Britain’s Mid-Atlantic Road at Race

A tweet from the Brussels bureau chief of The Economist reaches me. Here, he notes, are the first names of the last four finance ministers in France: Bruno, Michel, Pierre, Francois. In Germany: Christian, Olaf, Peter, Wolfgang. In Italy: Daniele, Roberto, Giovanni, Pier Carlo. In Great Britain? Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Sorry. I meant: Kwasi, Nadhim, Rishi, Sajid.

Not to mention Kemi and Ranil, from Alok and Suella. And this is a (very) conservative cabinet we’re talking about. Nor should you assume that Britain’s racial openness is something out of London. It is like a devout European, a bitter Remainer, that I say this: I would rather grow up as a visible minority in Manchester or Birmingham than in some continental capitals.

But then I would also prefer most of Britain over most of America. The problem there isn’t a lack of diversity (it might be faster at some point to list the US CEOs who are not Indonesian). It’s an all-pervasive concern on the subject. After four years in the US, on both coasts, the biggest relief since returning home was the chance to have lingering conversations that somehow don’t return to identity. This is the difference between diversity and cosmopolitanism. The first is a physical fact. The second is an attitude towards it: a kind of indifference. New York is diverse. London, where people one generation away from Ireland or Italy wouldn’t think of mentioning it, is cosmopolitan.

The psychological Mid-Atlanticism of the UK is so often a hindrance. The nation wants US taxes and a European state. And so it has neither. It is more influenced by laws made in Brussels, but more preoccupied by elections in Iowa. And so the politics is terrible.

In one respect, however, splitting the difference has paid off. We are better at diversity than much of Europe. But we are not as fixated on the subject as the US. “Effortlessly diverse,” was Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase about London on one of his periodic visits, and I’m not sure I could do better.

British progressives underestimate their own country relative to Europe in terms of race. But conservatives are making a bigger mistake in their Atlanticism. The strangest feature of the British right is hatred of waking up mixed with adoration of the country it most captivates. If you want a western fortress, a culture too old and entrenched to fall for any passing fad, the US isn’t it. Embrace Italy and France. Embrace Europe. Being anti-wake and pro-Brexit is not an impossible position. But it requires disentangling contradictions of which the right seems barely aware.

To quote Britain as a mid-Atlantic compromise is not the same as idealizing it. The place is trending American in its identity politics. And tolerance came late. I’m old enough to remember the National Front graffiti in parts of South London that will now give you a superlative. The artist had invariably held the spray can on the ends of the “F” a stroke too long, leaving a powerless sag where a terrifyingly sharp, swastika-like edge should have been. Anyway, it was terrifying. Looking back, I realize that I was drawn to Arsenal because the games felt safe there. There were clubs where that was less the case. This is one of those things you have to convince the unbelieving youth of, like the far-right scene that clung to Venice Beach in the 1990s.

So I don’t romanticize Britain. I invite you to put on the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Imagine that you are about to be born and do not know your race. Where would you choose to make your life? Where do you get a fair chance, without closing in on the 24-hour consciousness of things of blood and soil? I see the case for urban Canada. The Netherlands is underexposed. So, if you are a well-paid graduate, the expatriate Edens are from Dubai and Singapore. But there is not a long list of countries above Great Britain. It’s hard to know which is more impressive: the cabinet’s diversity, or the fact that it’s only casually celebrated. I feel un-British, utterly vulgar even, for mentioning it.

Mail Janan to janan.ganesh@ft.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.