Thursday, 25 September 2008

'Rooted cosmopolitanism', Yahya Birt's contribution to Britishness debate

A Pint of Unionist Lite and Scottish Unionist have already picked up on an article by Yahya Birt, carried first in Emel Magazine, examining Britishness in the Muslim community. Far be it from this blog to pass up an opportunity to muse on British identity! Therefore I thought I would hop on the bandwagon and highlight some of the finer thoughts which this piece articulates.

In his commentary, O’Neill emphasises the increasing tendency, when considering the question of Britishness, to capitulate to nationalist assumptions and insist that respondents define their identity in exclusive terms. Thus we have polls (and the census) which ask whether someone feels Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English or British, but does not offer a combination of two or more categories.

Birt believes that Britain’s ethnic minority groups are, in general, comfortable with their British status. Taking the specific instance of Muslim Britons, he comments, “Polling usually confirms that Muslims are comfortable in being Muslim and British, antagonism only arising when slanted questioning asks respondents to choose one over the other”. This illustrates perfectly O’Neill’s argument, which is that goalposts should not be moved in order to slant the question and deprive people of a means by which to express this genuinely felt symbiosis of identity. His point holds for the spectrum of identities which can be held in common with Britishness.

Birt himself has an instinctive understanding of the nature and roots of British identity. He correctly asserts its ‘political, civic’ character which often “contrasted with one’s ethnic or cultural background”.

“It was a marriage of four nations – Welsh, Scots, English and Irish – that came into its own from the early eighteenth century.”


Common historical experiences, political institutions and economic interests formed the anvil upon which this marriage was forged into a state and a national identity. Although many of these initial aspects have changed beyond recognition, nevertheless Britishness has been permeable, mutable and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. We need to find a vocabulary by which to explain and defend the nature of that porous and changing identity and the Union which it represents.

In its own way, Birt is attempting to define this vocabulary. Examining current attempts to ascertain what Britishness consists in, he notes,

“A better approach, perhaps, is to commit to an open-ended conversation about how to define what we Britons have in common, as well as seeing in cultural diversity a source of wisdom, and an opportunity to expand the wellsprings of our collective imaginations.”


His central idea turns the euphemism, which Stalin employed to attack Jews, on its head. Hence we have ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’, “a principled looking out at the challenges and opportunities of the world from our home, while never losing a sense of who or where we are”.

This is the type of language which those who are committed to maintaining the United Kingdom and the flexible and diverse range of identities which it represents must seek to speak. It admits of the need to emphasise strong cords which bind us together and does not preclude the possibility that we need to define and solidify the common cultural ground which we share. Simultaneously it allows for the porous nature of Britishness and the diversity which it encompasses, and identifies that diversity as strength rather than weakness.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting comment Chekov:

"Loyalty itself has different meanings in different parts of Britain. Asians in Scotland, particularly those born in Scotland, describe themselves as Scots and tend to be more loyal to Scotland than Britain. The bulk of the Muslims in Scotland now support the SNP and back the demand for an independent Scotland. Asians in Wales also describe themselves as Welsh Asians and appear comfortable with their Welsh identity. In contrast, Asians in England tend to describe themselves as British Asians; and see Englishness as an exclusive identity that is closed to them. Their local loyalty belongs to Britain as a whole and many regard the demands of their Scottish Asian brothers and sisters across the border for an independent Scotland as treason."

http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2008/09/british-asians-britain-india

Scottish Unionist said...

FYI, your link to me is broken.

Anyway, I've been digging a little into this "rooted cosmopolitanism" concept. The origin appears to be Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, specifically his 2005 book "The Ethics of Identity". Here's an interesting review, which briefly discusses the term itself:

"The term seems oxymoronic: to have roots is to be embedded in a specific history, nation or people; to be a cosmopolitan is to declare oneself a citizen of the world. For Appiah, however, these two are inseparable. Local histories, he reminds us, have themselves been shaped by the movements of peoples and their communal practices (let's not call them cultures) as old as human history itself. And -- the point has special salience after 9/11 -- one can pledge allegiance to one's country and still conceive of oneself in terms of global identities or universal values."

However, the fact remains that this is a high-level concept, and that may be its Achilles' heel. As the review notes:

"Appiah's ideal of rooted or partial cosmopolitanism is undeniably attractive, but its viability remains questionable. Whether the multiple demands of the rooted cosmopolitan can be so smoothly negotiated by those of us lacking Appiah's gifts is debatable."

Nonetheless, another useful strand of the multi-identity debate, however lacking in mainstream applicability it may be.

Chekov said...

Interesting SU. I've fixed the link. Although I take your point about the specific concept 'rooted cosmopolitanism', nevertheless I think the article is skirting around the type of concepts we as unionists need to be thinking seriously about.