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Human rights and self-identity – where is British society heading?
24 Jun, 2022

Given the present government's policies and their knee-jerk reactions to a variety of unforeseen events, Nick Heenan finds himself trying to understand where, under current leadership, British society may be heading in the medium to long term.

I came across a Facebook thread discussing people’s birth right and how they are entitled, as adults, to take the nationality of the country in which they were born.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that as I will explain!

In the context of this assertion, others were expressing frustration at the loss of their right to remain European. That in turn led to a distinction between identifying as “European” (as in “of this continent”), and European (as in a citizen of the EU). Unfortunately for many of us, citizenship is legally defined only in national terms, and it is only possible to be recognised as a citizen of the EU through being a registered citizen of one of its Member States.

Facebook being Facebook, this starting point led to all kinds of views and opinions being expressed, some of which were more accurately based on facts than others. Yet before contributing myself, I thought “Does it really matter in this specific context if people have their facts wrong?” Their need or wish to identify as European is essentially an emotional reaction, rather than a rational one. It stems from a sense of belonging, and a wish to remain a part of the broader tribe, coupled perhaps with a sense of unease or shame about being branded as being “British” by others. Reputations get tarnished, and stereotypes are used as everyday shorthand to malign groups of people that have different opinions or cultures to our own (such as lager louts, Chelsea skinheads, upper-class-elite, remoaners, right-wingers or even just “the French”).

I would be the first to say that these stereotypes are misleading and mostly inappropriate, yet in our populist society and especially in the tabloid press they have become the norm. Homo-sapiens still have strong tribal instincts. In the 21st century, society itself has become very much more complex than the smaller, isolated and unified “national tribes” that existed before the Internet Revolution. Today, individuals belong to many overlapping tribes and so accumulate multiple identities, each with their own rituals and standards of behaviour, with some tribes having more clearly established (and more permanent) leaders than others.

The UK’s new policy to offshore its migrants to Rwanda has just been successfully challenged by the European Court of Human Rights, causing its first flights out to be delayed. The British government responded by putting everything on the table and opening a public discussion on whether the UK should now withdraw from the very Convention on Human Rights that Winston Churchill established in Europe after the Second World War. This creates a new identity crisis on a number of levels - I will not comment on whether the government risks to further damage the UK’s international reputation through its latest postures and actions.

But this development made me compare my own human right to self-identify as European rather than British, with my other such rights. I have no right in law to identify as European. Yet as a result of today’s “woke” society, I am happy to say that people have now won the right in law to identify as LGBTQ, with relevant questionnaires and forms from the government and NHS amongst others being changed to reflect this right. Should I wish to do so, I can change my declared gender and the pronouns to be used by people when referring to me. Many UK questionnaires also require the applicant to state their ethnicity: Originally (and apart from medical questionnaires) I had assumed this was to ensure a proper balance and that no-one is being disadvantaged or excluded, but today I start to wonder if this mass-collection of data could also have a darker purpose. I don’t think I can change my ethnicity, unless it’s just to correct a database error. Same thing for place of birth. Someone who is naturalised British is not treated the same as someone British-born in a foreign country, nor someone (whether British or foreign) born in the UK. The territories that are/are not considered to be part of the UK, Great Britain, British overseas dependencies etc have all changed significantly in the past 150 years and are likely to do so again in the future. So being “British” is not at all clearcut. There are many shades of grey - and our tribal leaders are known to change their decisions on whether individuals deserve to be “in or out” of the tribe for a variety of reasons that are largely beyond the control of the people concerned. Yet once you have some kind of British nationality, renouncing this completely (in law) is far more difficult than acquiring a second nationality.

So, label me an anarchist if you want, but self-identity and self-respect are far more important to an individual than the legal position and any seemingly random stereotypes and labels applied to him/her/them at various times, by others. OK, so I am a white, male, straight EUROPEAN. Please do also consider me as an ELDER of my various tribes, rather than someone that just happens to be too old now to be taken seriously. By accident of birth, I do have British nationality, but on a purely emotional level, I can no longer self-identify as being “British” as such - the implications and reputation of this particular tribal affiliation and identity have become too shameful. Maybe the British tribe would do well in the years ahead to learn from the historical experience of others. The modern-day German tribe for example?

Nick Heenan

Nick is a committee member of London for Europe and previously spent most of his career working for the European Commission in Brussels. London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe. 

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Andy Pye
published this page in Latest blogs 2022-06-24 16:23:15 +0100