…I rarely get embroiled in discussions about identity politics, for reasons which will shortly become apparent (by which I mean, they will shortly begin to become apparent. They will go on being apparent for some considerable time after that. I should go and get yourself a cup of coffee and settle in if I were you).
I was round at IlLiberal Conspiracy yesterday, and strongly recommend this thought-provoking piece by Unity (for which, obviously, another cup of coffee). In the course of arguing that a “British Obama” simply wouldn’t carry the same significance as the American version because of the UK’s very different cultural baggage, Unity attacks “portmanteau” identities:
Terms like ‘British Asian’, ‘British Muslim’ and ‘Black British’ are no more a valid description of your identity than ‘British English’, ‘British Midlander’ or ‘British Atheist’ are of mine. That’s not how the British civic identity works; you’re British AND you’re a Muslim, or you’re South Asian, or you’re Black or whatever other words you might choose to describe your own sense of identity in a particular situation. The British civic identity is not like that of America because it developed and evolved to serve a very different purpose.
These terms, as Unity has it, are American imports, at best meaningless and at worst divisive when transported into a British context. Sunny Hundal is soon on the case, defending his right to adopt not just one cultural portmanteau identity, but several, and then he says:
If anything, I would like to see people attach even more hyphens to their identities so we can push forward the notion that everyone has multiple identities – not just brown or black people.
And this was where yours truly foolishly stuck her oar in.
Now, clearly I’m not as troubled by portmanteau identities as Unity because as a liberal why should I mind what people call themselves? I also think they must to some extent be symptomatic of divisions rather than causal. Removing a symptom never works, you just have to wait on the causes – and this has happened before in the perpetual melting pot that is now the UK. Past societal divisions – northerner versus southerner for example – have gradually ironed themselves out of serious identity discourse and only their archaeological existence as jokes, or filler pieces for local redtops, tell us that this was ever a serious problem. We wouldn’t get nearly as much mileage out of the northerner-southerner “division” as we do if its terms were still genuinely incendiary.
When Lancashire play Yorkshire at cricket these days, everyone takes the opportunity to howl five hundred year old insults at each other and generally have a marvellous time. Yorkshiremen are tight and grumpy, Lancashiremen are… well, does anyone remember what that stereotype was? If there ever was a counterpoint, it has faded from the collective memory. Other identities have faded altogether – ever joshingly called anyone a Viking down the pub? On the other hand, the “Celtic” identity, which is of similar antiquity, has been somewhat artificially revived (with plenty of borrowings from the Wromantic but Wrong Victorians) for contemporary political reasons in the form of late twentieth century devolution.
The evidence suggests that when ethnic or religious or geographical divisions are politically ready to fade, they’ll do so all by themselves, the portmanteau identity will have served its purpose, and the most ardent proponents of identity politics won’t be able to keep it alive.
Sunny should hang on to his portmanteaus as a matter of personal liberty. But I questioned (this was the oar) whether actively encouraging everyone else to adopt them as well is useful to the future of societal cohesion, or even viable. If I follow the usual ethnic/religious/cultural portmanteau formulae all I can come up with is “A Bit Middle Class West Country-Surreian-Londoner”, viz a mash-up of my grandparents’ birthplaces and backgrounds. Religion, in my particular portmanteau, is so unimportant as to not even qualify as weak C of E.
In other words, something pretty meaningless. If I have a portmanteau identity, it is composed of occupational, intellectual and political elements which I have taken on for myself, and they have very little to do with any ethnic, religious or otherwise non-acquired cultural backdrop. I enjoyed living in London, to be sure, and I do love Devon, but I’m not really a Londoner or a Devonian. I also, for example, love the Mediterranean in general and feel at home there, but that doesn’t mean it’s part of my cultural heritage (*although see below). It’s very hard to feel any sort of cultural identification with suburbia, the not-quite-Surrey, not-quite-South-London buffer zone where I was born and brought up, and accordingly I don’t.
