06/03/2012 07:35 GMT | Updated 05/05/2012 06:12 BST

'Make Bradford British': Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Wrong Programme

The first episode of the Channel 4 series, Make Bradford British, sought to address the challenges of developing an inclusive British national identity that accommodates the multicultural reality of daily life in many town and cities across the UK.

The first episode of the Channel 4 series, Make Bradford British, sought to address the challenges of developing an inclusive British national identity that accommodates the multicultural reality of daily life in many town and cities across the UK. By bringing together eight people from different community backgrounds, it explored the complexities of living together in a city often associated with inter-community segregation. For those taking part, it certainly challenged prejudices and ill-informed assumptions about race, religion and culture, highlighting the role of language in reinforcing stereotypes in public and private life. It also highlighted inability of most Britons to pass the 'Life in the UK' citizenship test.

However the programme's premise - that Bradford needs to be made British - was deeply problematic. In suggesting that the city or some of its inhabitants somehow needed to be made British, the programme crudely questioned their sense of belonging, identity and community. Let us be clear - Bradford and Bradfordians are British. Claims by the programme-makers that Make Bradford British was distinctive because it is sought to speak to 'the people' are also questionable. Explorations of ethnic, social and religious tensions in the UK have merit but this is well-worn territory. Extensive research has been undertaken in Bradford, particularly in the last decade since the riots of 2001 which has engaged with large numbers of people and their communities. The programme revealed little that has not already been identified in the plethora of reports and failed to acknowledge the many long-term community-based research programmes and intercultural exchange initiatives. It is unlikely Make Bradford British will encourage politicians or other policy-makers to reexamine current government approaches to community cohesion and British identity.

The programme-makers claim they chose Bradford because it is "a predominately Asian city centre is surrounded by areas which are nearly exclusively white" but appear not to have considered the potential implications of this decision. Locating it in Bradford merely further enhanced its post-riots reputation as a city with extensive community segregation. This potentially could undo some of the hard work of the local authority together with voluntary and community groups, and other actors such as Bradford's schools, colleges and its university in rehabilitating the city's image and economy since 2001. Those seeking to build stronger community cohesion in Bradford recognize the need for sensitive and strategic approaches and the programme has not been warmly received in the city itself.

Make Bradford British clearly located debates about Britishness in issues of race, religion, and immigration. By using the advert screens to translate Make Bradford British into Urdu, it is clear that British Asians and the Muslim community as a whole were seen as the main focus of the programme. This view appears to overlook trends in recent surveys that suggest they are most likely to express a sense of patriotic Britishness. But this is a missed opportunity to develop new and more sophisticated knowledge about the complexities of multiculturalism and the politics of identity across the whole of the UK. For example, there was no attempt to analyse the impact of the sizeable number of East Europeans who have come to the UK in the past decade. Issues of community cohesion were instead simplistically refracted into established white/non-white and Muslim/Christian binaries.

It is clear that, for some of the participants, the programme could easily have been called Make Bradford English. However there was no attempt to explore the rise of political or cultural English (this is surprising considering that the English Defence League marched in Bradford in August 2010) or its relationship with Britishness. By choosing Bradford, the programme makers overlooked the diverse ways multiculturalism can be understood across England, particularly in rural areas, or in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. It would have been interesting to consider other areas where people live 'parallel lives', particularly sectarian schisms which still shape debates about multiculturalism in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And why not attempt to make Swansea, Glasgow or (London)Derry more British too?

Though it is hardly revelatory that most Britons would fail the 'Life in the UK' test or that there are concerns about the aims and objectives of the test, the programme failed to question the validity of citizenship testing, instead using it simply as a tool to select participants. But the central flaw of the programme was its professed aim to establish a common sense of Britishness, thus working on the misguided notion that it is possible to identify certain attributes and values within British society and codify them into a framework that can be applied to all Britons. This overlooks the fact there are many ways to be British and most people in Bradford are already aware of this. By rejecting the possibility that people can get along with each other without necessarily agreeing on what it is to be British, Make Bradford British mirrored the failed approach of most UK politicians. Britishness cannot be defined in such terms and that is part of its strength. Attempts to develop codified universal modes of British national identity will always allow some people to react against it.

The Big Brother meets Wife Swap with added Britishness approach might have made the programme more palatable for a mass audience but this somewhat trivialised sensitive and contentious issues. It was cast ruthlessly, with characters chosen to exaggerate difference and stimulate inter-group conflict. This allowed the programme to quickly get to the core of concerns about language and community identity but did not allow enough time to drill down and unpack such issues in a calm and deliberative manner (a point acknowledged by some of the participants). Indeed the programme told us more about the eight people involved rather than the state of the nation(s). But maybe Make Bradford British will though have a legacy after all. There is considerable scope for Channel 4 to merge other programme formats with pressing political, economic and social challenges. How about addressing the issue of Scottish independence with a special edition of Supersize (the UK) vs Superskinny (Scotland)?