'Britishness' is not a racist idea in a multicultural nation, insists Straw

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The Independent Online

The findings of the biggest report into the long-term future of Britain as a multicultural nation were published yesterday and promptly blown apart by controversy over whether the concept of "Britishness" is racist. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, turned on the document's authors for "washing their hands of the notion of nationhood".

The findings of the biggest report into the long-term future of Britain as a multicultural nation were published yesterday and promptly blown apart by controversy over whether the concept of "Britishness" is racist. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, turned on the document's authors for "washing their hands of the notion of nationhood".

Mr Straw was angry that, after two years of research, the 23-strong commission had concluded the terms Britishness and Britain may have to be ditched. They suggested more "inclusive" descriptions such as "the community of communities" and "these isles". The commissioners, assembled by the race charity The Runnymede Trust, said devolution and globalisation may have "undermined irretrievably" the idea of Britishness. They also said the expression was "racially coded".

The report said many people in Britain thought the nation had been "unified since time immemorial" and they detected a "deep conviction that the British are a special and superior sort of people". The British, the authors said, had a "distinctive reticence" to take racism seriously.

"This disavowal, combined with 'an iron-jawed disinclination to recognise equal human worth and dignity of people who are not white', has proved a lethal combination," they said.

"Unless these deep-rooted antagonisms to racial and cultural difference can be defeated in practice, as well as symbolically written out of the national story, the idea of a multicultural post-nation remains an empty promise." The trust had hired the London PR firm Hobsbawm Macaulay - partly run by Sarah Brown, wife of the Chancellor - to promote the report and its 125 recommendations. They ranged from the setting up of a new Equality Act covering all areas of discrimination, to a guarantee that 15 per cent of all new members of the second chamber will come from ethnic minorities.

But in the 417-page report, Home Office sources now accept the four-page section titled The Future of Britishness was "a gift" to right-wing commentators trying to expose government political correctness.

Although the commissioners are academics, writers, lawyers and peers of the realm, the presence of the Home Secretary at the launch of the research in 1998 was used to brand the commission's findings "a New Labour brainwashing exercise".

Pre-publication comments by the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien saying the document was a "timely report which adds much to the current debate on multi-ethnic Britain" were seized on to give the impression that the most controversial findings were endorsed by ministers.

The Home Secretary was forced on to the defensive yesterday. "I am sorry that it's necessary to say this but it's becoming an issue that none of us can avoid," he said. Mr Straw, who had earlier accepted that the Runnymede report had much to commend it, believed the commission had no one but itself to blame for the direction of the debate. "Consciously or unintentionally," he said, the authors had "chosen to ensure their view of Britishness crowds out their practical recommendations".

He was furious at the way the independent report had been directly linked to the Government by sections of the right-wing press, particularly The Daily Telegraph which claimed: "Straw wants to re-write our history" and denounced the commission's findings as "sub-Marxist gibberish". Mr Straw said he was "astonished" by the Telegraph's "extraordinary invention" but Home Office sources said he was also angered at the way the commission had "stuck its chin out" on Britishness.

Mr Straw said he "frankly did not agree" with the authors, remarking pointedly: "Nor do I believe that the argument stands up in itself."

The Home Secretary said he was "proud to be British". He cited "British values" of "fair play, open-mindedness and rights coupled to responsibilities" and used a quotation from George Orwell to attack left-wingers uncomfortable with patriotism. "It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God Save The King' than of stealing from the poor box," wrote Orwell.

Sir Herman Ouseley, the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality and a member of the Runnymede team, agreed the passage on Britishness could have been better expressed. "The report is now being rubbished for the wrong reasons on the most narrow debate," he said.

The report's recommendations began with a call for the Government to make a formal declaration that the UK is a multicultural society. It also demanded an audit of progress in implementing the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and improved financial and legal support for asylum-seekers.

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