Citizenship not emotive but must be bedrock of national identity

National identity has always been, and always will be, a political project

Anglo-Saxon is a hyphenated word, reflecting the fact that the Kingdom of England emerged out of a melting pot of migrants (Saxons, Angles and Jutes) and Celtic Britons. To be English is to be mixed. The Empire makes that even truer of British identity.

National identity has always been, and always will be, a political project. We must now demand that the project be democratised. We all must have a say in what it means to be a patriot. Indeed, wherever we claim citizenship, it is imperative that our voice be heard in our nation’s story.

The first step towards being heard is to dispel the myth that national identity is too difficult to pin down in a diverse society. This is a lie that maintains the status quo, built on the assumption that homogeneity is the only way to achieve any sense of unity. Until I articulated #BothNotHalf, it was an idea I bought into, myself. National identity is both definable and diverse. We should not think of it as a personal identity, but as a shared, living identity to which we all can contribute. It is that which emerges from the interaction of citizens' civic, cultural and ethnic identities, in the form of shared traditions, culture and language. Ethnic identities are the most closed: You can’t decide to join an ethnic group, though mixed relationships and children certainly blur the boundaries. Cultural identities are more open and malleable: Languages can be learnt and traditions can be adopted or introduced. Civic identity is open to all citizens. As such, citizenship must be the bedrock of national identity.

I was born a British citizen; my dad became a British citizen. A wealthy American who has made the UK their home can acquire British citizenship, as can a Syrian refugee (though this is not to say that it is equally easy for both to do so). Granted, civic identity alone is not emotive enough to forge a deep sense of unity and belonging, but it must be the foundation from which we build. Relatively homogenous European nations began to emerge at a time when long distance travel was limited and the printing press was displacing regional differences in favour of national similarities. In our modern, highly connected, globalised world it is obvious that national identity must evolve to be defined by diversity and “exist alongside various subnational identities”.

That is not a problematic idea. There is a large body of sociological and psychological literature on the concept of multiple identities in individuals: We all have and live many identities, including our sexual, professional, linguistic, cultural, religious, ethnic and physical identities. And we constantly arrange and rearrange these according to the contexts and the circumstances.

I’m a son, a brother, an actor, a writer, an Englishman, a Brit, a European, a child of an immigrant, a Sikh, a human, a cishet man, a Punjabi. Just as I described myself as “both not half”, I am all of these identities, not a collection of fractions. As are we all. Identity is malleable and multiple for everyone.

I suspect this is where so much confusion around national identity comes from. How it becomes The Great Undefinable. When you think of national identity as a uniform you either reject or wear at all times, it's impossible to find consensus… [But] national identity is not a zero-sum game. Things that were once quintessential may fade into obscurity, just as new customs have the potential to become typical.

Fish and chips, a British staple, was a culinary combination pioneered by Joseph Malin, an Eastern European Ashkenazi Jew who set up shop in London’s East End around 1860. Bangladeshi migrant restaurateurs created chicken tikka masala, celebrated in 2001 by the then foreign secretary Robin Cook as “a true British national dish”. Both were introduced by immigrants and one didn’t replace the other. In fact, they regularly sit side by side on pub menus. Just like our personal identities, national identities have the capacity for multiplicity, growth and change. Such is the nature of a process. But our ruling elite, so used to being able to wield patriotism to protect their privileged position, don’t want you to engage in the process. In fact, they’d rather destroy the very foundations of our nationhood: Citizenship.

Excerpted from Both Not Half: A Radical New Approach to Mixed-Heritage Identity by Jassa Ahluwalia (Blink Publishing, Bonnier Books UK, INR 499, Paperback)

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