Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Britain as seen through the eyes of others

Our national identity incorporates people from every corner of the globe
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The Independent Online

Taking a moment out from cooking a feast for friends last Saturday night, I rushed over to speak at the Fabian conference on Britishness. Gordon Brown was in the pulpit, telling us to be prouder of being British. He has been delivering that sermon an awful lot recently, but not in devolved Scotland, where he would be shooed off faster than he could utter the B-word, for his own compatriots north of the border now see themselves as Scots and Europeans and most defiantly not British.

The Welsh and now English are similarly disengaging from the binding national identity, and this imperils the cohesiveness of our small island nation which is also fragmenting along ethnic and religious lines. Meanwhile, Thatcherite selfish individualism has mutated into sociopathy, with certain sections of the population terrifyingly determined to destroy others and the environment in which we all live. New Labour's "respect agenda" is a somewhat feeble response to this widespread disintegration of social mores.

Who are we? How did we get here? Who do we want to be? Dozens of conferences over the past two years have sought to answer these questions, an indication perhaps of how Britain is still lost and roaming, desperately seeking a new set of certainties to replace those that were washed away with the old Empire. There are times when I wish we would stop this obsessive naval-gazing about our identity - reminiscent of patients addicted to psychoanalysis - but yet I believe it is vital for us all to buy into a new British identity, a collective that can connect us and, in time, deepen our cultural and emotional bonds.

Unfortunately, both the Prime Minister and his heir tie in British freedoms and liberties with a spun past. Here is what Michael Wills wrote when he was a junior minister at the Home Office: "Throughout the history of these islands, we have been a dynamic and an outward-looking society, one that has always seen itself as playing a positive role in the affairs of the world, one that has never stood aloof from continental Europe but has always been actively engaged in its affairs." Yes, true, this is how some in the UK like to see themselves.

Some of it is a delusion, some entirely justified. In the creation of parliamentary government, the abolition of slavery and its role in the Second World War, Britain was heroic, and humanity will always be indebted to her for the freedoms won after much anguish and sacrifice. But while the colonial period delivered some progressive ideas and institutions, it undeniably robbed millions of their rights, liberties, autonomy, resources and self-determination.

In Europe, they admire the British leaders who beat Nazism and Communism, but today's Europeans also see us as perfidious, arrogant and horrible drunks. In the Middle East, increasingly, we are now perceived as in thrall to the US, and dishonest, too, because we breach international conventions.

No worries, says the cool Mr Brown, let's go with the new great Empire, America. On Saturday, he asked: "What is our Independence Day? What is our 4th of July? Where is our equivalent of a flag in every garden?"

The US marks the independence it grabbed from Britain, ruled then by a half-mad king. The enormous flag in every front garden is the symbol of a country with an overweening ego, in which most citizens are convinced that they are forever the chosen children of God.

American patriotism breeds solipsism and ignorance - making it easier for dishonest politicians to make disastrous decisions with impunity. Worst of all is the way Americans cannot understand the complicated and contradictory views held by outsiders of the superpower. Most Americans are disconnected from the way they are seen by internal dissenters and millions outside their borders, from Cuba to Canada.

No nation should define itself without paying any attention to how others see it. And we must not make the same mistake in our quest for a 21st-century identity.

When Mr Blair chants the mantra that everything changed on that fateful day when the US was attacked by al-Qa'ida, he speaks a truth he barely understands. The world no longer consents to double standards and the moral righteousness of the massively richer and better-armed countries. They want fair trade, universal rights and duties, the same human rights and international standards for all.

Our national identity de facto incorporates people from every corner of the globe, victims from every major disaster, revolution and war. More and more want to come here because Britain isn't the US, nor is it France or Germany, all countries with a heavy national identification.

When the bombs blasted across London, as Muslim immigrants we felt our own hearts were being blown apart. This land has given us space to be what we want to be and most of us would not leave in spite of racism and the constant fight to be accepted as legitimate citizens. I love this capital, its seething soul, its unpredictability and confidence, the language, changing internal and external landscapes, and eccentricities, incredible arts and robust political debates. I have been offered jobs in both Canada and the US but here is where I want to live and die. But not if they start pushing flags and the Royal Family at me.

There is a modern British identity we must strive to make, although much of it will happen in any event and cannot be invented. The Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable, who was on our platform, is for the minimalist approach to Britishness. That is a civic identity based on laws and no more. I think we need something with more soul. The story we tell of ourselves should be both honest and accurate. We should refrain from the embarrassing habit of declaring ourselves the best at everything, yet also delight in the many things we are good at.

Most of all, our institutions should become places where real equality prevails and where a new imagined Britain begins to reveal itself. This means the British Museum, for example, telling the whole and at times disreputable story about its collection and then presenting itself as a guardian of treasures for the whole world. Britain would then becomes a microcosm for the globalised world, not its boss, just one of its custodians.

Our history ties in neatly with this vision. Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in 1975: "I don't think that whatever qualities we have as British people come from the blood or from race. They come from the historic continuity of our institutions which themselves form our identity as long as we remember them."