Speaking as a People’s Republican…

…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.


  1. Impressive. Couldn’t agree more.

    Although I might say that the North-South rivalry is rather more ‘real’ up here than in the South, much as white being the ‘default’ is more noticeable to non-white people…

  2. A sidelong comment: two of the three “black” (dreadful adjective applied to people, why can’t we agree on a more appropriate one?) people who made it to the top of US politics recently have ancestry of the British Commonwealth, rather than America. President Obama’s father came from Kenya, while Colin Powell’s people were Jamaican. Is there still an element of “political cringe” on the part of African-Americans who are closer to slavery and apartheid than even Caribbeans?

  3. What Andrew said. It’s ironic that you picked Lancashire for sporting acheivement, though, given that the Lancastrian stereotype you couldn’t remember is “Lancashire born and Lancashire bred; strong in the arm and thick in the head”

  4. Hello Alix, first comment from a regular reader here.

    This is not a subject I’ve ever given much thought to. It was an excellent and thought provoking post, but I’m not sure if you’re not still addressing the symptoms and not the problem (if there is one) in the way you identify earlier.
    Yes, a new regional, political, whatever, identity might well be a good thing, but you say yourself that you don’t have a meaningful identity on other grounds.
    But isn’t this because you, like me, are in the majority, and as you say are “white, British-born, (with) no exceptional ancestry or cultural or religious input”? Everyone likes to belong, and if you obviously belong to the group of nearly everybody you don’t need to identify with any group; it’s self evident.

    My interpretation is that you pose the problem thus (and please correct me): Some people require self-labelling for whatever self-affirming identity reasons, but not everyone has an appropriate label. If we can encourage “hyper-diversity”, nobody will be different for being different.

    But haven’t we slightly sidestepped the issue – why does any minority person need a label in today’s society? Is there not a problem in that in itself?

    My liberal tendencies say let anyone choose to call themselves what they like, but I’m not going to as I don’t really have anything further than what I do and how I live my life. You sound the same. But the fact that other people do attach labels to themselves leaves a nagging worry – why do they feel the need to do this, and does this indicate an underlying problem?

  5. Oh, just another thought – what’s it like, in say Brazil? hugely diverse with several different and large ethnic groups (Native American, Various European, African) – do these groups identify themselves, or are they unspokenly different Brazilians?

  6. 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.

    But this is exactly my point. I’m not really that fussed about race, but it does worry a lot of other people so I’m happy to chuck my oar in.

    the problem is more that people seem to be uneasy with cultural or racial or any difference. That is probably down to the political climate – with the worry that if minorities play up their different identities, then we won’t get a harmonious union.

    I disagree, for two reasons. Firstly, white people also have ethnicity and culture. See my article “What is white culture”

    Secondly, it assumes that just because people subscribe to multiple identities, it somehow negates that we can’t have commonalities.

    On that, “Why I’m not interested in integration”

    sorry for all these links.. but I’ve explained my views on these better🙂

    Other than that, I agree with your conclusion.

  7. Sunny, yeah, I think we are basically in agreement that there would be nowt wrong with as many people have multiple identities as wanted to. I just query whether it can happen. However, I shall be off to read up on my “culture” with interest🙂

    Andrew (hello! I knew not all of you could be here for the fluffy bunny pictures) is also right in that I end up slightly side-stepping my own contentions. I got quite carried away with the devolution idea.

    My suspicion is akin to yours, that actually for a lot of people (and Sunny says this, I think, though he isn’t among them) a minority identity label *does* indicate that they have a problem, or think they do. But again, what we do about that as liberals – except, obviously, continue to fight discrimination – I’ve no idea. The devolution is a sort of answer, because it would put everyone in the same boat, but as you point out it’s not a terribly realistic reading, and is to some extent a refuge from the problem.

    Liberalism as a whole, of course, is an answer to the problem in itself. But that’s not easy to explain to people who feel themselves excluded when there are (typically more left-wing) targetted solutions that appear to provide more immediate benefits, e.g. all-whatever shortlists.

    On Brazil, my only knowledge about this springs from Y Tu Mama Tambien (my research capacity for sitting in front of the telly knows no bounds). One of the main two boys has a native heritage and an Aztec name and comes from a wealthy family, while the other boy is entirely Hispanic and comes from a poor family. The film made such a big thing of this that I gathered it was actively addressing an old stereotype about the Spanish being the “masters” or similar. But, if it’s got to film, it’s almost certainly on its way out as a cultural trend (and the film itself is a few years old now).

