Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Young of Hornsey: My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken today, I very much welcome the opportunity to debate this really important issue, and recognise its timeliness. I agree
 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 355
 
with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has said, particularly with regard to interrogating the very notion of Britishness. That is really what I want to focus on today.

In October 2000, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, on The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was launched to a storm of publicity, much of it adverse, which overshadowed its intellectually informed, cogent analysis. The report, produced after months of research and consultation led by a commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mapped out current and future directions for policy makers in the context of contemporary, multi-ethnic Britain.

The furore focused on a comment in the report about the potentially racist connotations of "Britain". This was reported in the press as a claim by the commission that to use the term "British" was to use a racist term. Anyone who had read the report properly would have seen that this was not at all what the commissioners were saying.

In recent times, notions of Britishness have been linked inextricably to migration. The focus of these debates has been primarily on peoples of African, Asian and Caribbean descent, who have settled here since the 1940s; but we should not forget that historically people of Irish and Jewish descent have also come under scrutiny in terms of their perceived "alien" status.

In referring to a set of values or qualities that characterise a nation, we always, of course, want to adopt positive terms. "Tolerant" and "inclusive" were, I think, words that were used by the Chancellor to sum up part of the British character when he spoke, as has recently been referred to.

Clearly, if we look objectively at those qualities and many others of the national character, we cannot say that these attributes are exclusive to white Britons. Some of the people who settled here having travelled from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean experienced kindness and acceptance. Many others endured physical and verbal abuse and exclusion from the notion of Britishness because of its equation with being white. The vast majority of those settlers and their daughters and sons exercised a great deal of restraint in the face of this intolerance and exclusion—exclusion from sections of the labour market, from decent housing, from mainstream education and so on.

It seems that those who urge us to embrace Britishness have not grasped the extent to which many of the people of our parents' generation felt an absolute allegiance to Britain—to the mother country. This lack of understanding persists despite our contributions to war efforts, as has already been mentioned in relation to the Second World War—but from the Battle of Trafalgar to Iraq today, we have made that contribution. Despite all the support and contribution given to the National Health Service and our contribution to the sporting success and entertaining the nation, still our allegiance and Britishness is questioned.
 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 356
 

If our role in the political, social and cultural development of Britain is omitted from the national curriculum, from higher education, erased from history books or left to gather dust as curiosities in museums and if we experience this continued rejection, it is not surprising that Britishness feels like a total illusion to some.

I want briefly to say something about multiculturalism. The chairman of the CRE, Trevor Phillips, and the Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Vincent Cable, are among those who have called for an end to the multicultural society. I have to confess that I am not sure what that means. Multiculturalism is defined in a number of ways. It is such a vague concept that it hardly qualifies as much more than a descriptor—that is, there are many different cultures living in Britain today. That is self-evident. I feel that the signalling of the end of the concept is an acceptance of the fear of difference.

If we think of multicultural as the juxtaposition of different cultures, rather than a set of policies to mitigate the presence of black people in this country, we can see that Britain has always been a multi-layered, multi-textured nation and, yes, multicultural too. Steelworkers in the north of England might not see themselves as having much of a common culture with public school, Oxbridge-educated, civil servants in Whitehall. Places with strong regional identities, such as Yorkshire and Cornwall, might also feel more than a geographical distance from the middle classes in the home counties; and, of course, as has already been mentioned, the place of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland in this notion of a unified British identity might be said to be currently "under construction". After all, we have yet to reach agreement on whether we can field a single Great Britain football team.

Many people have referred to last year's bombings of London transport, ending with much tragic loss of life and injuries, as a wake-up call and an opportunity to reflect on the limits and the potential of multiculturalism. If we want to understand what drives people to extremes, to fulfil their desire to cause death and destruction, we have to learn to look squarely in the eye of that which might cause us some discomfort.

In order to have a strong sense of what we mean by being British, does that mean that those who do not conform to that notion have to be designated "un-British"—a rather chilling term? The really important issue is—again, this has been touched on by other noble Lords—can we establish a society characterised by a strong sense of social justice, active environmentalism and equality of opportunity, with respect and difference at its heart, both nationally and internationally? Responding to this challenge is what citizenship is all about.

I understand that one of the national daily newspapers is asking its readers what it means to be British. A view from abroad states:


 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 357
 

I am sure that most noble Lords are aware that in 2007 there are a number of important anniversaries that are relevant to this discussion. It is 300 years since the Union was formed, 200 years since the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire—I must declare an interest because I am involved in a number of initiatives around that particular issue—and 50 years since Ghana gained independence from Britain.

The ways in which the Government approach the commemoration of each of these events is important. Each contains the potential to be exploited to both positive and harmful effects. I hope that this House and the other place will work together to ensure that we maximise the opportunities for getting to grips with the challenges we face with creating the inclusive society we desire.

