“It was Enoch’s fervent wish that I might never be born”

John Rentoul

Kevin Keegan 300x208 It was Enoch’s fervent wish that I might never be bornI 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”:

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.

Katwala doesn’t make a song and dance about the implication for Scotland’s decision this year, but I think it is inescapable, and similar to the arguments made by Chris Deerin and Alex Massie.

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  • Ciaron Goggins

    The Broxted Award for Putting your foot in it goes to (Ta Dah) Mr Rentoul. Now then John, 50,000 dead in WW1, Irish. Gawd knows how many in WW2 (De Valera busy signing Book of condolence for Hitler) You get the picture. What Powell alluded to was skin colour. Anyone may get a UK passport. How do they “buy into” the family tree of a nation? You cannot be Irish John, no ancestors at Clontarf. This is something that may hit Scotland. Angus McGregor from Texas sounds more Scots than Hardip Singh from Alloa.

  • George Potter

    Skin colour eh? So where does that leave those blasted Huguenots and Flemmish weavers whose ancestors never fought in 1066?

    The fact is that within two or three of generations any group of immigrants always assimilate into Britain at the same time as Britain adjusts to them. Britishness (and Welshness, and Englishness and Scottishness) is a cultural identity and anyone brought up in the UK can have it.

    Skin colour has nothing at all to do with your cultural identity and if you think otherwise then you’re one of the bigots that is, thankfully, being left behind by history in this country.

  • pobinr

    “It was Enoch’s fervent wish that I might never be born”
    Oh really ?

  • greggf

    What a load of old PC rubbish George (worthy of EU-think)!
    Have you never met a Celt, Angle, Saxon, Scots, Pict, Norman etc., in the UK….?
    Perhaps you don’t believe they have, or should have, a separate cultural identity – which would be a mark of bigotry!

  • George Potter

    Well I’ve got Celtic (Welsh) ancestry on my mothers side, the original family surname was Norman, my family also came from Yorkshire originally and so I’m probably part Viking, and there’s undoubtedly a lot of Anglo-Saxon in me as well. Add to that that we apparently have French nobles somewhere back in my blood from the time of the French Revolution, and that I have Mediterranean hair, then ethnically I’m probably a massive mix of Celtic, Angle, Saxon, Viking, Norman, French and Roman.

    However, my cultural identity is English and I am an Englishman born to English parents.

    I absolutely think that people have a right to their own cultural identity but it’s only bigots like you who think that cultural identity must be the same thing as ethnic origin.

  • George Potter

    And I’m curious what you’d think of a former line manager of mine who had English parents, was born in England but moved to Wales when he was a baby, went to school in Wales, lived there until he was an adult, grew up fluent in Welsh as well as English, has a Welsh accent and considers himself to be Welsh?

    What’s his culture then? Welsh or English?

  • greggf

    My, my, two responses together almost…. and so defensive!

    Where do I say “that cultural identity must be the same thing as ethnic origin”?

  • George Potter

    You asked a question, I answered.

    And what you have said already makes it abundantly clear that you think that ethnicity is bound up with culture when they are overlapping but completely different in reality.

  • Pacificweather

    Ethnicity can be bound up with culture (Hasidic Jews for example) or a culture can be adopted or created (the USA being a prime example). Few second generation Asians born in England describe themselves as English even though many are culturally English. They will say they are British. If you say to them they are not Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish so they must be English you will seldom get the point acknowledged. This is because they have an attachment to the culture of their ethnicity.

    Some young black Londoners rejected the English culture of their 3rd or 4th generation parents to create a fake West Indian culture and language to align themselves culturally to their ethnicity.

    You cannot chose your ethnicity but you can chose your culture if you are brave enough. Parental or peer pressure can ensure that culture is bound to ethnicity but also a wish to be proud of your ethnicity.

  • Ciaron Goggins

    You would need a DNA test sonny. Surnames prove nothing.

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