Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I feel British, but I don't want enforced patriotism

Cameron's ideas on Britishness are so remarkable Labour would be foolish not to steal them
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The Independent Online

New Labour will squirm to hear David Cameron today on the Great Britishness debate. I never thought I would say this but I have not heard another British politician make such a sophisticated and vital intervention at a time when so many across the parties seem to have lost a sense of proportion, political sense and the instincts of true leadership. Once upon a time I heard Gordon Brown make an inspiring speech on the emerging, multiracial, cosmopolitan British nation. It was so brilliant I bought it, quoted it endlessly in my writing. They neutered him, the New Labour image spinners. He allowed himself to be neutered. Nowadays I find his addresses on British values hollow, patronising, badgering and at times curdled with sour jingoism.

Brown will not be able glibly to face down the words of Cameron today, who says: "It is no use behaving like the proverbial English tourist abroad, shouting ever more at the hapless foreigner who doesn't understand what is being said. We can't bully people into feeling British - we have to inspire them." Tick. He wants calmness of debate and an end to the "hectoring of Muslims". Yet he is brave enough to condemn the oppression of females within some Muslim enclaves. Tick, tick. He dismisses the "clunking" government initiatives which attempt to get citizens to be more vainly British. Three more ticks.

Cameron seems instinctively to understand how un-British and coercive such social engineering would be. He goes further, takes risks, provokes Middle England's disapproval as he damns the demonisation of Muslims and their faith, reminding Britons that the challenges of cohesion are not the same as the threat of terrorism. The two are dumped together by those in government who use immigration policies, anti-terrorism legislation and other means to terrorise incomers and their children into accepting a curtailment of fundamental rights and definitions of Britishness that are questionable at best.

I am British; I have never had any other nationality; I would not leave this country to live abroad even when things get really tough and escape beckons; I love London and would go to war if it was threatened. British institutions, freedoms, the struggles and bloodshed that went into the making of this layered country and democracy itself, the beautifully expressive language, thegreat writers, scientists, thinkers, engineers, the cultural promiscuity of England, all these have captured my heart and head.

I believe in the British identity more, apparently, than the English, Scots and Welsh now do. I think individualism, devolution, politicised religions and state multicultural policies have washed away the collective spirit of our nation. That capacity needs to be rebuilt on the basis of equality and for the sake of our society. Those who have divided us must be disabled. The centre will not hold if diversity and choice become the only principles we attend to.

So yes, I freely buy into the enlightened idea of a binding Britishness. But I will not follow instructions to teach my children a glorified version of our island history, and won't comply with orders not to question government policies or surrender to our hideous popular culture (I hate pubs, so there). Cameron (or his brilliant speechwriter) seem to understand that the most integrated immigrants today feel alienated when elected leaders go on the offensive, exerting illegitimate pressure on us, forcing us into compulsory patriotism.

I am swooning now, helplessly as if in front of a charismatic churchman about to newly baptise me into a wonderful new world. Just in time, scepticism flies in to deliver me from this dubious saviour. As I come to my senses I realise I have no evidence that Cameron really means to deliver this new agenda. If facing a WI meeting in Henley on Wednesday, will he say what he did in Birmingham on Monday? And if some High Tory donor or xenophobic commentator has a stern word or two, will he produce an equally brilliant speech on Friday notifying Muslims and other immigrants of the integration duties they owe this always great and tolerant country? He has been on both sides on the Iraq war, on immigration too, and his two faces shine brightly when responding to anti-terrorism legislation. The man is slick and unreliable, but his thoughts and ideas on Britishness today are so remarkable, Labour would be foolish not to steal them. Gordon Brown, a substantial and visionary politician, needs to acknowledge Cameron's profundity on Britishness and then seize the initiative. Otherwise many black and Asian Britons will rush to the Tories only to be betrayed by them, as has happened throughout history.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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