Yasmin Alibhai-Brown explores what it means to be English

Photo: Simon Veit-Wilson

By Will Fremont-Barnes

Exotic: this is the somewhat surprising adjective that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the prolific journalist and author, ascribes to England in the title of her recently published book. By way of explanation, she says: “there has been, and still is, and always will be, a very deep connection between England and the Middle East and South Asia”. Alibhai-Brown’s book tells the “untold story” of the profound external cultural influences on England, a country whose people now broadly “think of themselves as English rather than British”, and the ways in which they have shaped the nation we live in today.

“You couldn’t buy an aubergine when I came to this country”, Alibhai-Brown laughs as she reflects on the cultural transformation that has occurred in her adopted nation. Having arrived here from Uganda in 1972, she is ideally placed to comment both on the changes that have taken place in recent times as well as the benefits and drawbacks of immigration. “Black and Asian people have been part of the story of this country since the 16th century, but the impact that post-war generations have had on the deep culture of England is indisputable”, she states, although she expresses concern that this is often overlooked.

Essentially an exploration of England’s diverse heritage, Alibhai-Brown’s book has been published amidst growing scepticism as to the wisdom of multiculturalism. However, she rejects as “talk of monumental ignorance” the notion that culture should be the one thing that binds a cohesive society together. “Name me one homogenous culture in today’s world”, she challenges, before explaining why a fusion of cultures is unavoidable in the 21st century. “As soon as you have a mobile phone, as soon as you’re connected to the world, your culture changes.” She concludes: “it’s just rubbish to talk about a culture that has been destroyed by multiculturalism”.

However true this may be, Alibhai-Brown sounds utterly exasperated at the “lack of knowledge” that English people have about their own cultural heritage. “This is what I can’t understand: how can you deny something that has so deeply affected your culture? How do they not understand that their entire language is stuffed full of Indian words?” So great is the island mentality of the English, she theorises, that the “anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner” sentiment will never disappear completely.

At a time when the government’s approach to the refugee crisis is under scrutiny, Alibhai-Brown takes issue with the idea that England has a proud tradition of inclusivity. “In the 17th century, when the Protestant Huguenots were expelled from France and sent here, there was such an outcry.” She observes that nationalists “burnt their houses” and “trashed their businesses”, but that, in the face of opposition, “the foreigners stayed and started the Bank of England”.

A general distrust of foreigners, Alibhai-Brown argues, is nothing new, although she does identify a particularly worrying new development in this “really bad phase”. Advocates of immigration have, in her view, allowed the far right to hijack the debate: “that’s been the sorry tale.” In the past, “we’ve had some good people in power who opposed this type of thing. What’s happened since Mr Farage is everybody’s lost their nerve, and not even the BBC properly presents alternative arguments. They’ve allowed themselves to be frightened by this man”.

When it comes to patriotism and nationalism, does Alibhai-Brown think England strikes the right balance? “I don’t respect either”, she responds, invoking Samuel Johnson’s famous criticism that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. “You can love parts of your country and institutions, and you can hate some of its institutions and history. It’s like family. Somebody asked me, ‘are you loyal to your family?’ Absolutely not! We’ve had some total bastards and some nice people.”

The government’s policy requiring schools to teach pupils ‘fundamental British values’ is, in Alibhai-Brown’s opinion, hypocritical. “If you want to teach fundamental British values, do include the fact that the government’s greatest ally is Saudi Arabia, the most evil empire in the world. Do teach that where there’s money, we have no morality.” She points out what she sees as the ludicrousness of trying to appropriate certain values and portray them as unique to this country. “Germany doesn’t go around talking about German values, and Sweden doesn’t go around talking about Swedish values. It’s a peculiarly British thing.”

Alibhai-Brown is not, however, suggesting that the education system should focus only on the “dishonourable” elements of the nation’s heritage. “We should teach about Empire, slavery, duplicities in our foreign policy… and then we should include British institutions, British culture, British art”, she argues. “We should teach our children about British institutions, which are, in my view, the greatest in the world, whether we talk about parliament, the civil service, the amazing public sector. There’s so much to be proud about.”

Is this impassioned defence of British institutions not in itself an expression of the very patriotism she condemns? “No, it’s not, because I’m equally critical. Patriotism is agreeing with everything your country does and never criticising it. Real love and affection includes being critical.” Alibhai-Brown’s views blur the distinction between conventional definitions of nationalism and patriotism, though to her there is no inconsistency.

Her views inevitably elicit a range of responses in newspapers and on social media. Alibhai-Brown has been involved in a number of disputes on Twitter, in which comments made by her, and against her, have raised controversy over the years. “I don’t even know what that means”, she says in answer to a question about her provocative style. “I’m no more provocative than Polly Toynbee. I’m not Jeremy Clarkson. I’m a very sensible, thoughtful writer.” When people accuse her of being inflammatory, she supposes, “what they’re actually saying is somebody that looks like you hasn’t got the right to say the things white columnists say. It’s still hard for British people to get their heads around the fact that an Asian woman of my age is not serving them curries, and instead is in the public space. It’s ridiculous”.

Observing that “we’ve become liberal on homosexuality and people’s personal lifestyles”, Alibhai-Brown nevertheless fears through personal experience that “we’ve hardened when it comes to immigration and race”. She says: “history isn’t a straight line; it goes in cycles. I think good times will be coming back, especially as the population ages and suddenly the whole of Europe realises, unless they have hard-working immigrants, they will not cope.” In other words, England will again discover its own exotic heritage.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is speaking at the Durham Book Festival on Saturday 10 October. To find out more, visit http://durhambookfestival.com/.

Photograph: Simon Veit-Wilson (www.veit-wilson.co.uk)/New Writing North via Wikimedia Commons

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