On the Today Programme this morning there was a dispiriting debate between a Daily Mail journalist and Sunder Katwala, the director of a think tank called 'British Future'. The subject was so-called 'plastic Brits' representing Great Britain at the Olympics.The Mail man was saying - quite reasonably, I thought - that sporting mercenaries who apply for a UK passport because they wouldn't make the Olympic squad in their own country are not really British.
Katwala, who throughout was less intent on having an intelligent discussion than on attacking the Mail for its hypocrisy given, for example, its campaign to get the white South African Zola Budd a UK passport in time for the 1984 Olympics, said that anyone who gets a UK passport, including people who do so for mercenary reasons, is by legal definition a Brit so we should welcome and get behind them, and there's an end on it.
That bothered me.
Firstly, the Mail’s sins may or may not be real, but they’re irrelevant to the debate: returning to them again and again was a dishonest debating ploy that shed no light on the matter of ‘plastic Brits'.
Secondly, British Future’s website states that it’s keen to “engage those who are anxious about cultural identity”, though to what end it doesn’t say. One of its main aims is "building a modern British identity which helps us to build [two builds there, guys!] an inclusive citizenship, where we can all be confident about who we are, and which recognises the national and local identities we hold in Britain today too." I’d like to know how conflating, as Katwala did, formal legal identity with the deep, complex, shifting, culture- and time-bound elements of personal and collective identities serves either of those purposes.
I don't think it does. British Future could be building not a broad church but a house of straw. Which could burn easily.