Oh dear, I have flunked the Tebbit test again

I feel proud to be living in England, but that will never trigger the Argie-bashing I have just witnessed in my children
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The Independent Online

Things are not good in this household at the moment. Apparently I am out of order, unbelievable and plain stupid because I said it was a shame Argentina didn't win The Match seeing as the country is collapsing economically and they lost the Falklands War (and boy have we reminded them of it this year, in spite of not playing fair with the Belgrano) and because we are rich and secure and doing so fine under the bonnie Blairs. Anyway it is not Christian to hold such long grudges – Maradona's devilish hand was 16 long years ago. I am not crass or brave enough to express these views in pubs with wide-screen TVs, but I thought I was safe in my own home, muttering quietly as old people do, at the kitchen table.

Things are not good in this household at the moment. Apparently I am out of order, unbelievable and plain stupid because I said it was a shame Argentina didn't win The Match seeing as the country is collapsing economically and they lost the Falklands War (and boy have we reminded them of it this year, in spite of not playing fair with the Belgrano) and because we are rich and secure and doing so fine under the bonnie Blairs. Anyway it is not Christian to hold such long grudges – Maradona's devilish hand was 16 long years ago. I am not crass or brave enough to express these views in pubs with wide-screen TVs, but I thought I was safe in my own home, muttering quietly as old people do, at the kitchen table.

The reaction from my children – the 24-year-old son whose voice is hoarse after days of joyous shouting, and the nine-year-old daughter who imitates her brother's every whim and preference – was a mix of fury and stupefaction. England, Oh England, my children are your children. I have only just understood how intuitively they stand up for you. Ari, my son, is dancing again because Lennox Lewis beat Mike Tyson and to irk me further he says he will jump even higher when England beats Nigeria, which is "full of corruption". So this is patriotism, this heady feeling, this intoxicating emotion which rises to catch your breath at certain key moments wiping out all caution, sorrow, reality and – especially – rationality.

I have never, ever known patriotism and never will because fate gave me a life where it was not possible to bond with any country to this extent. The most I can feel is a gentle love for London and Europe, a love which is neither blind, dumb nor deaf but real enough. There are haunting connections with India, Pakistan and Persia because my community – Ismaili Muslims – originated in these parts, and as I grew up in Africa, I find myself often having to defend that continent and its strong people. These days I feel an obligation too to stand with maligned Muslims and against the monstrous fanatics who have hijacked the faith.

None of these allegiances feel as strong and pure as the patriotism my children have just displayed. I am too aware of the weaknesses, the lies and dangers of these identifications and by nature I recoil from any cause which demands unthinking devotion. I am dismayed, not stirred to see millions of good folk thronging the streets to throw their love to the ruthless royals or to witness rallies where people proclaim their countries right or wrong and poison the air with their rhetoric of hate. I guess I still believe what George Bernard Shaw said: "You'll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race". And yet all over the globe, as the World Cup progresses, you see that primitive pleasure of nationalism glowing on faces as they cheer or jeer the teams.

Just as I can't ride a bike because I didn't learn as a child, I can never acquire the habit of this simple patriotism. There are many others like me and increasingly so in a globalised world where people are on the move, perhaps forever, leaving places which are rapidly altering anyway and making lives in lands where they can live and make good but where they will never truly belong. I walk the walk and talk the talk and believe absolutely that I should be a good British citizen, but as some of the less forgiving readers of The Independent remind me, I cannot be one of you, not really.

The colour of my skin is one problem, but these days that is perhaps less important than all those Tebbit and Blunkett tests which make hideous demands of us only to keep us ever on the outside. These same leaders never mention Gibraltarians and white Britons in southern Spain who refuse to become more Spanish or declare allegiance to Spain. I don't suppose the villa owners in Umbria or Bordeaux feel the need to display undying fidelity to Italy or France either. Australians and Italians living here expect to remain attached to their own country and nobody minds. Yet the pressure is constantly on black Britons to prove that they are truly the sons and daughters of this nation. Meanwhile Pakistan, India, Jamaica, and all those other "homelands" still doggedly lay claims on migrants who left 50 years ago and on their children and grandchildren too.

Further complications: more and more indigenous Scots, Welsh and English people are turning their hearts away from Britishness and the British collective nationhood. In work which I have been doing for the Foreign Policy Centre, I have found that young people identify more easily with their localities, regions and with Europe than with Britain. As for our dementia over Europe and the euro, I am not clever enough to hazard where that will take us. In his fine and radical new book, Patriots, Richard Weight dares to take on the amnesia which has gone into the making of our national identity since 1940 and the confusion we are in today.

So who would we black Britons die for in this mélange? What if India and Pakistan went to war? What will we do if restless England – where most black and Asian Britons live – decides to secede from Great Britain? On whose side do we fight if the Western allies, along with the Russians – such good friends now, mount a major offensive against Muslims everywhere, good and bad?

Until 11 September, until the riots in the northern towns of England and until this year of monarchist madness, patriotism was worn lightly in this country and I still think that natural restraint will hold us back from embracing cloying US-style proclamations of patriotism with flags in every home and self-conscious self-dotage imbibed and regurgitated generation after generation. But there is a menacing mood about which is unsettling for those who may just find themselves denounced for their lack of real patriotism or even of treachery, particularly in an England which fears globalisation, the devolved nations, Europe and just about everything else. I feel for the English as much as I dread where this may take us. It was not only my republicanism which made me recoil from the jubilee celebrations. This was old England smothered in whipped-up pride, and the victory over Argentina has just added the ghost of Thatcher, another fearful symbol of English hubris.

Weight, a young man of infectious idealism, believes we can and should recast English patriotism to release it from itself. He quotes Will Self, who wrote in 1999: "The old idea of a mono-cultural landscape is impossible to sustain, England, the centre of that great rolling, post-colonial ocean of cultural ferment, is alive and kicking." Amen to that I say, with enthusiasm. Englanders have many other qualities to admire – not, as Dennis Potter said, the imperial identity, or the flags, drums and trumpets, or "billowing Union jacks and busby soldiers and the monarchy and pomp", but the bravery and steadfastness, the creativity and industriousness, the endless line of rebels with a cause, the respect for individuality and eccentricity, the institutions of democracy and law, and most of all the insatiable cultural promiscuity. For all these reasons I feel proud to be living in England. But that pride will never trigger the kind of Argie-bashing I have witnessed in my own children.

And yes, I secretly hope that Nigeria wins, because Africans need some good news.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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