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How the Great British Bake Off became the great British identity battle

Nadiya the victorious. BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon

Of course Nadiya Hussain won the Great British Bake Off because she is a Muslim. For those unfamiliar with Islam, Victorian baking skills are a key element to this faith. Naturally she had an advantage.

Yes, bizarre as it may appear for those who have been following the show and marvelling at the precise judgement of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, accusations are being thrown at the programme for choosing its winner on the basis of political correctness rather than merit.

None of us knows if Nadiya was the best baker. After all, only a few lucky people of the BBC crew have actually tasted the bakes. She may have fashioned a peacock entirely from chocolate and produced a perfect trio of wedding cakes while her opponent forgot to actually add sugar to his final bake, but some have nevertheless suggested that the BBC wanted a Muslim to win; that the broadcaster has a hidden politically correct agenda.

In a column in The Sun, Ally Ross dubbed the show “full-scale ideological warfare”. He wrote:

Turn up without a box tick to your name, some viewers reckon, and you can bake an exact replica of the Taj Mahal using shortbread fingers and meringue nests and it still won’t be enough to win this most PC of BBC shows.

Others have, on the contrary, celebrated the variety of contestants battling it out over cakes and breads the past few months. The multicultural blend of bakers has been seen as the epitome of Britishness.

There are two competing understandings of Britishness at stake in this debate. One views the British identity as having been hijacked by a politically correct elite, which has forced multiculturalism upon an eroding Christian or secular British culture. Another sees British identity as a celebration of a kind of difference that finds no difficulty in uniting around shared values, such as the virtue of a delightfully crisp pastry.

In its encapsulation of so-called banal nationalism – the everyday things that go to make up national identity – the Great British Bake Off has become the battlefield of national identity.

Battlefield of national identity. BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon

This battle includes a regrettable fixation with identity that characterises much of British politics more generally. Who you are is more important than than what you do. Your class background matters if you are on the left; your gender matters for your views on feminism and your religious background matters for your views on terrorism. Have the wrong background combined with the wrong opinions and you will be betraying the working-class, abandoning women or simply be incomprehensible. We attach so much content to a specific identity that when someone deviates we cannot understand them.

The fact that we are having this debate at all is evidence of just how much is attached to a specific identity. Nadiya is also a mother of three and a student. Why are those identities not as important as her Muslim identity? Both on the left and the right, cultural and religious identity in particular has been elevated to a level at which it promises to explain everything about someone.

The battle of national identity is defined by the sentiment that a new kind of Britishness is being imposed from above by a corrupt elite. The BBC, as part of “the establishment”, is duping the population into accepting a multicultural Britishness that no one has chosen.

Yet national identity is constantly evolving. Those longing for a time of “undiluted” Britishness are longing for an illusion. It is not uncommon for older generations to resent the culture of the new one, but culture is always changing. Immigration is one contributing factor to this change, but it is hardly the only one. Just think of the impact that smartphones have had on the way of life in modern Britain.

Discussions of who we are, on Britishness, are inevitable. The Great British Bake Off has a seemingly enormous unifying effect, precisely because of its expression of an inclusive Britishness. So identity is not redundant and it may even be necessary.

Yet the fixation of particular kinds of identities is debilitating for Britain as a society. Focus on identity and you may miss a good argument from someone. Focus on someone being a Muslim and you may miss a pretty tasty looking chocolate peacock.

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