I’m not particularly taken with the “British” identity because most political aspects of being “British” that I consciously value (rule of law, protection of private property, the common weal etc) predate the Union, and given the way civil liberties in this country appear to be collapsing I’m no longer sure “Britishness” as I’ve been taught to think of it exists. But I’m not particularly taken with being “English” either, probably because it’s hard to be a medievalist and not understand that “English” was a political convenience like everything else. England per se doesn’t seem to have a great deal to do with me.
I’ve thought long and hard about this, and the only congenital cultural identities I can honestly come up with that seem genuinely meaningful to me are western European and southerner. And the southerner bit is really a joke identity, something to play off against a northern boyfriend. In short, I don’t have a meaningful, distinctive portmanteau identity along ethnic, cultural or religious lines that I was born with, and that I can usefully deploy in British society. I might as well self-identify as an earthling. I seriously wonder if Civis Romanus Sum (*aha, you see!) doesn’t sum it up as well as anything else.
All this was not a particularly helpful thing to point out in a discussion on the politics of race, perhaps. Because in suggesting that it was possible to have a nondescript ethno-cultural identity that I did not, personally, carry around with me, I guess I also implied that it was possible to have a “default” or generic identity. i.e. white, British-born, no exceptional ancestry or cultural or religious input. The actual identity I carry around with me is largely the one I’ve chosen for myself, and that necessarily implies my total freedom of choice. In other words, there is nothing about my ethno-cultural backdrop that stops me choosing to do whatever I like, and seen in the context of the lack of choice of others, this must imply privileges attaching to the elements that make up that backdrop.
The fact that I see myself as someone whose ethno-cultural “portmanteau” is meaningless, useless for self-definition purposes and generally nothing to do with how I live my life is therefore part of the problem, and the reason why we might well need a new politics of race. A similar friction occurs on feminist threads whenever a man says that he doesn’t feel particularly privileged by virtue of being a man. It might be perfectly true, but it must also in a sense be symptomatic of a real division that causes real problems for the people on the opposite side.
But what are we to do? We can’t force me to adopt a portmanteau identity based on elements that are totally meaningless to me, any more than we can force Sunny to relinquish his.
Here’s an idea. We as Liberal Democrats are committed heart and mind to devolution of a profound order. We rarely talk about it in broad terms, probably because it would be such a revolutionary change that the Britain on the other side of it is genuinely hard to envisage (I think this is the main problem Land Value Tax eggs face, by the way).
But wouldn’t one of those unlooked-for effects eventually be a hardening of geographical and regional identities? If Devon does things differently from Lancashire doesn’t that mean that eventually differences become entrenched and commonly recognised? Devon will become famous for its quality education, Lancashire famous for its sporting facilities provision. And in time the differences in public services will lead to cultural differences. Devon will become a breeding ground for inventors, Lancashire for sporting champions. Hampshire will be the business destination for the financial services sector and Suffolk will become the home of the most outrageous millinery industry in Europe.
Retrograde? Yes, in the literal sense. Maybe some of those ancient regional identities would creep back, no doubt suitably updated. Even the old agricultural patterns – based on the variations of by far the most crazy geological palimpsest of its size anywhere in the world – might make a reappearance.
But all that, alarming as it may be to a nation accustomed to think of itself as, well, a nation, is potentially more productive, isn’t it. Why, after all, do we want devolution? Because it’ll lead to experimentation and diversity. Provided peace can be kept and some basic personal liberties respected, and provided communication remains possible, there’s no logical point at which diversity of identities ever stops being a good thing. It’s no good our claiming we’re in favour of diversity if we’re not also prepared to follow wherever it leads.
So Sunny is right, but perhaps for slightly different reasons to the ones he proposes. Portmanteau identities for all are a good idea – because they’d no longer reflect solely the politics of race. Instead they’d reflect the politics of, er, politics. They’d be symptomatic of political devolution and diversity, the postcode lottery to end all postcode lotteries. And the only way to get there, so far as I can see, is to roll on devolution. Just as portmanteau identities naturally fade when they’re no longer needed, so they’ll return if and when they are.
Now I remember why I don’t get into identity politics. It’s because it takes forever to write up (and read) the brain fall-out.