Skip to content

Global Britons Forum, London

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

September 15, 2006

Global Britons Forum – London
27th of March, 2003

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – Senior Researcher at The Foreign Policy Centre and directs The Centre’s Global Britons Programme
Beverley Hughes MP – Minister of State for Citizenship, Immigration and Community Cohesion.
Philip Dodd -Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and author of ‘The Battle over Britain’
Mike Phillips – Author of ‘London Crossings: a biography of Black Britain’ and co-author of ‘Windrush: the Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain’


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (chair): London is the city that most Europeans, if not the whole world, talks about as today’s most successful post-imperial, post-colonial city. That is something we should be proud of. I don’t want to oversell us as the “best of this” or “best of that” but London has got this fabled reputation now.

This is because London has developed a “glocal” identity – an identity that is at once global and local. We have noticed this in many other British cities through the research we’ve done in the last fifteen months a part of our road show over various parts of the country. What’s being said is that the most meaningful relationship that is emerging is this “glocal” relationship. Especially younger people say: “I’m a Brummie and I’m a European” or “I’m a Brummie and a World Citizen” and the in between Britishness seems to be hardly mentioned. I feel quite oppressed by the emergence of a “glocal” identification because I feel the British identity is a very important identity.

The arts, popular culture and sports are completely involved now in the remaking of this country and London. The circular export/ import of ideas of who we are is really very exciting. Let’s take The Kumars as an example – one of the most successful programmes on television. It started off as a funny programme portraying the kind of sentiments you find in every Asian family – the love of money, the spoiling of the eldest son, etc. It has is a programme that celebrates what we really want to be and has been sold to America where they are going to have an identical programme but using a Mexican family.

This is an example of the circles upon circles of trade and movement. Before for the BBC planners, The Kumars would just have been multicultural programming. It’s not like that anymore.

Islam and British identity

We talk a lot about how terrorism is exported and imported back into Europe. This is partly true. But it’s not just Islamic terrorists. There are Hindu fundamentalists, for example. I go into some Hindu temples and hear things that absolutely turn my blood cold. We need to talk about these other trades which take place in an internationalist context.

When I talk to the most extreme Muslims who claim to hate everything about this country, my question at the end is always: ‘so why don’t you go back Saudi Arabia, or Iran?’ And every one of them, including those who deeply loath the West, say ‘Oh no! I couldn’t do that! I couldn’t speak to you like this if I lived in Iran or Pakistan.’ Therefore, the trade is not just of terrorism. It seems to me – even the most detached people have absorbed certain principles, which they know they cannot live without. I think we don’t appreciate enough this asset- that amongst even the most extreme fanatics, democracy and freedom of expression of a certain sort, is part of their bloodstream.

Another interesting finding of the Global Britons program has been the staggering conservatism amongst young educated women in universities, not found 3-4 years ago. It is extraordinary how clever woman have decided to wear the hijab and to strictly abide by every single hadith, every single Sunna from the Koran. I have asked these women if they would be happy if their husband took a second wife. “Yes” they said. This change has occurred because women in Pakistan have become very powerful women in terms of ideology. They are now exporting to this country a new kind Islam, not that different from what the Taliban were doing; but it is coming from very educated women who are made to believe that unless they follow every single word of the Koran, they are lost. I am not making any judgments – I would never do that. But it is important for us to understand this trend and the difficulties these women may be confronting in the UK. We need to explore what needs to be done to make these women feel part of this country.

The implications of devolution

The Welsh and the Scots do not want to be British. The main problem of this is that I think this is terribly dangerous for quite a lot of Black and Asian British. Just when the imperial model had been renegade and we started feeling comfortable saying we are British, they pulled the carpet under our feet and made this into a four nation country. I must say that the English historically have been the most open, promiscuous group in Europe (at least when it comes with sex and food). Maybe they won’t do what the other three so-called nations have done. I recently had a debate with Tom Nair about devolution. I argued that even the language of devolution has relegated Black and Asia people to a lower rank. I find that objectionable. In the remaking of this new Britain, it is very important for people to be comfortable about their glocal identities and yet be under this British umbrella – which, I think, is the least excluding of the umbrellas we have.

Beverly Hughes MP: This morning, some of my colleagues from the Home Office’s Community Cohesion Unit and I are exploring how we can learn from the work the Foreign Policy Centre has been doing around Global Britons. We had a very interesting discussion yesterday that expanded my thinking. Following this discussion, I arrived at three questions: why?, what? and how?.

