'British' is already an inclusive, elastic and evolutionary concept

Judging from the opprobrium heaped upon them, any reasonable observer of events might conclude that Lord Parekh and his colleagues on the Runnymede Trust's Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain were intent on the destruction of the British way of life. Their report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, has been greeted with astonishing vitriol by everyone from the Home Secretary to the usual suspects in the reactionary press: "Sub-Marxist gibberish"; "out-of-touch nonsense"; "an insult to our history and intelligence".

Judging from the opprobrium heaped upon them, any reasonable observer of events might conclude that Lord Parekh and his colleagues on the Runnymede Trust's Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain were intent on the destruction of the British way of life. Their report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, has been greeted with astonishing vitriol by everyone from the Home Secretary to the usual suspects in the reactionary press: "Sub-Marxist gibberish"; "out-of-touch nonsense"; "an insult to our history and intelligence".

It is, of course, nothing of the sort. While it is certainly not right about everything - what official report has ever been able to claim that? - it is a well-researched, thoughtful and intelligent contribution to the debate about relations between different races and communities in this country, which are not quite in the harmonious condition that some would have us believe.

The Parekh report carries 138 recommendations covering everything from broadcasting to policing to employment. Many are sensible, worthy proposals that deserve consideration; none threaten anyone. There are too few black and Asian faces in the most powerful and influential positions in our society. So what is "sub-Marxist" about proposing that broadcasters should encourage the promotion of black and Asian people to commissioning-editor and management posts?

And what is so "out of touch" about the idea of an independent body to investigate complaints against the police? And while it may be a pointless suggestion, and no substitute for the desired changes in government policy, what is so "insulting" about the suggestion that an independent commission on immigration, nationality and asylum be established?

It is the comparatively brief ruminations on "Britishness" that have caused the fuss. The authors are certainly guilty of naivety if they thought that their remarks about this would do anything other than provoke controversy and debate. That has been no bad thing in itself. But they may also have inadvertently played into the hands of the worst bigots by appearing to disparage the term "British" too readily, and to seem to be suggesting that it cannot be elastic and inclusive enough to include non-whites. In doing so, they allow the racist right to appropriate for themselves the word "British", which, as Jack Straw rightly said yesterday, is an extremely dangerous thing to do.

In truth, the term "British" is the original inclusive concept, designed to cover the disparate communities that go to make up the British Isles. Since then, it has stretched to include all manner of immigrants, from Hugenots and Jews to the more recent arrivals from Asia, Africa and the West Indies. The Parekh report wants "British" to be "outward-looking, generous, inclusive" - but it already is. Just look at the joy that greeted the recent Olympic successes, whether the gold medals were won by Denise Lewis, Steve Redgrave or Audley Harrison.

The report calls for a recognition that we are a multicultural nation. Most of us - especially the young - have known this for some time. We are also aware that we are a "community of communities", as the report put it. Above all, though, we are a British community - diverse, multicoloured and multi-faith - and proud of it. The evolution of Britain continues.

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