“It was Enoch’s fervent wish that I might never be born”
I have only just caught up with Sunder Katwala’s Ralph Miliband Memorial Lecture, delivered at the LSE on 3 December. Better late than never: it’s a lovely piece of writing. The section on his own life story as an example of the modern British identity is particularly affecting.
Katwala’s father, who had been born British, in India, before becoming Indian on independence at the age of three or four, arrived in the UK two weeks after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968. His mother, from Cork, was in some ways less British, but didn’t need a passport to come to the UK:
If you happened to be British-born, and the child of migrants to Britain, it would be quite hard not to take Enoch’s infamous speech at least a little personally. It was a speech about my national identity, its difficulty, in all probability its impossibility, and the devastating social consequences which would follow from that.
Or, as he put it, “Sometimes people point to the increasing proportion of immigrant offspring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate solution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law, he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact, he is a West Indian or an Asian still. He will by the very nature of things have lost one country without gaining another, lost one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded – to the benefit of nobody – in reproducing ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’ the haunting tragedy of the United States”.
Hence, it was Enoch’s fervent wish that I might never be born. He feared that would be one more stick on the funeral pyre of British identity.
Yet 1968 was not the only time that Enoch and my Dad’s paths had not quite crossed. Enoch himself had also been in India when my Dad was born in 1944. While he was there, he penned perhaps the most intriguing sentence ever conjured up by the complex contradictions of his great yet deeply troubled mind. What Enoch wrote to his parents was this: “I felt as Indian as I did British.”
I had never felt that myself, but then I’d never spent nearly so long in India as Powell did. He only ever wanted to be Viceroy of India. He never quite recovered from what his biographer called the ‘spiritual amputation’ of Indian independence.
Katwala’s definitions of Britishness, whether it is worrying about “whether Kevin Keegan could get fit in time for the World Cup” or “the civic identity of a multi-national state”, are true and liberal. He ends by, surprisingly, berating Nick Clegg for saying that UKIP’s argument for pulling out of the European Union would be “a betrayal of the national interest and an unpatriotic approach”:
Britishness, catch-up, scottish referendum
It is perfectly in order for Nick Clegg to argue that UKIP’s views would damage the national interest. But the opposing views about this are sincerely held. The accusation of being unpatriotic goes further: it is an accusation of bad faith. Those who disagreed with the Daily Mail over Ralph Miliband being “the man who hated Britain” should disagree with Nick Clegg’s attack on of Nigel Farage’s patriotism too. We all have to accept that national identity is shared with those with whom we might disagree profoundly about political choices, and what is in our best national interests.
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