  8. Oh, and Frank, that’s a very interesting thought. You haven’t by any chance been reading Outliers over the Christmas hols, have you? It talks about deep patterns in various cultural backgrounds that are still, several hundred years later, strong determinants of individual success. If you haven’t read it, well, you’ve basically arrived at his argument separately, so well done🙂 I believe he does actually mention Colin Powell in a discussion of Jamaican cultural heritage.

  9. People forget (apart from in Scotland, o’course, where it’s not only normal but actively encouraged to hold a grudge across 900 years) that Britain has always had these deep-rooted diversities; ‘British’ as a ‘racial’ description simply means ‘hybrid’ (or ‘mongrel’ if you’re feeling unkind) a mash-up of pictish, scottish – in the original sense – celtic, anglish, saxon, jutish, norse, roman and norman with the odd bit of gallic, roman, huguenot and jewish thrown in. I’ve never really understood why people with such a heritage get so exercised about having a bit of African, Caribbean or Asian thrown in too.

    Attaching oneself to a culture is an act of division and discrimination; and I use neither word in a necessarily perjorative sense. It is an act of deliberate choice and a form of differentiation. “I am special because…”. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. An example: on sunday many otherwise english people – myself included – will indulge their fondness for single malt and a stuffed sheep’s stomach – and read out some truly awful poetry – most are doing so because they like whisky and haggis and silly traditions, for me the fact that I have a scottish name (the galloway sockpuppets, since you ask) is an excuse. True Scots, might take umbrage that what is a deeply cultural event for them is entertainment for others, or might be pleased that someone cares.

    But in doing so they are laying claim, albeit tenuously, to some elements of scottishness; resilience, intelligence, self-reliance the mythology and the history etc. (Not, of course, heart disease and meanness with money. ..) in much the same way that anyone identifying themselves with a culture is clasping some attributes of that culture to themselves.

    To define oneself by geography (devonian/londoner/geordie) was a meaningful definition when most people were born, lived and died in the same county, and probably communicated in a certain dialect. Now it is a statement of values. What does this mean for people who want to claim multiple identities? Is it a statement that their value system is a bit amorphous? Or is it simply a bit meaningless (“I am both old-fashioned and prepared the embrace the new, I am hard-bitten and resilient but urbane and sophisticated, I am spritual but down-to-earth, city-slicker and countryman etc etc”)?

  10. Well, you’ve tickled me. I was feeling a bit guilty for not saying much, here or elsewhere, & a response to this occured to me this morning. Regrettably, I’ve just eaten, so some of the insights I had may well be lost forever🙂

    I am actually quite big into shite like civic pride & so on. You feel so little connection to Surrey/London, whereas if you spoke to people in Stoke, or South Shropshire, or your new neighbours if you can find an actual Devonian amongst them!

    As an aside, I was caually on a surname database, & my own name & all the names of my family members (apart from my granddad, who was Polish) are local & have been associated with the Potteries since surnames were invented in the first place.

    The reason why I value the “little platoons” is that, basically, I support a small state because I don’t think there will be chaos without the government watching over us incessantly. Most people will get on with building their own lives & working hard for themselves & for others. As for the few who do not do this, they should be the ones who are punished, rather than persecuting us all as New Labour do.

    In order for authority not to be constantly on our backs, there needs to be something between the individual & the state, which I would define as civic society, voluntary associations, individuals willing to organise against crime & disorder, & flourishing localism.

    I know there is a lot of parochialism in this country, but that is the opposite of an outward-looking localism (no contradiction in terms, that). You get shite like people on the estate I grew up on fighting tenants of a “rival” estate, even though they’re pretty much exactly the same place but a mile apart. Some of it was just the excuse for a brawl, but a lot was an actual hatred of people from other areas, without a rational basis but real nonetheless. I gather the situation in parts of Liverpoool, etc (Norris Green/Croxteth) is even worse.

    But that is precisely because people are ignorant, insular & have no idea who they are & in what context they exist. It is possible & profoundly a good thing to have a local loyalty & look outwards. You can be a free trader who goes to a farmers’ market enthusiastically, & what have you.

