I live in a suburb of Bradford; this elicits sympathy from some people. The condolences are totally unnecessary: I happen to like it here. Go to the centre of town, and while there is a hole where a shopping mall is due to be built (a project I might add that has been on the boil for 8 years due to the fecklessness of the council and the developer), and you’ll find some 19th century gems. The town hall, with its Gothic clock tower, and St. George’s Hall may be some of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in Britain. The city doesn’t lack culture either: as a Valentine’s Day treat, my other half arranged for us to attend a concert at St. George’s Hall. The Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra wowed us with performances of the works of Khachaturian, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky; behind them was the seal of the city and its motto, “Labor omnia vincit” – hard work conquers all. I would add that far from being the steaming caldron of racial hatred as some would have you believe, this area was unaffected by the riots that raged through much of Britain in summer 2011.
So it was with some trepidation that I saw that my city was going take centre stage in a new Channel 4 documentary, entitled “Make Bradford British”. I thought this sounded almost like a campaign slogan for the fascist British National Party; I recalled, unhappily, how Gordon Brown’s slogan “British Jobs for British Workers” had been twisted to such an end. We have two BNP councillors in city government who probably loved the title. Was the programme going to be some sort of spectacle which showed how divided the city was, rather than present a balanced and nuanced picture?
To my surprise, the first episode turned out to be a remix of the Big Brother format: 8 people from various parts of the city and from disparate backgrounds were made to live together in one house. They got a glimpse into each other’s habits and lifestyle and attended to mundane matters such as shopping and making tea. Occasionally, they got to go out on excursions, including one to an English country house, which was presumably intended to make the participants question how inclusive Britain actually is.
Some of the “housemates” were instantly likeable: as a result of my New York / American background, Rashid the former rugby player reminded me of the kind of comics who play to audiences in Catskills resorts. He has the “bounce” and chirpy nature required for the role. The retired policeman, Jens, was almost a cliche: he isn’t racist, I think, but doesn’t shy away from using racist humour. Maura, a lady well struck in years, was a picture of middle class propriety. However, the housemate who caught my attention most was Sabbiyah, a young Muslim woman. What I found most touching was not only the sincerity of her faith, but the fact that she genuinely wanted to be seen as British: her desire to be considered part of her country was palpable. However, not only did she not feel accepted (the trailers for the second episode showed her in tears about this), she, like all the other housemates had failed a British citizenship test. This test was deployed at the beginning of the programme to indicate how un-British nearly every British person was: the exam asked questions such as “What is Hogmanay?” (It’s the Scottish word for New Years Eve). The test had about a 90% failure rate.
I thought the exam was ridiculous and so did the participants. However, there seemed to be genuine confusion whenever anyone attempted to answer the questions, “What does it mean to be British? How does one become British?” As someone who came to live in this country over 20 years ago, I have my own particular answers. I’ve posed them to British colleagues and they seem to agree with my analysis: being British has nothing to do what you may or may not know about Hogmanay, it comes from a certain set of attitudes which in my experience unite the Bradford grocer and the West Sussex country gentleman.
If I were put in charge of immigration (admittedly a remote prospect), the first thing I’d want to know from a prospective British citizen is, do you actually believe anything a politician says? If the answer is no, or not much, then that’s British.
The second question would be: how often do you laugh at people in authority? The answer I’m looking for is once or twice a week at a minimum.
I’d then ask, your neighbour is of a different ethnicity and / or religion than you. What do you do? The correct reply is “Nothing, so long as we live in peace” or “Nothing, so long as the bothering is limited to the occasional leaflet and knock on the door on Saturday morning”.
These questions are important because they identify the foundations of liberty in an individual’s conscience. If you don’t believe authority figures, you’re more likely to make decisions for yourself, think for yourself and much more unlikely to follow anyone over the edge of a cliff. Fascism didn’t work here for that reason. Neither did Communism. People simply didn’t believe the overblown rhetoric, nor did they think that some ideology was going to make the world perfect: the British don’t believe in perfection, at best, they believe in better. They lead individual, rather than collective lives on a national scale; they will only coalesce in a coherent manner if there is an overwhelming existential threat, such as Nazi Germany.
All signs are that the Bradfordians on the programme are like this: they were quarrelsome, individualistic and didn’t appeal to authority (apart from God) for salvation. Rather, they’re grumpy neighbours trying to find a way to get along and then settling down for a spot of dinner, which in the housemates’ case turned out to be a takeaway curry. What could be more British than that?
No doubt, some would want to refer to Britain’s Anglo-Saxon heritage in trying to define “Britishness”. My reply is that Britain is so multicultural that it no longer belongs to one ethnicity. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, it’s been true for thousands of years. The Celts were subdued by the Romans who were subuded by the Angles and Saxons who were then invaded by the Normans. There were waves of immigration from Europe: Jews fled persecution, Huguenots (French Protestants) escaped state repression. The arrival of people from the Carribean, India, Pakistan and Eastern Europe are merely the latest chapter in a long running story: these influxes represent more continuity than change. It would be to the country’s detriment if it suddenly decided to break with this, as the nation survives by having its culture continually refreshed by new influences. Those who want to set the nation’s culture in aspic or turn back the clock don’t seem to realise that theirs is a recipe for national suicide: Britain’s culture is known throughout the world because it is a world culture.
There are unpleasant and racist people in every community; there is absolutely no way to prevent this, and nor should we wish to, as to do so would represent an unwelcome intrusion into freedom of conscience. We can associate consequences with behaviour, however, which is at the heart of self-responsibility. We can also, for lack of a better term, “celebrate diversity” without losing sight of the common attitudes which bind us.
Nearly every day, I drive down a narrow street called the Upper Rushton Road. In order to prevent boy racers from speeding down the thoroughfare, there are a number of “pinch points” at which only one car can pass. It’s a great example of spontaneous order in action: generally speaking, drivers yield to each other in such a way as traffic flows. Upper Rushton Road is largely Muslim area. Yesterday, I stopped at one of the pinch points to let a mother wearing a brilliant aquamarine headscarf and her children cross. Further down the road, a Muslim man in a skull cap, driving a polished navy blue Volkswagen Golf, yielded to let me pass. I raised my hand, he raised his in reply. And so it went until I turned off on to Gain Lane. No doubt if I could have chatted to the mother in the aquamarine headscarf or the driver of the Golf, we would have found much to disagree on. But nevertheless, even briefly, we managed to rub along peacefully in the city that we share. Yes, there are problems and they shouldn’t be ignored: for example, Upper Rushton Road is in the BD3 postcode, a deprived area, and more could be done to tackle that. There are people who feel alienated and threatened: I doubt programmes like “Make Bradford British” will help much. Nevertheless, Bradford isn’t the basket case it’s been made out to be. Most of the people who reside there are working, raising families and doing their best to live peacefully; in essence, by their cumulative efforts, they’re making Bradford British. Long may it remain so.