A woman who really gets under our skin

This is a painful, wise and thoughtful book by a fine writer. Her last work was a research report on what progress has been made, and not made, in race relations in this country. It was the most comprehensive survey for 30 years. But a report can inhibit the flow and feelings of a natural writer. No inhibitions now, as she expands, with a rare blend of analysis and deep feeling, on the question of identities - the how as well as the why of a multicultural society; the practice of a philosophy of pluralism.

This is a painful, wise and thoughtful book by a fine writer. Her last work was a research report on what progress has been made, and not made, in race relations in this country. It was the most comprehensive survey for 30 years. But a report can inhibit the flow and feelings of a natural writer. No inhibitions now, as she expands, with a rare blend of analysis and deep feeling, on the question of identities - the how as well as the why of a multicultural society; the practice of a philosophy of pluralism.

How good a writer she is will be no secret to those who buy this paper, where her column ranges far wider than issues of ethnicity. Anthony Giddens may still be smarting at her refusal to join the praise-chorus for his Reith lectures, which seemed to her to have planted both feet firmly in mid-air. And she is not a "personality columnist"; one reads her not for who she is, but as one reads Andrew Marr, Neal Ascherson or Polly Toynbee, for their intelligence on difficult public issues. In such writers, reasoned political thinking, rather than sound-biting and back-biting, still holds out.

We all need to know more about one another. Alibhai-Brown can criticise justly the self-styled "majority" (an amalgam of historical minorities), and especially the inadequacy of ministerial responses to some of their folk-beliefs. But her analysis also gives little comfort to those who wish to protect a ghetto, or to ignore real cultural differences under the unchallengeable banner of "black".

She knows how easy it is to raise the cries of discrimination, in education as well as employment, because the official statistics speak for themselves. However, the spokespeople for disadvantaged groups are not always thoughtful about how to persuade those who need persuading, rather than to air honest indignation and gain street-cred in institutionalised movements.

Alibhai-Brown is totally opposed to injustice and wedded to an ideal of a multicultural British identity, yet her argument is complex - and painful at times to black as well as white.

She is anti-racist, but not anti-English. How happy I am to find myself quoted: "We English must feel secure in our Englishness if we are not to lapse back into a super-nationalism fuelled by rancid imperial nostalgia." As she says, "there must be something going on" when this view is shared by such a mixed bag as Ann Leslie, Melanie Phillips, Anthony Barnett, Billy Bragg and herself. One of the difficulties of the English old left was that it seemed to enthuse about every other nationalism except its own.

She ends a shrewd chapter on education with a reference to the new citizenship curriculum: "Bernard Crick has carefully built up an argument for the creation of an educated, caring society with different perspectives and with collective responsibilities." Well, that's an accolade.

But wait: "If this initiative ignores the powerful presence of ethnic, racial and religious diversity, it too will fail. And it will deserve to. And more generations will then be lost." I share the worry and accept some of the implied reproof. It is damned easy to put good words on paper. Yet the influence of the classroom depends not merely on the professionalism of pressured teachers, but on the example of political leaders and the ethos of the popular press.

These are concerns of such difficulty that where so many fools step in, angels fear to tread. But not this armoured angel, even if she can - in flailing great wings - occasionally hit too many targets. At the end, speaking of the aftermath of the Lawrence report, she says: "As a nation we had to listen and watch with anger and shame as all that we value and ought to take pride in has shown itself to be poisonous dust".

Not "all", Yasmin. There's enough left in the political traditions of the indigenous historic nations to be shamed into action towards removing injustices - and achieving a more mutually respectful understanding of the diverse identities within the overarching concept of "British".

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