British history should be rewritten to make it “more inclusive”, says Trevor Phillips, the head of the new human rights and equality commission.
He said Muslims were also part of the national story and “sometimes we have to go back into the tapestry and insert some threads that were lost”.
He quoted the example of the Spanish Armada, which was held up by the Turks at the request of Queen Elizabeth I.
“It was the Turks who saved us,” Mr Phillips told a Labour fringe meeting.
Mr Phillips said he had also been persuaded of the need for a written constitution, saying the UK needed to be “more explicit in our understanding about how we treat each other”.
He said population changes and immigration were happening at unprecedented rate and there was “no going back”.
So it was no longer enough to assume people would inherit the values which bound the country together.
Speaking at an event organised by The Smith Institute, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Young Foundation, he said it was important that new arrivals learned English.
Must be ‘native’ and ‘right for us’
But he also stressed the importance of celebrating Britain’s “human rights culture” and said the government had to be more specific about what it meant to be British—rather than simply stressing values such as “freedom” which were universal.
“We have to have a more explicit set of understandings which we can all share about how we treat each other and we talk to each other and they have to be based on real values.
“I think the prime minister is right to talk about values but I think what is important is not the abstract values. Freedom is shared by all sorts of people.”
If there was a written constitution it would have to be “an expression which is native and right for us”.
He also stressed the importance of a national story in forging a shared sense of identity.
“I think we have to rewrite, redevelop, our national story so that it is inclusive.
“And what I mean by that in practice is this: not that we have to re-write what we are but sometimes we have to go back into the tapestry and insert some threads that were lost.”
He said the abolition of the slave trade, for example, could be retold as being part of the English radical tradition.
“Part of the job of heritage is to cognitize—give physical existence—to that national story.
“And if there is a practical thing, I would say it is that we need to revisit some parts of that national heritage. to rewrite some parts of that national story to tell the whole story.
“When we talk about the Armada it’s only now that we are beginning to realise that part of it is Muslims,” Mr Phillips told the meeting.
“It was the Turks who saved us, because they held up Armada at the request of Elizabeth I.
“Now let’s rewrite that story, let’s use our heritage to rewrite that story so it is truly inclusive.
“That’s the reason for this so we have an identity which brings us together, which binds us in the stormy times that we are going to have in the next century.”