Yasmin Alibhai Brown: My hopes of progress are turning to ashes

If the cricket is won, many more white Britons will give up on Britain and take refuge in England
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The things I do for the love of this job. I made myself read the Sunday papers on the Ashes, reports which mostly left me feeling more lost than if I had beached up on the shores of Murmansk with amnesia. My man ( a proper Anglo-Saxon) patiently explained why English cricket supporters are bursting with excitement. They haven't won the Ashes for an embarrassingly long time; this week God and rain willing they could just do it.

But this is more than just cricket I sense. It is the agony and ecstasy of Englishness, today in resurgence after years of confusion and surliness. From Orwell to Tebbitt, cricket has been used as a metaphor for English nationalism. It has been a test for belonging and unbelonging. Way back in 1979, when Thatcherist Englishness was claiming the British Isles, Lord Mancroft, the Tory peer, wrote: "Cricket - a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of eternity."

Until the Sixties, the years came and went when the English inherited and passed on quiet confidence and untouchable power, and also values of resilience and innate superiority. England was interchangeable with Great Britain, the holder of the crown and Empire. After decolonisation, however, it is the English who found it hardest to adjust to the smallness of their island.

New Labour and devolution created fresh challenges for these patriots. England was no longer Great Britain. It was a part of a changed United Kingdom, now ruled by too many Scotsmen. From what I heard during my sessions at the Edinburgh book festival this August, the Scots not only despise Englanders, they want precious little to do with the edifice which holds us together, Great Britain.

I have a lot of sympathy with the English who feel left out in the cold by this constitutional rearrangement, and even with those who resentfully ask why English people are denied the right to express their ancestral identity and ethnicity. It is indeed unfair that children are taught it is cool to be Afro-Caribbean or delightful to be a Bhangra-dancing Punjabi, but that there is something shameful and ridiculous in proclaiming your Englishness.

English children have the right to be taught about the great achievements of their nation and feel good about it - as long as they, like all the other children, are also taught about the less salubrious aspects of their history and to understand that all countries have contributed to the progress of human development.

Ironically, the one thing I most admire and love about the English is the indisputable fact that culturally this European tribe has been the most adventurous, open and promiscuous, wilfully and joyously appropriating, replicating and incorporating different cultures and ideas and peoples from the world.

Yet today's understandings pull in the opposite direction. Currently the most ardent advocates for England want to tame these wild and defining characteristics of Englishness. They want to remake Jerusalem. They want green and pleasant villages and church spires and cricket greens where no impertinent outsiders will be admitted, as they have under the messy and inclusive British flag.

Reading between the lines, these calls for purity are pitched by cricket pundits imagining the England they want - an England unsullied by the likes of us or gypsies or Albanians, I reckon.

One Surrey gentleman player warns that "there has been an influx of Commonwealth players who can pick up good money in England" and that too many English players were born overseas. God forbid. Just like Prince Phillip. Another warns that only when English cricket becomes truly English will greatness come her way.

Such chaps write to me with infuriating regularity, always to remind me to stop presuming I am accepted as a true citizen of these isles. When I described my son's marriage to a woman from Cheshire, Maxwell M from Southborough, Tunbridge Wells wrote this letter of warm congratulation: '"Your daughter-in-law, should she have a daughter, will not have English roots. Mixed couplings only add to the stock of the ethnic minorities. As an Englishman I would not knowingly insult a member of the ethnic minorities but by golly I resent them."

From Tunbridge Wells again, Emma Harris types: "You can never be one of us. Tagging on to an Englishman does not give you the right to claim this."

Yes, folks, there is white flight into Englishness, and it seems unstoppable. And if the Ashes are won, I reckon this purification and reclamation project will be boosted immeasurably. And many more white Britons will give up on Britain and take refuge in England, perhaps creating a refugee crisis. On GMTV this Sunday, in a long debate chaired by my colleague Steve Richards, two celebrated historians and thinkers, Professor Bernard Crick and Andrew Roberts, both politely declined to call themselves British. They were English, really, they explained.

Sir Bernard - whom I know and love - developed and promoted the idea of citizenship education in this country. He has long been a champion of integration. Roberts is the chipper Churchillian, very vocal on the problem of "ethnic minorities" who don't think of themselves as nationals of Britain. So where is the national panic about the white people who refuse to call themselves British?

And if this disengagement carries on, will Britishness be like an inner-city area, a dejected, hopeless place for poor blacks left behind with nowhere to go? When I think about the four British-born Muslim men who blew up London, I fret about their lack of connection to this country. Did they feel homeless? Their own people probably told them never to become too English, and some must have been rejected by indigenous locals who hate Pakis.

It isn't to excuse their acts, which will remain unforgiven. But if even I can feel forlorn and bitter about the different ways my countrymen can make me feel unwanted by drawing up bridges using the arsenal of abuse, how must it be for black and Asian men with no opportunities to make themselves matter to themselves and others?

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell described "the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we will never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs". Well these London bombs did jerk the sleepier parts of England awake. And we watch what she does next. Britain could carry on becoming a modern, confident internationalist nation or a sadly balkanised one, progressive hopes turned to ash. The ball is in England's court.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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