    When there is insularity, you have to look hard at the reasons. People do not learn English because ESOL is not taken seriously & there is no serious attempt at integration. Areas like this estate are virtually all white, whereas there are some districts of the city dominated by Asians, & while some of this is due to choice it has a lot more to do with the council building vast estates & housing white tenants on them, while social housing in areas which are already Asian tends to be allocated to recent immigrants. (This is one thing people never seem to pick up on when they bemoan immigrants becoming ghettoised).

    A book which you may appreciate reading is “Real England” by my mate, Paul Kingsnorth. He is interesting because his background is in environmentalism & most of his mates are green, but he also has conservative, liberal & libertarian readers, possibly because he defines himself against such a huge enemy (which you might call “the blob” or just “everything”) that you’re bound to agree with at least some.

    It was thanks to his influence that I adopted my sceptical attitude towards immigration, though he studiously avoids mentioning immigration itself, perhaps in the knowledge that he has readers on both sides of the debate & doesn’t want to piss anyone off, possibly also because he can’t make up his own mind on the issue.

    Yes, there is a whiff of parochialism, but the defence of local identities stands anyway.

    Re: Outliers, I have in fact never heard of it (am I missing out?) but it did impress me when I read this on Mosaic that cultural differences are important:


    I thought to myself, why is Industrial Grit so resilient when Low Horizons have just given up, & so on & so forth? That’s actually the first thing I thought, & it did influence the workings of my mind in terms of which attitudes should be promoted & which discouraged.

    This is a bit garbled because I wrote a “draft” in my head & forgot to put pen to paper, whereas now I’ve had a bit of a slump, like. Humblest apologies!

  11. Y Tu Mama Tambien – Aztecs? Espanol? Mexico?

    Which kinda makes the point about identity.

    It’s the language you use (sociolect, dialect, slang, jokes etc which provide the shared references to include and exclude through linguistic code), the clothes you wear (style, design, label etc which create the shared sense of space and purpose through the level of uniformity), the food and drink you consume (which link you to their origins and creates a shared experience) and its in the activities you undertake.

    To a large extent your culture depends on who you encounter and you are defined by the people you meet. Necessarily this is partly geographical, but with the freedom to travel growing (though not so much social mobility) this constraint on our definition of identity is shrinking.

    Such liberty is threatening to many people because it forces individuals to rediscover themselves, which means we must each at some point learn to accept we’ve been lost.

  12. Warming to my theme, I return, like.

    There is something which liberals often ignore, or act as if it weren’t true, but which is a fact that must be respected.

    Liberalism is a meme…

    Liberalism is not necessary or inevitable in human society. You may well argue, & I’d be in agreement, that it is necessary for a fully realised human society. But there are countries like Russia which have never been liberal, & in which a liberal culture has never seriously taken root as it has in the Anglosphere, so I wonder how they could begin to have shite like the Glorious Revolution, or set the preconditions for any advance towards liberalism.

    As much as I think human rights should be universal, & despise the excuse-makers who want to deny Third World women & others the rights taken for granted here, I recognise that it is hard work convincing people of this.

    A country in which everyone thinks that Jews should be exterminated, or that gays are the spawn of Satan, or that ethnic minorities are inferior will not have a liberal society & it sure as fuck will not have a liberal government. The same goes for a state permanently at war.

    You can infer from this that the preconditions for liberalism must be in place before liberalism can exist, which is why I’m sceptical about military interventions in countries like Iraq. But I think this is something with a much wider significance than the extremes I identified.

    I am led to certain counterintuitive conclusions, such as a support for immigration restrictions, which I arrived at after a long & agonising thinking, but I decided that a country with a burgeoning population, many of whom are from profoundly illiberal backgrounds, will not be one in which the values I hold dear can thrive. This is just one of the many ways in which my views differ from those of libertarians: in short, a hands off policy may not be the best way to encourage liberalism.

    As so often, “tread carefully” is the watchword.

    I should add that this came into my head whilst at work this morning, & I had to wait until break to scribble it down on paper, as I don’t have any internet in the workplace. May be a bit garbled again🙂

  13. There are also “right-wing liberals” (no sniggering at the back) like David Davis (no sniggering at the back). It is an interesting phenomenon. They are not libertarians, they have a thinking & an internal logic of their own. I lean more to the left, but I understand them.

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