One 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
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.