Why are we interested in exploring notions of Britishness and its related concepts? What actually is it we want to do? How do we define where we want to get to? Finally, how do we go about doing it? I think these three questions are still not formulated, but this event is part of the process of exploring them further.

In terms of why, I come into this as a Minister with responsibilities in community cohesion, citizenship, and immigration. We have a hugely diverse ethnic society in the UK and particularly in London. This has been an attribute of British society that we have been acclaimed for. When we look at changes in the global patterns of migration, we see that immigration in the UK will continue to increase. We also have to note that in some places outside of London relationships between different communities are not as strong, not as solid as they should be. Indeed, we saw very real instances of civil disorder about a couple of years ago in many of our towns and cities. To our shame, we did not really know just how segregated these communities were in terms of most aspects of every day life. The lack of knowledge that these people had of others with whom they were living side by side is profoundly disturbing.

We also have the constitutional changes around devolution which also factor themselves into this issue and change the landscape in terms of how people in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland are beginning to define themselves in terms of those new reference points that they have on the constitutional maps. So I believe there are a number of issues, both positive issues and issues of concern of why it is a really critical that we address this topic.

Then we go on to the second question of – what are we talking about? We spent some time in the Home Office with people like Ted Cantle, who did some work after the disturbances and other people with an interest in this area, trying to find the right language to express this. In fact, there are a number of related concepts and we keep on sliding between them because it is slippery ground. For instance, are we talking about whether there is a core of shared values that people can ascribe to that helps us define and celebrate the commonality while, at the same time, leaving scope for celebrating and acknowledging real differences. If you start to think about where the boundary lies between shared values and different values tensions are created. All of this is related to the concept of citizenship. Are there a core of rights and responsibilities that as citizens of a country we should be ascribing to and how that identity fits into that? Is there a notion of modern Britishness – besides the historic notion Britishness?

I am quite a British person in terms of my ancestry, but I would not associate myself at all with many historic British traditions. So is there a notion of modern Britishness, not in terms of allegiances to institutions, but about allegiance to some principles and attributes? Is there an outward-looking internationalist Britishness that we can define for ourselves and create a degree of consensus around? Or is it the case that because of the dichotomy that Yasmin has identified between strong links with local identity and global identity somehow that sense of national identity falls through the middle? And how do we accommodate the fact that for most of us identity is not a unidimensional concept? We have identities as women, as parents, as family members, as members of our community. There are some strong regional identities in this country which can cut across the sense to which we can identify a national identity. In other words, do we know enough to start a process of discussion in which the sufficient shared understanding of that what exists to be able to move forward productively?

And then we move on to the how?

There is the question of the role of government. I feel strongly with my ministerial responsibilities that it is something I’ve got to pay great attention to. But, equally, I think the belief that government should bring solutions and answers to some of these important questions would be not only wrong, but also counterproductive. This requires a process of talking about these issues and moving forward. People engaged in this process have to own it. No one can impose an identity on him or her. You can ascribe them to something, but whether they accept it or not is up to them and whether that resonates with what they feel internally. So the role of government is a difficult one. But, I still believe we have to be an agent and try to address some of the social problems and community issues by trying to enable other people with other people to take this forward.

Dialogue is critically important. But these are extremely difficult issues. I know from the local authorities that I have been in contact with that it is quite a scary topic to start to address with community groups themselves. We heard yesterday an idea that resonated quite strongly with me. And that is the work being done with young people. These projects show how through an action (perhaps making a film) the bringing together of people through that action creating a shared objective can serve as a vehicle to some of these difficult issues to be addressed. We are here today to explore the ways in which the how can be addressed.

Philip Dodd – I have thought a lot about this notion of shared values promoted by the Community Cohesion Unit and I would like to make a few observations about that notion of shared values.

My first observation is that there is no necessary relationship between values and actions. For example, the government speaks of England being outward-looking and that is an extraordinary valuable shift. It is true that Britain is now much more like a port. If you want a metaphor for Britishness it is an import/export culture. That is good.

The real problem is that being outward-looking doesn’t seem to have any necessary consequences in policy. It may well be that we are outward looking people, but it doesn’t seem to help when we are talking about issues such as migration, or asylum policy. There seems to be a disjunction between story telling and policy. Of course, it is much easier for me to say that than if I were a Minister. But my argument is that we need to find a story that we can all buy into. It seems to me that philosophising is necessary but not sufficient precisely because it seems not to generate any particular policy. For example, we take the value of decency. Who is going to be in favour of indecency? But does decency help to explain our policy? We cannot generate any consequential policy based on this value. It is perfectly reasonable to say that it is because the British are decent that they are in Iraq, but it is equally easy to say that, because the British are decent, they should not be there. In other words, values don’t generate policy.

