are:
“What are the powers of the devolved administrations? Which areas of policy remain under the control of the UK Government?”.
Bearing in mind the complexities of the West Lothian question, which no one has fully answered, I do not envy immigrants grappling with that question. The education watchdog, Ofsted, has said that these classes were the worst-taught in schools—25 per cent of classes were not taught in a proper manner to the required standard—and a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research revealed that pupils knew less about voting and politics than they did three years previously when these lessons became compulsory.
The third issue is that of role models in modern British society. We hear a lot about young people in the media in a negative context, but there are many young black, Asian and other ethnic minority men and women who have become icons, especially in the sports and entertainment industry. We need to focus more on the positives while accepting the negatives. The media often have this philosophy: “If it bleeds, it leads”. That is why we see on the front page of many newspapers murders, drugs and knife and gun crimes. These are serious problems that need to be addressed, but there are throughout the country many community initiatives that are working well and need government support. I am director of the Warwick Leadership Foundation, which is seeking to work with a number of inner-city schools where black and ethnic minority role models will be going into the schools to inspire schoolchildren of all colours and backgrounds.
Fourthly, there are many faith and voluntary groups that need government support at a local and national level. They know their communities better than anyone else. I am talking about the churches, synagogues, mosques and Hindu and Sikh temples. I would like to see government funding of joint initiatives between local faith and community groups. They are the people who know their people best.
The Government have a job to do in promoting the British concept, but we all have a role to play. There needs to be a dialogue with schools, colleges, faith groups and community groups. Being British is about shaking hands, not fists. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, this has been a very constructive debate and I thank all those who have taken part.