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The Black English

By Roifield Brown
26th January 2012

What does X factor, the SNP and this summer’s riots have in common? It’s that they force the English to look at themselves and to point to a new English identity that is not in any part British. Whatever the causes for the lawlessness that swept Birmingham, London, Manchester and a clutch of other cities in the summer, these events did not happen in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, and like a cast of singers on X Factor its participants were nether wholly black or white.

Watching the X Factor reveals an England that is white, black and brown, an England that is very different from it’s Celtic cousins. Whether it is Misha B, JLS or half the members of Little Mix, the ethnic minorities it depicts always speak with English accents, they are Brummies, Cockneys and Scousers. Yes there are a few non-white famous Brits like Hardeep Singh Koli and Shirley Bassey but they are the exceptions to the rule, Britons with black or brown skins are nearly always English.

The 2001 UK census bears out the fact that 97% of the non-whites in Britain live in England, so calling them Black British, or British Asian is wrong. The non-whites in the British Isles are an English phenomena. England since 1948 has radically changed on the ground and racially, is markedly different from any other constituent part of the UK, not just in terms of its size but its economic and cultural power. The fastest growing ethnic group category in England in 2011 is that encompassing mixed race individuals.

If Scottish devolution ends with independence, whether the English like it or not the often confusing notion of where British and English identity starts and finishes will be consigned to history. This forging of a new English identity has already been noted by people across the political spectrum from The English Defence League on the right to Billy Bragg on the left. The EDL incorporates a Jewish and a Sikh division and now many English socialists argue that patriotism is not just the preserve of the old right wing.

From the days of the Angles and Saxons, the English have a been a polyglot people, an alliance. Athelstan the first King of the English, ruled over a nation divided between the English and more recent immigrants, who had come initially to take English wealth, jobs and women but who did not go home, the Vikings. Over the next 1100 years, waves of immigration into the British Isles has nearly always been an English affair. The Normans came to rule over the English, the Huguenots came to London, Jews fleeing from persecution in Eastern Europe came to the East End and when the British Empire called for workers to help with the reconstruction of Britain after World War II, they for the most part settled in London, Luton, Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford, Leicester, Lancashire mill towns and Liverpool.

What has always marked the English out has been this shifting sense of who they are. The Scots, Welsh and Irish have always been able to point to the fact, that there were here first. For the English, it was never really a question of blood, of being pure, because they never have been. What David Starkey missed in his ”the whites have become black” theory, espoused in a recent Newsnight discussion on the riots, was the historic inventiveness of the English to assimilate cultures that it has come into contact with and to make them English.

Take fried and battered fish from the Jewish immigrants in the 19th century that in a generation became the traditional English dish of fish and chips. The same can be said of chicken tikka massala, or the new mutated Jamaican-Cockney dialect of some inner city English Londoners. What it is to be English is a moving goal post unlike say Ulster Protestantism.

Of course to say that this constant rewriting of English identity has been a seamless process without hiccups, bloodshed and violent reaction would be an understatement but it is the defining characteristic of the last thousand years, more powerful than Empire, the industrial Revolution or the Reformation.

The irony could well be that as England retreats from a multinational state it becomes Europe’s first multi-ethnic state that embraces at its heart the notion of identity based on an abstract ideal that is inclusive not exclusive. Multi-racial Britain never really existed, it was always a multi-racial, multi-ethnic England, and has been a defining feature of this green and pleasant land.

Originally published in the Huffington Post

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