Some folks in India might think that Shilpa Shetty’s victory in Celebrity Big Brother is more important than the Tata-Corus deal. But more interesting is what these two successes tell us about the real, subterranean debate in Britain—about identity.
Is Britain a collection of four nations separated from Europe by a tiny channel, unable to accept Europe’s socialist collectivism? Or is it divided from the US by a common language, and unwilling to risk America’s rugged individualism? Is it the multicultural salad bowl, where it is all right for schoolgirls to wear head-scarves (unlike in France), or is it the breeding ground for suicide bombers? Should Britain be proud that London raises more capital than New York, or should it be embarrassed that not a single leading brokerage house in the Square Mile is wholly British?
Nobody knows. But we can peek into the way Britons voted in the reality TV show, to understand the undercurrents. Britons take their reality TV seriously. Politicians have complained that their constituents care more for these shows than parliamentary debates. (At one time, more people voted in Big Brother polls than in local elections). For the thousands who voted, Big Brother was serious business. Andthose who voted overwhelmingly for Shetty were essentially affirming their belief in an idealized, inclusive and multicultural Britain.
Tolerance, decency, politeness, and decorum are, after all, among the self-selected set of virtues that many Britons believe they possess almost uniquely. So, when these courtesies are tossed aside by someone like Goody, Britons rallied round, as if responding to a Churchillian call to fight bad manners. As Britain becomes more heterogeneous, some want to cling to older values and courtesies. As if presciently anticipating Goody, Lynne Truss had written a book called Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door.
And yet, at one level, Truss and Goody are both essential parts of the British mosaic today. Parts of Britain do conform to John Major’s nostalgia of warm beer and old women cycling in villages, but other parts smell of masala tea, and city centres where young men steal bicycles. For every old man waiting in a queue for the bus, there is a yob (who can’t spell anything, let alone Shilpa) writing graffiti at the bus stop, cheered by teenage girls wearing little more than tiny handkerchiefs for skirts, scaring women in jilbab who leave the stop, fearing their safety.
Clearly English and British values are under assault, and not only from outsiders. Writers who have explored cultural values and incipient nationalism, have noted the changes, but can’t agree on what it means. In his thought-provoking book, The English: A Portrait of a People, journalist Jeremy Paxman has approvingly quoted Simon Raven, who said Englishness meant “gentle manners, cricket, civility between the classes, lack of malice…. (and) fair dealing (towards women and enemies – [sic])” Philosopher Roger Scruton has written a mournful book, England: An Elegy. And sociologist Kate Fox has treated the English as an anthropological curiosity, in her book, Watching the English.
Behind the laments lies the well-founded fear that emphasizing Englishness creates exclusivity, which does not welcome outsiders. There is that apocryphal story about the poet, T.S. Eliot. When he acquired British nationality and proudly told his friends that at last he was an Englishman, he was politely informed, no, all he had achieved was to have become a British subject.
This debate about identity will reverberate and resonate louder, as Britain prepares for the transfer of power from one quasi-Scotsman,Tony Blair, to a real one, Gordon Brown later this year. To allay English fears, Brown has gone out of his way to emphasize British culture and values, even as Scottish nationalists, buoyed by high oil prices on one hand and a borderless Europe on the other, want to reassess Scotland’s 300-year union with England. The Scottish National Party has renewed its call for a referendum on this. That the Scots have their own parliament, and yet they are in Westminster (and dominate the ruling Labour Party), where they get to vote on purely English matters, enrages Conservatives and the English.
If faux-Britishness is challenging Englishness politically, on the economic front, it is in further decline. When Tatas bid for Corus and Nanjing bid for Rover MG, uninformed trade unionists promptly complained about potential job losses, fearing foreigners taking over solid British companies. Former Observer editor Will Hutton wrote last year: “If (all) foreign takeover bids… go through, airports, ships, banks, gas pipelines, stock exchanges, chemical plants, and glass factories will fall into foreign ownership. Yet… scarcely an eyebrow is raised. British staff, British assets and British brands, built up over decades, are to become part of somebody else’s story and nobody gives a damn.”
Maybe nobody should. Does it really matter? Kiran Desai wins the Booker Prize. Tata walks away with Corus. At a stadium financed by Emirates, a football team, which has only five of its 32 players born in England, and is managed by a Frenchman, is nonetheless considered English. And chicken tikka masala is the nation’s most popular meal. No wonder there’s existential angst about the meaning of being British.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org