The Color Of Great Britain

In 1999, Ben Okri, the Nigerian-born novelist, wrote this in a poem about Britain, his adopted country: "Just as rivers do not sleep/The spirit of empire still runs deep/A gathering of homely and alien streams/A tumble of turbulent and tranquil dreams/But the Gods of a nation do not change, their ways are deep and often strange/History moves, and the surface quivers, but the/Gods are steadfast in the depth of rivers."

The poem captures perfectly the deep contradictions inherent within the national identity of Britain in the 21st century. The reality of how the country has been transformed, and the denial of this by millions of indigenous British people creates constant tensions, sometimes creative, but mostly volatile and bitter. Take this BBC Radio interview last week between myself and Norman Tebbit, once a powerful ally of Margaret Thatcher. We were debating the controversial predictions that in both the United States and Britain nonwhites would make up the majority within the next century because white birthrates were too low and those of colored folk just too damned high.

I am one of those colored folk. My forebears moved or were moved (to build the railway) from the Indian Subcontinent to East Africa during the colonial period. In 1972 these African Asians were thrown out by Idi Amin. I now consider myself British. My young daughter, who is half English, symbolizes my stake on this soil.

I suggested to Lord Tebbit, as he now is, that such population forecasts were foolish and dangerous because we were all British now. He could not accept that. He would not even say my name--as if the sound of it on his tongue filled his mouth with a bitter taste. I had to force him to call me by my name. He then said, brazenly, to millions listening that social problems had been brought to his country by "multicultural societies." The interview was a raw display of loathing felt by a pillar of the establishment. Racists wrote in vile letters, two threatening death to me and mine. But hundreds more wrote to state their support for multiracial Britain. I would not have had such responses 10 years ago.

Diversity has finally started to be valued beyond the color line, especially in London, where surveys reveal that even business leaders now prize this above any other attribute of our capital. Nationally, nonwhites make up about 6 percent of the population, but in London the figure rises to between 30 percent and 60 percent depending on the locality. Yet there are those who believe a national culture is like the crown jewels, to be preserved and polished and protected from contamination. Prime Minister Tony Blair rightly calls these the "forces of conservatism." Their determination to go back to the future should never be underestimated.

The irony is that similar forces of conservatism exist in the nonwhite populations of Britain. Many black and Asian Britons feel that they too would lose their roots if they become "too British." So they argue for separate schools and spaces, failing to understand that even if they lock up their young in insulated boxes, they will not stop change. All cultural walls are porous. While it is important to challenge cultural hegemonists and to feel connected to different ancestries and ethnicities, it is hopelessly misguided to try to cling to these logs on an unstoppable river.

The task is--and I argue this in two books that were published this summer--for all of us to create a modern British identity that has nothing to do with fusty old images of clotted cream and Buckingham Palace. The first book, "Who Do We Think We Are?," makes a case for this re-think and has a picture of the queen on the cover--with her skin tinted dark brown. She looks great. In the second book, "After Multiculturalism," I suggest that we should dump the old multicultural model that makes assumptions that there is a "majority" white culture, with ethnic minorities living strange and protected lives on the fringes.

Although racism continues to blight lives, we Britons have already achieved greater real integration than have the United States, France and Germany. In Britain, the percentage of mixed-race relationships is among the highest in the world; no geographical boundaries divide groups; the Indian food industry produces a turnover that is higher than coal, steel and shipbuilding combined. Yet most of the stories we hear about who we are as a nation fail to recognize this. Little wonder then that those like Lord Tebbit go on dreaming their little white dreams and that misguided demographers still waste their time on predictions about the future color of my country.