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.