Monday, August 25, 2008

Musings on Identity

I watched "Who do you think You Are" last Wednesday - for those who didn't catch it, you can view it on the iPlayer.

The episode featured Boris Johnson, whom we all know is of mixed ancestry, Russian-Jewish on his mothers side, Turkish-English-French-German on his fathers.

But what was striking about the program was how anxious he was about this. He starts off the program assuring the viewers that he has "loads" of British ancestors. He's quite comfortable during the Turkish section of the story, he's clearly very proud of his Turkish great-grandfather. But when he learns that the de Pfeffels are German, not French, it's a bit too much for him. At one point he remarks to the camera "I hope the people of Henley will bear in mind that at least half my antecedents are actually English. I know it looks like I'm some kind of foreign toff here, which is not necessarily good PR, but at least half of my antecedents are English. English. Loads of them."

He turns out to be descended from minor German kings, and from the Hanovarians, through George II. Boris is thrilled to bits. "I have British royal ancestry" he declares. "I've always felt I was the product of newcomers to Britain, so it's totally bizarre to be told my great times eight grandfather is George II of England". In his mind this makes him legitimately British. Of course George II, being only the second Hanovarian king, is ethnically entirely German and he was born in Germany too - in other words another newcomer.

All of which throws up interesting questions of identity and highlights the differences between the Labour and Conservative parties.

There is no way a Labour politician would have been as anxious about being foreign as Boris was (and a Labour politician would have been embarassed to be descended from a king rather than thrilled). Labour has always accepted that Britain is a mixed place, not just as regards the recent immigrants from the Commonwealth and Eastern europe, or the early mix of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, celts and Vikings, but also due to the great movement of people that took place from the Renaissance up until WW1 (when passports were first introduced), during which time people literally went back and forth across Europe as they wished, and all sorts of people settled in Britain and were absorbed, including imported kings.

Conservatives however have quite a narrow view about identity. I can't help wondering whether Boris and his father adopted their caricature Englishness (cripes and piffle and all the rest of it) because they felt that as incomers they must be more British than thou.

You see this in other Conservative politicians too. Michael Portillo used to never talk about his Spanish father, and felt he had to display fierce hatred towards the EU to compensate for having a European parent (and part of the reason he lost out on becoming Tory leader was due to this foreign-ness, the other part being that Tories were suspicious of anyone with a gay past). Michael Howard adopted such a hardline attitude to immigrants in the 2005 campaign, even his own grandfather would have been sent back to the Nazis had his would-be policies been in place in the 1930's.

But perhaps Boris, Portillo and Howard felt that to get anywhere in the Conservative party while being slightly foreign requires you to deny your father three times before the cock crows.


Anonymous said...

Very good piece. Peregrine Worsthorne might be another example - he defined olde English fogeyism for a while, but is actually Belgian-born.

When I first stood for Broxtowe I was working in Switzerland, and incidientally not yet married. So at least one of the Tory canvassers started telling people that I was (a) foreign and (b) gay. I can always raise a laugh in even the stuffiest of circles by saying that he couldn't decide which was worse...

Anonymous said...

Very good article but interestingly there was nothing about his mother on the programme. Perhaps we're due a follow up?

Anonymous said...

So why did Denis MacShane change his name?