Boris Johnson’s recent article in the Telegraph, ‘My vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit’, raises a host of troubling issues. Not least, Johnson accuses young people he encounters in Britain, who have the twelve stars of the European Union flag “lip-sticked on their faces”, of “beginning to have genuinely split allegiances”. He declares himself troubled that “a transnational sense of allegiance can weaken the ties” among UK citizens.
It may be worth pausing to reflect on Johnson’s own split allegiances. The foreign secretary published his views on Britain’s future relations with the EU just days before Theresa May’s much-heralded Brexit speech in Florence. The Telegraph article wilfully ignores positions previously agreed by the Cabinet, of which Johnson is a senior member. This is in clear breach of settled constitutional principle. A 2016 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper on Collective Responsibility states that, “[d]ecisions made by the Cabinet are binding on all members of the Government. This means that if a minister disagrees with a government policy, he or she must still publicly support it.” As a former Conservative minister, Ken Clarke, remarked, such behaviour would normally result in the instant sacking of a minister.
Aside from flouting a key constitutional principle, Johnson’s article, with its dismissive remark about young people’s divided or “transnational” identities, is both ignorant and dangerous. Identity is rarely, if ever, a simple or straightforward matter that can be treated as coterminous with membership of a particular nation or state. And, as scholars including Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, have pointed out, in historical terms both the “nation” and “nation states” are comparatively recent constructs. Before their emergence, patterns of political identity emphasised religious affiliation or dynastic allegiance.
For most of us, identity is infinitely more subtle, fluid and multi-layered than Johnson suggests. Identity generally draws on diverse elements, including family, community and the country in which a person has spent his or her formative years, as well as moral, religious and political beliefs, gender, occupation and tastes. Johnson would do well to study the writings of the Princeton philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah. In an article teasingly entitled, “Cosmopolitan Patriots”, Appiah sketches out the complex but essentially harmonious web of allegiances of his Ghanaian father:
My father was a Ghanaian patriot. He once published a column in the Pioneer, our local newspaper in Kumasi, under the headline “Is Ghana Worth Dying For?” and I know that his heart’s answer was yes. But he also loved Asante, the region of Ghana where he and I both grew up, a kingdom absorbed within a British colony and, then, a region of a new multiethnic republic: a once-kingdom that he and his father also both loved and served. And, like so many African nationalists of his class and generation, he always loved an enchanting abstraction they called Africa.
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Multiple allegiances, as in the case of Appiah’s father, are neither unnatural nor invariably detrimental to the national interest. In reality, split or, more properly, cosmopolitan identities reflect the rich and increasingly complex reality of individual lives, particularly in an era of individualism and globalization. There is no reason why someone cannot be both British and Scottish, for example, as well as a convinced European, a proud Glaswegian, an Episcopalian, a pacifist and a vegan. As Amartya Sen argues, in Identity and Violence, efforts to construe individual identity in crude and narrow terms, such as membership of a nation or adherence to a specific creed, are misconceived and intellectually bogus. Johnson’s assumption that UK citizenship must always be decisive, trumping or excluding other allegiances, is neither warranted nor desirable. British Catholics, for example, should not have to choose, as in the 17th Century, between a British or a Catholic identity. National and religious affiliations may be equally important to a person’s sense of self.
Of course, Johnson’s bombastic efforts to promote an archaic and restrictive conception of personal identity are self-serving. He is evidently keen to flaunt his unwavering support for a ‘hard’ Brexit in the belief that such posturing will help him achieve his ambition of replacing May as Conservative Party leader and prime minister. However, Johnson’s reductive and obsolete notion of political and cultural identity poses significant dangers, not only for cosmopolitan-minded dissenters from the Brexit project and ‘meddlesome’ judges but also for Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities. If loyalty to Britain is defined as the absence of any meaningful sense of a European, transnational or, by extension, foreign identity, then the patriotism of Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities may also be called into question. Applying Johnson’s rigid and ill-conceived test, British citizens of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nigerian, Jamaican, Ghanaian, Irish, Italian or Polish ancestry must also be considered potentially suspect. Like Remainers, they can be accused of harboring split allegiances that weaken the bonds that supposedly unite the UK’s citizens.
The rejection of mixed identities and the cultivation of an entirely mythic notion of British solidarity and common purpose is sociologically uninformed, divisive and hazardous. The UK’s departure from the EU will not alter the fact that Britain is an extraordinarily heterogeneous society with sizeable national, ethnic and religious minorities. Encouraging suspicion of split allegiances and of transnational identities is unlikely to foster a more inclusive and generous sense of British identity, which many experts on multiculturalism and race relations, such as Kenan Malik, consider imperative.
Rather than perceiving multiple identities, through Johnson’s myopic eyes, as unnatural, threatening and enfeebling, we should try to recognize that diversity is both normal and enriching. It is precisely the range and scope of his enthusiasms and loyalties that makes Appiah’s father appear so human and appealing. Surrendering his Asante or pan-African allegiances would not have made him a better Ghanaian. Nor would it have helped to make a better or more attractive Ghana.
While advocating firmer ties among UK citizens, Johnson’s jingoistic rhetoric may have exactly the opposite effect. Against a background of severe economic disruption (or worse) caused by a shambolic Brexit – for which he bears considerable responsibility – his unequivocal rejection of “split allegiances” and of transnational identities could all too easily lead to the scapegoating and progressive alienation of Britain’s minorities, with concomitant dangers for social cohesion, national security and the maintenance of a liberal political culture.