Another issue around shared values that I am worried about is that unless we are careful, they will become another kind of immemorial and unchanging set of issues to which we have to subscribe to. Shared values don’t seem to come out of any particular circumstance. They are transcendental. They move across history.

The family that I come from doesn’t speak in terms of shared values. My family would speak in terms of stories. Values are a very abstract term. Most individuals, families, and communities articulate notions of sharedness through stories – stories we tell to our children, and we tell each other. It is not a coincidence that the great religious texts are story-driven.

The question then is how a government body devoted to shared values can translate that issue into a language that can generate a kind of adhesion. The reason why stories are so powerful is that they are organised around people, past, present and future. Stories are compelling. There is a reason why children are told stories. It’s a way of giving them a past, present and a future. There are lots and lots of stories in Britain. For example, the community where I grew up in. Their future stories have been cancelled. It is currently in a state of suspension simply because the mining industry is in decline so the city has no future. There are other people’s stories that are discontinuous in other ways. If you see the statistics you see there is now in London, for example, a Central European population that was not here 20 years ago.

The problem with that is that as new groups come – as they should and must keep coming into Britain – those values are changed by those new groups. If they are not, then they become another kind of memorial, which we have to place allegiance to. The danger is that shared values can become ratified like some concrete monument. Because issues like migration/immigration must be resolved at the European level at the very least. This issue must be resolved at both a national and international level. We must be careful that our shared values do not construct yet another customs barrier between them and us.

Instead of referring to shared values, I would prefer to call them imagined values, because they need to be imagined. It is not something that can be drawn up together out of the present and the past. They have to be imagined collectively in our own way. They are to-be -shared values rather than already shared values. One of the things, I believe that the war on Iraq has done is to suggest how important and valuable difference have been here. If you compare how the arguments about the war have been articulated here, it is radically different from the way they have been articulated in the United States. In the UK, the differences regarding the war have been played out at every level – in the Parliament, in the media, in the streets, and in families. So one way of looking at this is that the one thing we should share is ‘sharability’ to argue over these differences. This really is at the moment as valuable as anything that we can share is.

In policy terms, we should think of generating and sustaining academic institutions, political institutions, media institutions where these differences can be staged. We will find different values played out on these stages. In some cases, there will be absolutely no compatibility. That is precisely why you need stages to discuss this. That is why culture is extremely important, because culture is about staging debates. Culture is not about providing you with answers; rather it is a way of staging a debate about what those values should be. We have to be careful about viewing shared values as something settled that we can all sign up to, because the real danger of shared values is that they will not cope with the extremely difficult moments such as the one we are now living. Shared values are easy in a good stable economy – with migration at “acceptable levels”. When the going is easy, shared values are easy. In policy terms, what we need is a plan for those moments in which the going gets tough.

I am delighted that the government is thinking through these things; but I would like to contribute to this exercise by saying that we need to find a language, an idiom that will speak to larger groups of people than the professionals. People are much happier with story-driven language that is much more compelling than value-laden vocabulary. We need a value system that will understand that it needs to be promiscuous, accommodating and open to dialogue with other value systems. It needs to be porous, profoundly and absolutely porous. It needs above all a set of political, educational, media, cultural institutions where differences are not something we are anxious about. We need a stage where children are taught history offering them a different model of world history. There is a very famous poem by Roy Stevens called ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird’. I have always liked that poem because we now look at the world as if there is no one way of looking at it but rather only and ever a plural way.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown –I would like to make a final comment regarding shared values. Perhaps, instead of shared values we should be talking about the principles behind this concept. These principles are the basic fundamentals of living in a free democracy. The problem today is that instead of thinking in terms of, for instance, child abuse or domestic violence, we think in cultural terms. We have become too worried about stepping on cultural autonomy that we over look the basic principle of human rights.

Group presentations:


We arrived to the conclusion that democracy is not an absolute. Everyone on the group agreed that if you see it as an absolute – as something that is tangible rather than a process – you end up with a concept that exists on paper only with no link to reality. Democracy is a system of government – a way of dealing with differences. It embodies certain values such as freedom of expression, equality, tolerance, and a right to vote. It is a way of having a conversation about shared objectives in a particular space. It is also something, which can be either good or bad. Part of the qualities of democracies is the ability of the political systems to realize the goals of the people who live in it. So we need to think about democracies in those terms. We need to judge if the democracy is working by seeing how well it reflects the community back to itself. We need to see whether it has successfully represented all parts of the community. It also depends on how people, who live in the community understand the rules of the game, stick to them and feel a sense of ownership’s. Democracies must deal with questions of difference in a way that it is accepted to all. People must accept that they may be a minority sometimes.