2.57 pm

Lord Soley: My Lords, like all previous speakers, I welcome this important debate. There are a number of things that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said in opening with which I agree. I disagree with some of his comments about respect, which I thought were a bit provocative and missed the very important point that actually respect comes basically from good parenting, and then you build on that. That in a way is what the Government are about but in a much wider agenda.

I agree with him that we have spent too much time in our history lessons on people like Hitler and Stalin, important though they are in teaching people the warnings of history about dictatorship, and far too little on such things as immediately after the war when Britain had a very large hand in drawing up the German constitution, which, in my judgment, is one of the most successful constitutions in the world today, and in drawing up the human rights legislation in Europe, which many people make the mistake of associating with the European Union, even though of course we did not sign it until many years later when the present Government were elected. But perhaps those who do not take such a generous view of British history as I take would say that that is a good example of the British saying, "Don't do as we do, but do as we tell you".

I also agree very much with the noble Lord about the Commonwealth aspect. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, touched on that with the contribution made during the wars generally. It is not well known, but the British/Indian army, which at its height I think numbered more than 2.5 million people, was the largest volunteer army the world has ever known. That in a way says something very special about the nature of the relationship that existed between Britain and India and, in my view, still does.

I think that the Government launching of citizenship education is extremely important. I have felt that for many years. As an MP I had some research done in my advice surgery. When we asked people who came with council-related problems why they had come to me as an MP rather than go to the council, a very common reply was, "I thought I'd come to the
 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 358
 
top". The assumption was that the MP tells the councillors what to do—that it was a pyramid. If any MP or Member of this place tries to tell councillors what to do, in my experience, it works for a very short time—usually about five minutes. Then it goes badly wrong. It is a mistake. However, a constituent said to me during the past year, shortly before I left the House of Commons: "If you cannot help me with my housing"—I had referred her to a councillor—"what do you do?". That says an awful lot about how we do not involve people in their democracy.

The most important point is that democracy is about participation. The media have a role to play here. If you watch some of our "Question Time"-type programmes, people often respond by saying, "A plague on all your houses". But they leave it there; they do not then go on to say, "What can I do about it?". People have many options. They can not only read the literature from the various candidates, they can put themselves forward as independent candidates; join parties and seek to change them; and so on. We underplay that, so the assumption is that you must be a spectator in democracy, rather than a participant. Democracy, by definition, means involvement and participation.

We should not get too pessimistic, although it is right to be concerned about falling voting levels. There are a number of explanations for that. We need to be careful even about younger voters. If we consider the area that I previously represented in west London, many young people who were not voting were, from the nature of the population—this is true of Britain as a whole—from ethnic minorities, many of whom had come here recently, in many cases from countries that had been through extreme stress. The former Yugoslavia and the Horn of Africa were two classic examples in my area. They did not have a culture of participating in politics, not least because politics was, at best, irrelevant to their background; and, at worst, deeply frightening and worrying because it usually meant violence, sometimes extreme violence directed against them individually.

So we need to go through a process, but we can be proud. I also remember a very good friend of mine, a Palestinian, standing up at his first Labour Party meeting with tears in his eyes. He had just become a British citizen and he said to me, "I am so proud because today, for the first time in my life, I have voted in a free election". He was 47. We need to be very proud of that.

I should declare an interest, because I am chairman of the Mary Seacoal memorial statue appeal. Mary Seacoal was a Crimean War nurse and we seek to establish a statue as a memorial to her—either in Cavendish Square, opposite the Royal College of Nurses, or at the end of Westminster Bridge, outside St Thomas's Hospital. The purpose of that is not just to commemorate Mary Seacoal herself, but what she represents. She represents the enormous involvement of various groups from around the world in being British.
 
2 Feb 2006 : Column 359
 

That is precisely what my noble friend, Lady Young, said so powerfully a few moments ago. My only slight point of difference with her was that she timed her sense of involvement in the British military side of history from Trafalgar. In fact, as she will know, it started long before that. The waves of immigration and the involvement of ethnic minorities in our history are far greater. Indeed, we can see that in the Royal Gallery in the picture of the black sailor on Nelson's ship pointing to the French sniper. About 20 per cent of that ship's complement was foreign-born. At least one captain in Nelson's navy was a black sea captain.

Finally, we sometimes forget that empire was part of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was what made Britain the world's first superpower, if you like—the first global power. That is what drove empire, in a way, although I know that you can trace empire back before that through the slave trade, and so on. If we do not understand and teach that, there is a problem. People will say either that the British Empire was the greatest thing ever or that it was the worst thing ever. In fact, there was a much more complicated inter-relationship with what was the dominant power of the 19th century, based on the industrial process. That is the wider sweep of history that will enable people of all ethnic backgrounds to feel a sense of citizenship in Britain today.

3.05 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page