On Monday 22 October, a diverse audience of 90 people gathered at KPMG’s Mayfair offices for the inaugural Cumberland Lodge Debate, addressing the question of ‘What Should it Mean to be British?’

The event marked the first major event in our year-long series of interdisciplinary conferences, consultations, seminars, workshops and retreats for 2018-19, on the theme of ‘Identities & Belonging’.

The Debate was moderated by the BBC’s Evan Davis, who has recently been appointed as the new presenter on BBC Radio 4’s PM show.

It brought together people from a wide range of perspectives, generations, and walks of life for a candid but respectful discussion about what can bind us together as a nation, at a time when political polarisation, and the rise of populist attitudes towards multiculturalism and diversity, are creating new lines of division in society.

We were joined by guest panellists: Magid Magid (Lord Mayor of Sheffield); Professor Anthony Heath (Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford); Patricia O’Lynn (Cumberland Lodge PhD Scholar and Alliance Party candidate in Northern Ireland); and Anne Wafula Strike MBE (British paralympian wheelchair racer).

Introducing the event, Evan Davis said, ‘It will no doubt be as difficult to define the question as it will be to decide the answer: what should it mean to be British?’.

Rigorous debate

The ensuing discussion addressed pressing issues of identities and belonging, such as: the changing nature of national identity; the human need to belong; the role of economics; how we identify shared values; and how we should manage challenging historical legacies.

It tackled difficult questions such as:

  • How can society cater for such a diverse group of people as we find in Britain today?
  • How can the state protect a society that has many faiths, significant cultural differences and different social agendas?
  • How can society learn to embrace, rather than tolerate, cultural and ethnic differences?

Speaking candidly from her personal experience, Anne Wafula Strike said: ‘Despite the fact that I’ve won so many medals for this country, some people still want to tell me that I don’t belong... Maybe they have a fear of people integrating.’ She said she sometimes wonders: ‘Would calling myself a Brit limit where I could say I’m from? What I eat, what I wear, my culture, my accent... Why should I restrict myself?’.

Magid Magid suggested that: ‘Being British should mean whatever the hell you want it to mean - as long as you have compassion at its heart’.

Meanwhile, Patricia O’Lynn, who is a doctoral student in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University, Belfast, spoke eloquently on what British identity means to people from a Northern Irish perspective, and about the challenging legacy of British Empire and how it impacts on 21st Century notions of ‘Britishness’.

Professor Heath suggested that: ‘Local initiatives that promote integration are undermined by national, more hostile movements’ and that ‘what we’ve really fallen short of is a sense of comradeship across class divides, to create a social identity’.

Audience participation

After a rigorous debate, panellists addressed challenging questions from the audience, such as: ‘Who holds the narrative for this Britishness?’, or ‘Maybe it’s the society that we live in that’s dividing us. Why is society comfortable with putting us in a box?’.

At the close of the debate there were calls from audience members and panellists to: ‘learn from our past, even if history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself’ and to be honest and to exercise integrity when doing so, to ‘learn how to disagree well’, to exercise ‘compassion, compassion, compassion’, and to ‘give people a reason to be proud of being British’.

‘Weird things seem to be happening’

Speaking after the event, Evan Davis said: ‘Weird things seem to be happening in the world at the moment, and we are all struggling to process the daily flow of news events. But we'll never understand what is driving all this, unless we appreciate the importance of identity and belonging as motivators of human behaviour. This debate was a timely way into that topic.’

‘Such a polarising time’

Magid Magid also commented: The event was not only thoughtful and engaging; it's something we as a country have been grappling with for a while. And with our country going through such a polarising time, trying to figure out what it should mean to be British and find that one thing we could shape our British identity around is vital. The discussion was very healthy and brought about and highlighted many important factors which left everyone thinking even when the event had finished.’

Live tweets from the event can be found under the hashtag #CLBritish.

Identities and belonging

Throughout the academic year 2018 to 2019, our Identities & Belonging series will be addressing the questions:

  • How governments can promote the multiple faiths, cultural differences, values, and viewpoints that characterise a pluralistic society 
  • Whether it is possible for society to accommodate social, political and cultural diversity peacefully
  • How society can foster constructive cohesion across social classes and different cultures.
  • To what extent historical awareness and social identities intersect.

We will be doing so through an interdisciplinary exploration of the increasingly fluid identities and visions of belonging, involving people of all ages, from a wide range of different backgrounds and walks of life, from across the UK and beyond.

Find out more about the series and our upcoming events here.