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- 03 Mar 2017
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How do any of us get to be 'British' or 'English'? What are the rules of membership and who decides them?

Norman Tebbit thinks we should not put 'foreigners' before 'British' people.

This was his killer point in the Lords debate on the Labour amendment on the rights of EU nationals in Article 50 bill debate on Wednesday night. The foreigners are EU nationals living in the UK. The British are UK nationals living in other EU states.

Tebbit (the Chingford skinhead), known for his 'cricket test' for immigrants (which cricket team do you support?) thinks we should put the 800,000 British nationals in Spain (for example) ahead of the EU nationals living in the UK (or should I say Britain?). Spain doesn't really do cricket, but I wonder what proportion of the so-called British expats in Spain cheer for their adopted nation during the football world cup?

17 years ago, that brilliant old grump Darcus Howe - in his insightful and irreverent TV series, White Tribe - staged an impromptu interview with Norman Tebbit. This was the moment when Tebbit said to Howe that both of them are British but Howe could never be English, because being English was to do with your ethnicity. But during the interview, Tebbit divulged that he is the descendent of European mainland immigrants, from the Low Countries. He goes on to denigrate Belgians.

So how do any of us get to be 'British' or 'English'? What are the rules of membership and who decides them? How many generations must we be able to show that our ancestors were British-born or English-born before we are allowed to join the club?

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If you've never watched White Tribe, you can still get it on the Channel 4 website. It has as much to teach us now as it ever did.

(For the Tebbit interview, see episode 1, about 40 minutes in)

3 Comments

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Ralph Pettingill

Thanks Ian- one of my favourite topics in recent years.. I've been leading a workshop on a local social work course for (?12) years on whiteness, identity and racism. We have the most brilliant conversations- at times you can almost see the cogs turning in students' minds. Only a couple of times students have walked out. Black and ethnic minority students are usually in a minority at Durham University . I have an idea about a project for campfire, around ending racism and identity. Sooner or later I think we'll have to find workable ways to look at the strong feelings that often get in the way of mutual understanding and solidarity .

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Lou Mycroft

Thanks Ian, for this insightful writing. Where is Spitting Image when we need them? They were so much more than a laugh, they were an 80s lifeline!

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Sean Prentice

Thank you Ian, I don't consider myself British...or rather Britishness isn't part of my personal narrative because it is in opposition to most of what I believe. I would pass the rules of membership however...my earliest recorded ancestors came as an 'economic migrants' from Scandinavia in the 9th century and I had a family member at Magna Carta...where I think he got it a bit wrong.

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