Why does questioning the nature of Britishness raise so much fury?

'Without reading our report, people have condemned who we were and what we did'
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The Independent Online

What a week. Had to sell my hammer and sickle in a car boot sale after the right-wing papers denounced me as a "semi-Marxist". Got repeatedly accosted by strangers demanding to know why I hated Britain so much. Had more awful racist letters than ever. Felt like putting on a burka, that all-covering cloak with only a small opening for the eyes, and disappearing for a long, long time.

What a week. Had to sell my hammer and sickle in a car boot sale after the right-wing papers denounced me as a "semi-Marxist". Got repeatedly accosted by strangers demanding to know why I hated Britain so much. Had more awful racist letters than ever. Felt like putting on a burka, that all-covering cloak with only a small opening for the eyes, and disappearing for a long, long time.

Various pictures of me and other commissioners responsible for the report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, were displayed for all to pelt with spit, stones and scorn. And on it goes as Kate Gavron, a commissioner, is derided this week for suggesting that Prince Charles should have married a black woman. (Trust me: that is not in our report. Would any self respecting black woman want ghastly in-laws and a man with peculiar fantasies about tampons?) Without reading the report, people have condemned who we were, what we did and what they had heard we had written.

We have been accused of saying that the idea of Britishness was racist. Completely false. The report is about continuing racial disadvantage and exclusion (hands up any institution that feels it reflects the diversity of Great Britain) and makes recommendations on what to do about these injustices. The report also suggests that as the concept of Britishness is problematic for many inhabitants of these islands, black and white, we need a national debate about how we might imagine a modern British identity that would mean something to many more of us.

Anyone who is familiar with this column or has read my Who Do We Think We Are? and After Multiculturalism knows how passionately I feel about my British identity and this nation, which is in danger of fragmentation. Read Tom Nairn's After Britain, or Andrew Marr's The Day Britain Died, and you realise this is a burning issue for all citizens. Last Monday the BBC produced the results of a survey of 1,500 people that showed one in three English people want their own anthem instead of the national anthem, and in some regions the majority feel themselves to be English rather than British. Local radio is running a full week on this emerging English identity, and a good idea it is, too. Similar results have shown up in Scotland and Wales. Unlike us, though, these anti-Britons are not denounced as traitors to crown and country.

The commentator Bruce Anderson, the nation's verbal mugger, accused us of being stupid and of wasting lottery money, a charge that was repeated in The Times and The Observer. Lies. Unlike the Dome so promoted by Simon Jenkins of The Times, we received no lottery money. None of the commissioners was paid anything, either. The right knew this, but yet deliberately exploded a false story creating a mushroom cloud offumes and provoking the kind of hysteria I have not seen since the Rushdie crisis.

On Question Time, the actor Nigel Havers said we were "bonkers" and the usually perceptive Allison Pearson suggested that the commissioners should go to France to see how well they neglect their non-white people. The next time women complain about inequality in this country, I look forward to Ms Pearson suggesting that they should take an Afghan Airline to Kabul and see what real pain is.

The rogue's gallery of the "stupid" and the "dangerous" consisted of six internationally respected professors, two peers and two knights of the realm, the master of a Cambridge college, a QC who advised the South African government on labour law, a senior fellow of an Oxford college and expert on criminology, a chief constable and a chief inspector of police, three prominent human rights experts, two senior social policy researchers, one popular broadcaster who is also the chair of the Greater London Assembly and, until April, Andrew Marr, an ex-editor of this paper and now the political editor of the BBC.

Between us, we have written more than a hundred serious books. More importantly, the report is the result of a vast number of consultations with key people and organisations, qualitative research, seminars and specially commissioned research. None of this matters to the critics. Or maybe it does, which is why they worked so hard to kill the book off quickly. The cowardice of Jack Straw when faced with any right-wing onslaught is becoming a defining quality in the Home Secretary. He distanced himself from the report and made some extraordinary remarks about how the left does not like being patriotic. Tell that to the working-class heroes who died in both world wars.

In some ways we are a remarkable society, increasingly at ease with diversity - in London especially. But racism, inter-ethnic tensions and new nationalisms are equally strong features of what we have become. The future is uncertain, but I think a small place like this without any meaningful ties that bind the future looks bleak. And those ties cannot be the same as the ones that prevailed during an era when people who looked like me were subjects and white Britons felt they were born to rule. The British Isles are now irretrievably mixed, but the British identity does not naturally include black and Asian people. Not yet. Many of us claim it, but others don't always accept this claim.

Just a few months ago on the Today programme, Lord Tebbit could not accept that I was British in that sense which matters. "I'm sure that she carries a British passport," he said in that sneering voice. "But I don't know whether she was born here or not." Does Prince Philip have to go through such abject interrogations? Remember that until the Seventies, many of us had British passports marked with the letter "D". It meant second class, people who needed visas to enter their own country. These are the attitudes the report was trying to highlight. We are still not seen as people of this place, and some of us still believe home is somewhere else.

I think the hostility the commissioners have faced - and I often meet - is like the fury that Snow White's step-mother felt when she looked into the mirror. She only wanted to hear: "You are the fairest of them all." Well, this mirror says: "You are indeed fair, but not as fair as you think." Stamping upon the mirror till it breaks will not change that fact.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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