We also need to think of democracy in terms of rights and responsibilities – the rights we enjoy as citizens, but also the responsibilities these entail. Equally, we need to think of the rights and responsibilities of the system itself. One of those responsibilities is to strive to improve its quality.

Our group also talked about the gulf between theory and reality of democracy. One of the most interesting sections was when we were talking about the war. We had the majority of people opposed to war and a government decision to go to war. We discussed the fluctuations in the opinion polls before the war and now during the war.

Our democracy is representative so there is a chance to remove people from power. Although some people claim that democracy seems to be working, as Tony Blair said ‘This is democracy in action’; for many people around the world – particularly for a certain generation – it doesn’t seem to be working at all. Democracy has to feel to be working for everyone, if it is to be robust. Perhaps one of the solutions is for everybody to understand the system and to have a shared sense of how it works.


Our group decided that instead of talking about one allegiance, we should talk about multiple allegiances. We then came up with this short definition of allegiances as non-prescriptive, multiple, non-exclusive and contingent. We agreed that the national allegiance is pretty much defunct; now we have a much more global allegiance and a sense of global citizenship. And we talked about new kinds of allegiances such as sports allegiances.

One of the problems we found with the traditional notions of allegiance is the difficulty of interpreting them and filtering them through to people who do not articulate things the same way.

We then talked about symbols. We agreed that the existing symbols are not representative. New symbols that we came up with were curry and chips, a rainbow, a buttercup. In other words, something that would appeal to all people, representing the country yet not being coercive.


We had an active discussion of the importance of history. One element of it is the importance of focusing on what is happening now and not being blocked by history. History gives us explanations – and something to had on to. A narrative, a story, accompanies most of the facts of history. So what we are looking for today is a modern narrative that encompasses modern history. Today we don’t have a narrative that all people can buy into. We discussed the role of government in providing a narrative as an enabling and facilitating force promoting the narrative from developing. We also talked about the ignorance of history and hoped that in future generations this can change. We discussed how now there is a greater emphasis on history.


We focused on the balance between individual rights and group rights. We concluded that although the legal framework should place emphasis on individual rights, it should also retain the progress made regarding community rights. In other words, an Asian, Muslim woman should have access to her rights as an Asian, a Muslim and a woman; but should also have rights as an individual. There are many cases in which a woman has been violated and she does not know if she should claim her rights as an Asian, as a Muslim or as a woman. She should claim her rights as an individual; yet also as a member of the other communities. We then discussed the South African model in which they have adopted the notion of human dignity. In any given incident, the human dignity of all parties is taken into consideration before giving a verdict.

We then discussed how very few people would take on all aspects of any identity. Not all women think the same of any given issues. The same applies for Muslims, Asians, etc. There is a risk that if you force a particular identity, then diversity will be violated. Diversity exists not only between different ethnic groups, but also between different individuals. The key is to protect the dignity of all involved.

We also discussed how a single equality body could be advantageous. This body could deal with specific issues regarding race, religion and gender but could be more effective in dealing with generic issues with multiple dimensions.

We concluded by discussing the importance of education, because equality derives not just through legislation, but rather by truly understanding each other’s values.


We had a lot of conflict on our group. One member thought personal autonomy should not be on the list at all. But we came to the conclusion that, if we were to conceptualize it in a slippery and organic way, then it could work for all of us. The point is that it shouldn’t be policed, or culturally determined. Rather it should be a choice or a process. Some people in the group had a problem with the fact we raised the issue of whether people should have a choice to marry whomever they wanted. They thought we were leading the debate in terms of cultural lines, which we needed to avoid.

On the other hand, we agreed that personal autonomy is a point, a progression people can reach out to, an aspiration. But people need to know that point is their focus. So they need to be taught their rights.

We then spoke about the links between underachievement and countries where personal autonomy is not a personal goal. Therefore, we thought there was a need for a differential kind of interpretation – a need for positive discrimination. We might need to address those groups that feel discriminated against. To ground it in more concrete terms, we spoke about sexual education. And we agreed that it was important that all women living in Western societies be taught sexual education, but that it was equally important to analyze how best to teach it taking into consideration the sensitivities of the parents views and rights. We then discussed the role of the government in giving directives.


    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre