The EU Referendum reveals identity fault lines within Britain and beyond

The truth is, that nation state models have failed to unite citizens every bit as much as the European model – but no one will admit it, writes Dr Abdul Wahid.

“The problem is that these f****** people are rubbish in their own country and they come over here; they bring nothing except problems; they have no interest in learning about us or our ways; they just live among their own.” This is not a quote about immigrants in Britain, but an angry Spaniard telling a Times reporter what he thinks about the 300,000 Britons living in the Costa del Sol. It is not only in Britain that newcomers are resented for holding on to their heritage and culture.” [Herman Ouseley, The Guardian, 2004]

The great European debate isn’t just about migration. Dave says it’s about the economy. Team Boris says it’s about sovereignty. Both teams say it’s about national security. Everyone else can see it’s about internal party politics.

But the EU referendum does touch on the question of identity. Twenty years ago, some called themselves proud Europeans. Now far fewer would. But what would they call themselves instead? Increasing numbers prefer ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’ to ‘British’. Indeed, a remarkably large number of Scots actually wanted to leave the United Kingdom, only narrowly losing a referendum in 2014.

Modern Britain is rife with debates on identity – and despite most of the negative press, most have nothing to do with Muslims.

In England, the north-south divide is as wide as ever – the north feeling neglected, having missed out on most of the fruits of economic recovery.

Union jack: hugely symbolic.But it’s not all about geography or nationality.

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Britain hasn’t harmonized people of different races. Some who were born in the UK are still seen as ‘BAME’ – as evidenced by the complaints black actors make about roles for them in British film and television – or black musicians about being sidelined when it comes to music awards.

It is ironic that when London made its bid to host the 2012-Olympic games it did so, flying the flag of multiculturalism. It was a false flag. The state had abandoned that doctrine almost a decade before in a cross-party consensus.

Anyone who had bothered to examine the facts would have seen that only months before the games, riots broke out after the shooting of an unarmed black man in North London. The perceived indifference of the authorities over the killing of Mark Duggan ignited a sense of outrage in London that rapidly transformed in to a free-for-all across the UK, where people rioted and looted in what seemed to be a rejection of the establishment. It is widely believed within minority and ethnic communities that ‘institutional racism’ still exists, with overt racism still affecting some parts of the police force.

The abandonment of multiculturalism all those years ago, in favour of a more aggressive European style of assimilation policy, is being played out today through Ofsted inspections, where faith schools face a secular liberal inquisition about matters where their faith departs from the criteria they are being policed on.

Which highlights that values, like age, are another fault line. Younger socially liberal city-dwellers don’t always share the same values as older socially conservative people living outside of cities.

This isn’t unique to Britain

Many of these fault lines exist elsewhere in the World. Indeed, just as some people in white Anglo-Saxon people in Britain oppose immigration from white Europeans from Poland and Hungary, some people in Spain (quoted earlier in the Ouseley article) complain about other Europeans refusing to integrate. Spain is also home to separatists in the Basque and Catalan regions, who think of themselves as Basque or Catalan before they are Spanish.

Flags_of_European_UnionIn France, Germany and Italy the immigration there has similar discussions about immigrants to those in Britain. Indeed, all over Europe – particularly in the east – racial tensions are on the increase, not least of all because of economic problems and the refugee crisis.

And it is not merely Europe that is discussing identity, citizenship and belonging. Despite the presence of a black President in the White House, racial tensions reignited in the USA after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 – and again in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. America is now a country where a presidential candidate can abuse Muslims and Mexicans and is still winning support.


What does this tell us?

All the aforementioned complexities tell us that despite what many of the politicians in the West tell us, the nation state has not been able to harmonise their citizens, binding them in as cohesive a way as they would like to have done. Despite centuries of effort – sometimes coercive – the nation state has failed to become the melting pot it was once hoped to be.

Why do these fault lines exist?

There are several reasons that can be suggested:

  1. Colonised, not harmonised – The founding of the UK was for not really for mutual benefit. Wales, Ireland and Scotland were colonised by England. The net flow of resources went back to England. All of this perpetuates a sense of conquest and injustice that can be seen borne out in the debates about devolution and independence in Scotland and Wales.
  1. Divergent values – There isn’t a shared conviction in secular beliefs. Those with a religious faith increasingly feel a conflict between their personal religious values and the imposition of society’s increasingly dominant liberal values. This has been an on-going trend in Britain for over 15-years, leading to the closure of Catholic adoption agencies and court cases that have forced owners of guest houses (against their own principles) to let rooms to homosexual couples.
  1. An unequal share in society – Whilst some in Britain, Europe and America are evangelical about the free market, others feel they have had to pick up the pieces after the market crashed, whilst never having shared in the riches before the crash – and are increasingly resentful of the excesses of the free-market. Millions are contemptuous of bankers, whilst only a few voiced their criticisms in the various ‘Occupy’ protests.
  1. Race and tribe – Governments try to compensate for these various fault lines by trying to assert a national identity. But in Europe this is much harder as national identities align much closer to race than in the USA, which leads to minorities and ethnic groups feeling estranged. The contradictions just seem to keep on coming. Sporting festivals, national holidays, anniversaries of war or coronation, royal births and weddings –are all exploited by governments to paper over the cracks in society.
  1. Supranational identities – Within Europe there was until recently a significant proportion of people who described themselves as ‘European’ more than anything else. This trend has diminished after the economic crisis hit in 2008 – leading to a fast lane and slow lane in Europe. After this, nationalism reared its ugly head, and the number of people identifying themselves as ‘European’ seems to have diminished.


All of this is relevant because Muslims are constantly berated for not ‘fitting in’ enough, or not adopting ‘British’ values.

But if Britain or other nation state constructs are riddled with fault lines and questions about identity, why then talk about ‘integrating’ into a failed model.

The issue of how people get along together is important. That doesn’t rely on a shared identity, but how you behave towards others.

The Muslim community as well as others would do well to raise their horizons beyond that.

Dr. Abdul Wahid is a commentator on Islam, current affairs and identity. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy, New Civilisation and Prospect magazine. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.


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