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As others see us Matthew Warburton - 13/09/2013

eye_on_future_300One of the key ideas of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, highlighted in John Akomfrah's brilliant film about his life currently showing in cinemas, is that our identities are not fixed or determined by some essence deep within us, but shaped in a continuing conversation with those around us. How others see us is crucial to how we see ourselves. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals.

In the film, Hall is shown back in the 1960s calmly explaining how 400 years of colonial rule unavoidably shaped Britain's image in the eyes of the world - including those of her former colonial subjects. But national identities evolve. Last year's Olympics turned out, to the surprise of many, to be the catalyst and focus for a long-missed glow of national pride and, through the medium of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony, the occasion for a new articulation of our evolving national identity, with the achievements of the welfare state at its heart.

It is clear from UN Special Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik's remarks this week that this is how the world sees us, too. Her comments about the bedroom tax were framed by the observation that hitherto, Britain has been an "inspiration" to other countries in its efforts to provide a secure housing safety net for citizens. That should be a source of pride and confirmation that others see us as a nation as we would like to see ourselves. But it also means that we need to take seriously her criticisms of the government's welfare reforms and respond to the substance of her arguments.

To question the right or competence of a "woman from Brazil" to comment on UK domestic housing policy is a mistake. Stuart Macdonald's perceptive Inside Housing editorial on this issue is headed "The World is Watching". Not only is Britain's international reputation an important asset that needs to be nurtured and protected, but it is also affects how we feel about ourselves.

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