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Book review: Sunder Katwala’s How to be a Patriot: Why love of country can end our very British culture war

I don’t really know Sunder Katwala personally but I’ve been following him since his long-ago days at the Fabian Society, of which I’ve been a member all my adult life. On Twitter, Katwala is measured, patient and wise. Which makes him stand out like a sore thumb, frankly. His handle, @sundersays, is entirely fitting. He plays the same role as Bruce Springsteen in High Fidelity: in a given situation, ask yourself “what would Sunder say?”

I was therefore keen to read Katwala’s book, entitled How to Be a Patriot: Why love of country can end our very British culture war. And I am delighted to report it does not disappoint. It offers a useful and practical guide to those trying to grapple with questions of how to achieve and embed useful, progressive policies. If I can skip to the end of a moment, his final line is to ask “if we are starting from here, now, can we imagine again future that we want to share?” He doesn’t just mean “with people with whom we already agree”. It is a question he valiantly tries to answer throughout.

Katwala describes himself as a child of the NHS. For him, this means something more than entering the world through the medium of a NHS hospital. His father was a doctor recruited from India and his mother was a nurse who moved to the UK from Ireland. Born in Yorkshire, self-identifying as a scouser (his support for Everton will be well-known to his Twitter followers…) and spending his later childhood in Essex, he draws on his mixed identity throughout the book. This lends it a chatty and direct feel which helps to defuse slightly the potential acrimony arising from the issues he addresses.

“Enoch Powell’s most fervent wish had been that I should never be born”, Katwala observes. It is a useful counterpoint to the occasional attempts to rehabilitate Powell. But he goes on to ask: if you could, would you press a button undoing the British empire at a stroke? The price of doing so would be to sacrifice the existence of Katwala himself and so many others in order to “allow the white liberal conscience to emerge with cleaner historical hands”.

His point is that we must proceed from where we are now. And that “we” is an inclusive word which encompasses all of us.

Katwala’s take on the culture wars is well worth reading and digesting. “If your main idea for taking the heat out of the culture wars is for other people to agree with you more often,” he writes, “that may not get us very far.” He cautions against a strategy of avoidance but also suggests it would be unwise to jump into the trenches to debate every bit of online clickbait. Debate and free speech are important, he argues, but Katwala moves beyond platitudes to discuss specific examples. Having been the recipient of vile and personal campaigns of racist abuse, Katwala has plenty of experience to draw on. These aren’t abstract issues for him.

I think Katwala’s theme, though, is that we should not neglect the importance of building something positive. Culture wars are hard to ignore and sometimes defending red lines might be important. But the risk is that our energy is diverted from more constructive, long-term projects. To take his trench warfare analogy and run with it, we should also be looking towards a peaceful, shared future.

Katwala writes eloquently about the role of sport in establishing and shifting our collective identity. Given sport’s impressive overall record over time — which was hard fought of course — he proposes more of the same. Shared rituals, shared experience and national moments can do much to bind us together, as can shared institutions, public services and the welfare state. All are attacked from both right and left. Not only does this polarise debate in the short term but it potentially denies us the means of future healing. This is, I think, the rationale behind much of the work Katwala does through the charity he founded, British Future.

Many on the left feel uncomfortable with the idea of Englishness or indeed patriotism. This is partly because some on the right have shamelessly grabbed national symbols for themselves. Doing so only serves to undermine the shared identity and the union they purport to hold so dear, though, and the left will need to be more self-assertive to build on the achievements of the past.

Pointing to the success of civic nationalism in Scotland and Wales, Katwala argues that resistance to the idea of “Englishness” is a mistaken strategy which is doing more harm than good to its own cause. Jerusalem should be the English sporting anthem, he proposes. This may sound trivial, but perhaps less so when you consider that the English usually purloin the supposedly British anthem. This particularly matters when playing the other British teams, given that casual English dominance of the Union is a matter of legitimate and long-standing grievance.

A greater sense of civic Englishness might help to reduce resistance to immigration, for example. More self-confidence might make us more capable of welcoming strangers.

Katwala makes some important points about the tardiness of the charity sector in bringing about real change to the ethnic diversity of their management, or even committing to real change. He also makes the point that ethnic minorities were pretty ambivalent about the Remain cause at the time of the Brexit referendum, which he describes as ‘cosmopolitanism without diversity’. This is something of which I was aware; I confess I had never really thought much about why. Katwala convincingly argues that it was at least in part because ethnic minorities identified as British but did not identify as European. Britishness has very successfully become inclusive; the same cannot be said about European identity, which Katwala observes is often coded as white.

If we pause for a moment, the relatively inclusive nature of Britishness is an incredible success story. That’s not to say there’s not more to be done, of course.

Finally, Katwala draws on his own personal experience and that of his family when discussing self identity. He makes the intriguing point that those of mixed heritage might end up choosing to identify as white. Census questions rightly rely on self-identification. This might complicate the majority-minority questions which seem to exercise some commentators so much. I confess I’d never properly considered this. That’s white privilege for you, as Katwala almost certainly wouldn’t say.

It’s not a long book and it is an easy, personal read. I recommend you get yourself a copy and make the time to read it. It is also available in Kindle ebook and Audible audiobook editions.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.