Thursday 14 July 2011

A Peculiar Kind Of Britishness

Last week at a meeting I attended in Barking, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Trevor Philips was asked what he thought of the concept of ‘Britishness’ and his reply was interesting: according to my notes he said:

“We need to worry about Britishness less. It is less about institutions and more about manners, the way we treat each other. We ought not to get caught up in talk about ‘British Days’ and focus on this instead”.

For those who don’t recognise it, the reference to ‘British Days’ relates to a 2006 Fabian Society speech by this week’s unlikely anti-Murdoch crusader, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who proposed that Remembrance Sunday should become a national day of patriotism. The idea was still staggering along in 2008, when it was condemned by Scottish nationalists as “desperate, motivated by self interest rather than national interest.”

For once (and it doesn't happen often), I agree with Philips – the notion of ‘Britishness’ is so completely confused, particularly in a multi-ethnic borough like Newham, that it has almost no real meaning, while the way we treat each other most certainly does. But Philips is wrong to suggest that we needn’t worry about it, for as I noted recently, Newham council’s Executive Member for Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour, Cllr Unmesh Desai, has taken to the pages of a national newspaper to extol the virtues of “building Britishness” and the development of “common values around a common agenda”. In Newham, it seems that some form of 'Britishness' is now council policy.

So what might this mean in practice? In May we heard that Mayor Sir Robin Wales' has removed foreign language newspapers from the borough's libraries because he feels they discourage local people from learning and speaking English. There are many who profoundly disagree, arguing that the decision is “illiterate and ignorant” and that bilingualism is an important skill “enabling cultural and commercial relations to operate well both within and between countries”.

A meeting on Tuesday of the campaign against the Mayor’s decision has revealed one particularly interesting fact, however: as well as community language newspapers and journals, the Mayor has chosen to cut English language publications serving Black and Asian communities, including The Asian Age, The Eastern Eye, The Voice, Ebony and Pride. However, both the Irish Times and Irish Independent have been spared.

Coming, as I do from a family that traces some of its roots to County Cork and having a keen interest in Irish politics and current affairs, I naturally have nothing against either of these papers. But what does it say when Newham’s libraries stock material aimed mainly at the borough’s 2500 White Irish people, 1% of the local population according to 2007 figures, but removes those serving the 84,500 (33.85%) Asian and 49,100 (19.67%) strong Black communities?

Trevor Philips last week was keen to promote the new Equalities Act 2010 and in particular the new ‘equality duty’, which is designed to place an obligation on public authorities “to demonstrate that they are making financial decisions in a fair, transparent and accountable way, considering the needs and the rights of different members of their community.”

Newham council claims it has carried out an Equality Impact Assessment but now it has to be prepared to actually prove that it has made decisions based on evidence and that its decision-making process is transparent.

Having scrapped all the newspapers that happened to be written and published by Black and Asian communities and kept the ones that aren't, apparently on nothing more than the whim of the Great Helmsman himself, how on earth does the council expect to be able to offer, if required to, that kind of convincing proof to the EHRC?

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