Last week, Oxford University Press organised a debate on devolution in a hall packed with socialists, designer politicos and largenumbers of English nationalists who feel inconsolably let down, not by what is happening but because they have never been asked what they think about it. I felt for them, because that is exactly how most black and Asian Britons are responding to the developments.
The debate was chaired by the constitutional expert Robert Hazell and included Labour's Ron Davies, the Scottish National Party's home affairs spokesperson Roseanna Cunningham, and the professor of political science at the London School of Economics, Brendan O'Leary.
It became clear during the course of this interesting but uncomfortable event that real argument has been eschewed by many in favour of a warm, cultish loyalty to the cause. These people display a blinding clarity which many of us simply cannot share.
Talk of devolution, regional autonomy and decentralisation is built on the bogus notion that Great Britain consists of four nations-in-waiting all ready to be released from captivity under Westminster. New Again Britain will be made up of these provinces re-engaging in a grown-up way to make a modern nation of willing partners. There will be no real break- up of the kingdom, enthusiasts believe. This vision has been promoted so successfully that to question the idea relegates you to the airless, tight space occupied by Teresa Gorman. Yet there are anxieties that are building up, not only among the English but, even more so, among black and Asian Britons too.
We are alarmed at the way powerful words such as "statehood", "nationality", "ethnicity", "sovereignty", "race" and "culture" are being used for their own purposes by devolutionists. We resent the way this country is now described as consisting of "four nations" when in fact it is one nation made up of more than 70 ethnically identifiable communities.
How do you define a nation within a nation? Are we talking territory? Is it language, accent or a common religion? Are we describing ancestral connections that make Michael Aspel still a northerner and Melvyn Bragg always a chap from Cumbria? Is this a promotion of dangerous beliefs about a pure identity? Does it exclude "newcomers"? Will devolution make a new mini-nation which is inclusive and diverse within a larger bloc that is even more so? An impressive paper written by Ron Davies is based on this idea of a cosmopolitan Welsh identity. It is a very good read.
The problem is that such things are not in the gift or control of politicians. There is no such thing as a simple political settlement among "nations". Culture, self-understanding, ethnicity and nationalistic passions arise out of such settlements in ways that cannot be predicted. Add to this territorial demarcation and the result could be lethal. Already, said Cunningham, there are piles of new history books being written in Scotland. Do they talk about the African regiment that defended Hadrian's Wall in the third century AD? Yes, she says, although she is furious that I am asking such a distracting question. Like many in her party, she does not understand.
Take the SNP politician George Kerevan, who states: "An inclusive civic identity is more easily accomplished inside a small country such as Scotland, where names such as Lazorowicz, Damarco and Ali are already considered as Scottish as McDonald." This is like French cultural arrogance, the idea of absorption into a greater culture instead of diversity and equal respect. Ali can never wear a kilt, but he may not want to. What happens if he wishes to live within his own cultural enclave?
Politically ambitious friends of mine in Wales and Scotland feel under considerable pressure to conform to the devolution theology. The idea that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are by definition better at multiculturalism is absurd. Read the tales of racism regularly reported in the Scottish press. My sister has lived in the Welsh valleys for 20 years; she is still an outsider.
Now the English are restless and if the 20 different leaflets handed to me are a sign, they want their own parliament. It might be a good thing for all of us if the English felt better about themselves and less indignant that they have been left carrying the burden of slavery and empire. The Scots, Irish and Welsh were there too, remember.
But I am not English. My sister is not Welsh. My son, who will probably stay on in Scotland after university, is not Scottish. We are British. Stuart Hall has pointed out that it took 50 years to describe ourselves as British, as a statement not of defiance but of belonging. And now they have so deflated this term that it is becoming flabby and meaningless and we are pushed down the line, below the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English.
Of course there are black and Asian people in Scotland who are strongly pro-independence. But raise the thorny subject of the trial of Mohammed Sarwar and see how vulnerable this makes them. He is "only an immigrant", "a Pakistani", "not one of us", I was told by a local ex-politician in Edinburgh. In Scottish universities, anti-English graffiti are everywhere and prejudice is on the rise. Patriotism spills over. It enables xenophobia to wear respectable clothes. Over-developed regional identities hold the same terrors. Talk to Asians living next to white Yorkshiremen or check out the violent racism in Cornwall, and the romance with the regions soon dies.
Sarajevo was destroyed because it symbolised the kind of diversity nationalism could not manage. Our major cities stand for the same important values.
If we blacks are going to be marginalised in this new carve-up, I wish to claim London, Birmingham and Manchester for all those who reject the crutches of nationalism and who embrace the complexities of a British identity. We will have strict immigration controls to keep out people wishing to escape the boredom of Henley, although immigrants from the Third World will be welcome. Day passes will be made available to those unable to survive without Indian or Chinese food. I may even stand for mayor.Reuse content