The Telegraph's front page headline yesterday: "Straw wants to rewrite our history" begs two central questions. Who do they mean by "our" and precisely what version of history are they talking about.
The answers lead us beyond race and ethnicity to whether a post-colonial, devolved Britain is ready to take its place in the modern world.
The "our" the Telegraph refers to is essentially white, English and nationalistic. For huge numbers of Scots, Welsh and Irish, not to mention those of Caribbean, Asian, African and Chinese descent the idea that "the description of British will never do on its own" is not news. For generations they have been looking for ways to describe their relationship to Britishness that would take account not only of geography but of cultural, economic and political reality. They have done so not at the behest of a group of academics and commentators, but in response to racism, empire and nationalism.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the national flag. Unlike the French tricolore or the American stars and stripes, we do not have a national emblem that stands for a set of notional egalitarian principles or a constitution that would give it meaning. The union flag is a conqueror's flag that owes its design to the subjugation of England's Celtic neighbours and its reputation to the predatory expeditions which saw Britain steal huge amounts of land, labour and natural resources.It is the emblem they chose to wave at Wembley on Saturday while chanting to the German fans: "Stand up if you won the war."
So "Britishness" like the union flag is not neutral. Nor is it static. Its meaning shifts at a pace and scale determined not by Britain alone but the world around us and will manifest itself in a myriad of ways. The Indian restaurants on "our" high streets, the music on "our" stereos and the Olympians on "our" television screen are all powerful indications that while Britain will always be a majority white country, Britishness and whiteness are no longer synonymous. The relationship between race and place is being decoupled. The generation that admired Jim Davidson is having trouble understanding a world which produced Ali G.
So if people stop using the term "Britishness" it will not be because Bhikhu Parekh tells them to, but because the word has lost its meaning. That is truly what the right is afraid of. It is no accident that the Telegraph refers to the past while the report refers to the future.
For the paper's reaction is concerned not with culture that is live, evolving and complex, but heritage that is frozen, atrophied and mytholigised. It cannot fathom the report's suggestion that "people must be treated equally ... with due regard to differences in experience, background and perception" because it cannot understand the difference between discriminating between people and discriminating against them. It wants to tolerate minorities, the authors of the report want to celebrate them.
That does not mean there are not problems with the report. Its recommendation that the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) should be replaced by a human rights commission and a single Equality Act covering all grounds of unlawful discrimination puts an intellectual discussion ahead of political reality.
The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain is a report with valuable signposts about where we have to go to become a country built on equality and mutual respect; the intial reactions provide valuable indications of the kind of barriers that will have to be overcome to get there.