Khatami and Straw on “Britishness”

Mohammad Khatami at Chatham House

In the past week, Mohammad Khatami and Jack Straw have both called for British citizens to prioritise their ‘Britishness’. Halfiranian asks why.

Last Wednesday night, I went to hear the ex-president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, give a talk entitled ‘Tolerance, Moderation and the Dialogue of Civilizations’.

I wasn’t that interested in the subject of his talk, I was more excited to see what kind of man Khatami really is. Unlike the demonstrators outside Chatham House, who see him as just another mullah in a theocracy with blood and torture on its hands, I left the discussion with a positive impression of the guy.

Sure, I think he’s a spineless bureaucrat for never once putting his career – let alone life – on the line for the reformist movement while in power. But at the same time, after seeing him talk, at least now I’m convinced he stands in the right place. He does believe in genuine peaceful reform, even if he doesn’t have the balls to really push for it.

I’m babbling slightly though. What really struck me about his talk was his statement about British identity. In a reply to a question from a World Service reporter about the veil (yawn) in the UK, Khatami addressed Muslims in Britain, saying: “don’t think you are Muslim; you are British first of all”.

I must say, it did surprise me to hear that from a representative of the Islamic Republic. However, perhaps it was naive of me to expect any state leader (past or present) to promote the primacy of anything other than a state identity.

The next day, Thursday, Jack Straw made similar statements about identity at an “inter-faith conference” at UCL. Straw was concerned that people had come to see themselves “more in terms of their cultural, ethnic, national, gender or religious affiliations”, the BBC quoted him as saying.

He went on to say that “Britishness” could provide “common values”, such as liberty, tolerance and the rule of law, adding that a “stronger sense of shared British identity” was needed.

But why?

Why do Khatami and Straw say that we need to be more British? Straw implies that it’s to compensate for the “erosion of [a] collective sense of community”, resulting from our diminished “sense of class” over the past 50 years (is that not a good thing?).

But is promoting “Britishness” really the best we can do? Surely, we have to think about what our common identities are first, and then create political institutions to accommodate them – not the other way round.

What is it – if anything – that unifies British citizens under one identity? Was this identity changed by the inclusion of Northern Ireland into the mix a couple of hundred years ago? What if we chopped off Wales (only joking), or added Brittany?

Next time someone talks about “Britishness”, think really hard about what they’re talking about. Better still, ask them to define it. See if they can do better than the hopeless job by the Telegraph.

Tell me if I’m being excessively cynical, but to me “Britishness” is nothing more than a political identity (same as Iranian-ness). Straw himself admits that it’s not a national identity, saying “there are Scottish, English and Welsh nations” (in the same way as there are Kurdish, Baluch and Persian nations – to name but a few – in Iran).

By trying to define (and enforce) Britishness, we are desperately seeking to explain a system where “we” as Britons are treated differently to foreigners. We need to define our differences from non-British citizens, otherwise the justification for preferential treatment disappears.

If we didn’t do that – i.e. consider ourselves different to foreigners – things would start to go awry. We might start caring as much about the Iraqi victims of violence as we do about the July 7th bombing victims in “our own” London. We might start being concerned as much for children with HIV in Africa as we do for those in the North-East of England.

Neglecting a state identity risks exposing a huge lie about the way we all live our comfortable lives.

Without Britishness, we wouldn’t be talking about “turkey twizzlers” in UK schools, but about the 100 million children who don’t go to school.

Without Britishness, we wouldn’t be moaning about NHS waiting-lists, but doing something about the 10 million children who die of preventable diseases every year.

Without Britishness, we wouldn’t be questioning Romania’s right to join the EU, but questioning our ‘right’ to a veto in the Security Council.

Without Britishness, we would have no reason to have passports which provide us access to places where others cannot go.

Without Britishness, we wouldn’t tolerate locking people up and deporting them simply because they want to share our opportunities.

Without Britishness, if a foreigner could do your job better than you, what argument would you use to stop her?

Without Britishness, we are forced to see our country for what it is. A racist club designed to maintain our arbitrary privileges.

That is why we need Britishness. Because without it, we are reduced to humans. And nobody seems to want that.

7 Responses to “Khatami and Straw on “Britishness””


  • I think you’ll find people already care about African children with HIV more than about anyone in the North East of England.

  • Big Brother Corporation?

    “Nations are often described as “imagined communities” in which bonds are forged between large groups of people who never meet. This requires a popular medium through which the national story can be told and understood. At a time when forces of social and ethnic fragmentation are becoming stronger, we need institutions capable of fostering a distinctive and inclusive sense of Britishness. The BBC still does this far better than anyone else.”

    Guardian Article

  • Adam, I was trying to say that people with HIV would be of equal concern wherever they were, inside the UK or not. I can see that might not have been clear…

  • And what if the majority is satisfied with the cave they live in? What if the majority is happy with its imagined community? What if it has the right to maintain it?

    Also, your chicken egg issue with community-polity is flawed because you cant possibly claim that we can simply turn around, revolutionize and change our polities the way a minority of elitist internationalists (like us) sees fit! Unless you have messianic ambitions of course…

    By the way. Khatami is an ass for quitting.

  • A coherent sense of identity is a basic, albeit in some ways irrational, human need. We are always going to need to define ourselves. It seems that what you are hinting at is that we should strive to be defined not by our nationality but by our humanity. In this way we share our core identity with all other members of the human race.
    I would also see this as an ideal. However, maybe it is somewhat unrealistic given also the short-sightedness most of us have. Another alternative is to find a more ‘personal’ identity people can relate to, that makes them feel ‘part of something’, but which at the same time overrides old prejudices and is based on inclusive ideals – celebrating difference within those holding the same identity. An example might be found in Ken Livingstone’s aim to create a stronger ‘Londoner’ identity as seen in the adverts: ‘We are LondONErs’. It seems to me that this is strengthening an identity based on being proud of having relativistic values and those that respect difference (religion, ethnic origin etc). In this way it can achieve the converse of what a strong identity might typically lead to. As to whether ‘Britishness’ is another example of this, maybe that’s still an open question…

  • yup. and as tony blair so memorably and blindly said this week – being british is about being tolerant. and if you don’t like that you can bloody well go home.

    thanks tony.

    and that goes for londONErs too..

  • genevois: Do you think the majority is happy with its imagined community? Have you seen the results of this global survey? Who is in the majority if 80% want to move wherever they like?

    Yes I do think we can turn around and revolutionise our polities to make them fairer and more democratic. Having a democratic assembly – possibly a wing of the UN (though not representing states) is a way of doing this. Is that really *so difficult* to imagine?

    Elly: a “personal identity”, like being a LondONEr, is great if it makes you feel warm inside, but does it change anything about your political reality? Being a LondONEr works (though I must say I dislike the whole campaign) because it is not a political identity. Anyone can be a Londoner.

    I wonder what Ken’s campaign would be like if London had a border around it and regulated who could enter and who couldn’t. What would be his campaign then? What would you need to be a Londoner?

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