A miracle no prince can perform: Britishness will confound any royal attempt to embrace all faiths, says Kenan Malik

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THE PRINCE of Wales, it seems, wants to become a PC prince, a man who knows his Koran as well as his Bible, a defender of all faiths, not just one. Should we welcome this?

The race relations lobby and leaders of minority faiths have already been leading the applause for his courageous stance. But why should Muslims, Jews, Catholics, or anyone else, be grateful that someone who represents an institution little more than a throwback to feudal England should want to embrace their community?

If the reports are correct, Prince Charles's gesture has less to do with embracing other faiths than finding a role for the monarch in Nineties Britain. It is one that misunderstands the role of the monarchy and the meaning of British identity. Political correctness and the monarchy simply do not go together. The point about the monarchy is that it is useless and embodies the values of a long-gone age.

As he wrote in the first issue of Perspectives, the architectural magazine he launched, the Prince wants to restore the 'spiritual dimension' that Britain lost with 'the coming of the industrial revolution'. Anyone who wants to return Britain to pre-industrial values, is hardly a prophet of a multicultural society.

The importance of the monarchy is that it stands for historical continuity - the notion that nothing ever changes in Britain. Of course, its image has changed over the years. Disraeli turned Queen Victoria from a priggish, embittered recluse into a popular national institution by making her synonymous with imperial power and the gains of Empire.

During the Second World War, the idea of George V and his family supposedly sharing the deprivations and dangers afflicting every family in Britain, endeared them to millions.

In the post-war period, the monarchy has reflected the sentiments of a you've-never-had-it-so-good society and an unprecedented national consensus. As the head and heart of the caring welfare society, the Royal Family's lives were more and more the property of the nation.

Each time the monarchy refashioned its image, it gave historical weight to a new national identity. Today, however, the very sense of British identity itself is being undermined. The old institutions that defined Britishness - the Empire, the Church of England, even the welfare state - have vanished or are crumbling.

Now Prince Charles may want to fashion a new identity, for the nation and the monarchy, by embracing a multicultural ideal. Can it work?

The essence of British nationalism has always been its exclusive nature. As Linda Colley has observed in Britons, her entertaining account of the making of British nationalism, British identity was created almost solely in opposition to who Britons were not.

They defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world's foremost Catholic power. They defined themselves against the French as they imagined them to be: superstitious, militarist, decadent and unfree. And, increasingly they defined themselves in contrast to the colonial peoples they conquered: manifestly alien in terms of culture, religion and colour.

From the start, Britishness was defined though creating an alien 'other'. This xenophobic outlook has been built into the fabric of the national culture. When mass immigration from the colonies began in the late Forties and early Fifties, there was panic in the higher echelons of Whitehall.

'If immigration from the colonies and, for that matter, from India and Pakistan are allowed to continue unchecked,' a Cabinet minute from 1955 observed, 'there is a real danger that over the years there would be a significant change in the racial character of the English people.'

And why was this a problem? Because, as the Colonial Office argued in another minute, 'a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken that concept of England, or Britain, to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached'.

British society has moved on considerably since then, and most politicians would commit themselves to a multicultural society. But the fear of weakening the 'concept of England or Britain' still lingers on. From Margaret Thatcher's infamous speech in 1978, when she warned of Britain being 'swamped' by 'alien cultures', to the fact that immigration laws are still exempt from the provisions of the race relations Acts, there is considerable unease at the idea of a too-inclusive British identity.

In an age when there is little positive vision in society, and when there is little about Britain that encourages a sense of pride or belonging, there exists even greater pressure to create a national identity through excluding those who do not belong. The continual panics about immigration, or the traumas about a federal Europe, are all instances of this.

Such attitudes mean that, even if Prince Charles were to make a gesture and proclaim himself the defender of various faiths, it would make little difference to most minority groups. Certainly, the disestablishment of the Church of England would be welcome, in the hope of dragging Britain into the 20th century. But minority groups and minority faiths will continue to be regarded as, somehow, gatecrashers of British culture and traditions.

The exclusive nature of national identity makes a mockery of the idea of a multicultural society. When people talk of a multicultural Britain, they are confusing two things.

The first is the fact that Britain is composed of people of different ethnic backgrounds, religions or identities. The second is that British identity could be inclusive of different values or cultures. However much we may accept that Britain is composed not just of white Christians, but also of those who came from the West Indies or Pakistan, or those who profess Judaism, Catholicism or Islam, such tolerance cannot deny the often racist aspects of national identity.

So long as there is a notion of Britishness, it will inevitably be unicultural, not multicultural. 'As men we are all equal before God,' explained Lord Coggan, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. 'But if he (Prince Charles) is saying that Christianity is equal to other religions, we should differ from him profoundly.'

Whatever the Prince may feel, the fact is that so long as an exclusive concept of Britishness remains at the heart of national life, one culture and one faith will remain more equal than the others.