ATOMISING PEOPLE

12 September 2008

This is a general follow-on from the post about national minorities. I shall look at the Cornish particularities and claims in a further post.

The government has got itself in a mess about population groups in the UK: racial, national, ethnic, religious, linguistic, whatever. It is rightly keen to encourage mutual public respect among the different groups that make up the people of Britain and to ensure that everyone gets equal access to public services.

The chosen instruments for ensuring respect and equality began with the 1976 Race Relations Act; subsequent legislation and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCPNM) have provided the arrangements within which ensurance and compliance works. And this is where the current mess shows.

At present some groups are fully recognised in race law or by the government under the FCPNM and get support and also may get funding for activities that celebrate and encourage their distinctiveness and public service participation; other groups are not and do not. The Welsh and Ulster Scots and Gipsies qualify, the Cornish don’t. The Jews and Sikhs do, the Muslims don’t. It is difficult to see any real-life coherence in this.

The current issue among Cornish nationalists is recognition under the FCPNM which the British government refuses to grant. There are other issues as well; for example, a tick-box for the 2011 census (some groups will get one; others, probably including the Cornish, won’t).

Dissatisfaction is what results when you encourage people to identify themselves in numerous subgroups. Forms do not have enough space to include everyone so some get missed off or have to write themselves in and grievance ensues. Even I was irritated when a form presented to me did not include the group which if pushed hard I would assign myself to but did include other groups that I do not include myself in.

The only way out of this mess is to include everyone or to exclude everyone.

There is another aspect which concerns me. People are pushed into assigning themselves to one group and not several – the school ethnic census does not enable one easily to identify one’s child as adjectival Cornish and adjectival English and adjectival British or whatever; the national census does not make multiple identity easy to assert and be recognised within its sections either. Mono-ethnicity, indeed mono-categorisation generally, is encouraged as the norm though I think many people see themselves as more diverse than that. For example, many people see themselves as “Christian but” or “ex-Muslim”; the census form does not offer those and resources are assigned on the coarse and misleading ethnic and religious (and soon, national) categorisation the form demands.

I don’t wish to overdo this next point but the default assumption of simplistic monolithic group identity can encourage people or a group of people to see themselves as significantly different from their neighbours, it can lead to overemphasis on perceived ethnic and other differences, and frankly the history of mankind is dispiriting about the consequences of perceived difference. At bottom, emphasising difference is unlikely to promote social cohesion.

I think mono-ethnicity is what the Cornish nationalists (and the English and other nationalists) seem to be about. Choose: Cornish or English. I think they are wrong and, if we are to continue officially recording group identities – and while I see the point of collecting the data, I increasingly doubt that this is the best way to be just – I would like to see the Cornish nationalists widen their views to include multiple identities, Cornish and English, if that is how people see themselves. That is genuine pluralism.

Yes, in the present system the Cornats have a good point about inclusion under the FCPNM of those who see themselves as Cornish and I suspect that the government are rationally but unfairly trying to avoid expenditure, wide religious inclusion, and the perceived constitutional issue that may well ignite if the Cornish are recognised under the FCPNM. Nevertheless, one in, all in.

However, I come back to my central doubt which I repeated at the “egg” end of this post . Is atomising British people into endless subgroups the best way forward? Can we not celebrate our identities, our different ways and beliefs, and show mutual respect, and ensure everyone gets fair access to services without the present divisive official grotesqueries? It is time to rethink the atomising and emphasise our commonalities.

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