Testing Britishness

Who's more confused about British identity: immigrants or the political elite?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

UK home secretary David Blunkett’s recent suggestion that immigrant families should speak English in their homes shows the government’s increasing concern with the assimilation of immigrants. Blunkett has also announced plans to create formal pledges and tests to encourage the naturalisation of immigrants into British society.

As Blunkett says, despite large-scale immigration to the UK over the past 50 years, governments have not before tried to ‘induct new members of the community into what it means to be a British citizen’. ‘Too often’, he complains, ‘we have let citizenship go by default’ (1).

So why the concern now?

Immigrants have not suddenly become too stupid or too intransigent to work out how to build their lives in Britain. Instead, Blunkett’s obsession with naturalisation of immigrants reflects the prevailing uncertainty about what it means to be British.

Naturalisation seems like a difficult task that requires special procedures because the meaning of being British can no longer be taken for granted – it can no longer ‘go by default’.

The crisis of British identity was a recurring theme in Reclaiming Britishness, a book of essays published by the Foreign Policy Centre in which Blunkett made his remarks about immigrants speaking English in the home. ‘Our discourse on national identity has continued to lurch from crisis to crisis’, said Foreign Policy Centre director Mark Leonard. ‘David Blunkett and Peter Hain recently declared that immigrants need to be “more British”’, said Leonard, ‘but their invocation of “British values” merely highlighted the extent to which there is confusion about the content of British identity’ (2).

One of the indicators of this state of affairs is the ‘collapse in support for most of the national institutions: the House of Commons, the monarchy, the judiciary, and the civil service’. British citizens no longer identify with, or even trust, these public institutions. And visions of Britishness projected by previous political elites – Margaret Thatcher’s Victorian entrepreneurs, John Major’s warm beer and cricket – are now regarded with disdain.

When New Labour came into power in 1997, it sought to make a clean break with traditional ideas of Britishness – ideas that had become staid and caricatured during the Major years. New Labour’s idea of ‘Cool Britannia’ was an attempt to rebrand the country as forward-looking, open to change, metropolitan and diverse.

But recently, some of the gloss has worn off this celebration of diversity and change. There has been a dawning sense that there is a dark side to a society that celebrates diversity above all else. Diversity is not just freedom and choice; it is also disorientation and fragmentation. This was brought to a head in summer 2001, when Muslim youths rioted on the streets of Oldham, Bradford and Burnley. It is an awareness of social fragmentation that underlies Blunkett’s concern, stated in Reclaiming Britishness, to ‘[give] content and meaning to citizenship and nationality’.

But these issues, that involve all 60million British citizens, have been projected on to the 60,000 people who apply for British citizenship each year. Rather than face up to our inability to give ‘content and meaning’ to British citizenship, the issue becomes one of their inability to understand our ways.

This explains the immense difficulty the government has with drawing up guidelines for immigrants. The exercise of trying to tell immigrants how to be British is becoming an embarrassing demonstration of the fact that the elite doesn’t know itself.

On 9 September 2002, Blunkett established an advisory group to set ‘life in the United Kingdom’ naturalisation exams for immigrants wishing to become British citizens (3). The group has also been given the remit of designing a naturalisation ceremony. Professor Bernard Crick, who is chairing the committee, says Prince Charles told him the position was a ‘poisoned chalice’ (4) – probably one of His Royal Highness’ more sensible judgements.

Many of the ‘common values’ Crick floated in a Sunday Times article on the subject are based on a mythical notion of Britishness, rather than one that actually exists. ‘I suppose’, he said, without much conviction, ‘this is a democratic country that values freedom and rights, toleration, plain speaking, care and compassion for others, truth telling, openness, and the giving of good reasons in public…life and debate’ (5).

Freedom and rights? British governments over the past few years have been busily eroding civil liberties, including the right to silence and the right to free association – and they faced little dissent in the process. Giving good reasons in public debate? From the Commons to the comment pages, the evidence suggests that the level of reasoned public debate is at an historic low. The rest of Crick’s values are the vague components of good character, which it would be hard to argue were more prevalent among the British than any other nation.

When not telling fibs about British truth-telling, Crick resorted to tautology: ‘It seems to me that we become British by living in Britain and treating one another as British’, he said. Yes…and?

Crick also wrote about giving immigrants lessons in paying bills, and telling them how post offices, banks and courts work. It is nice of the British government to provide new arrivals with a Rough Guide to getting about in Britain, but this is hardly the point. It’s hard to believe that all this angst about assimilation stems from immigrants’ problems with posting letters or paying bills – which are technical aspects of life in a new country that are not very hard to pick up.

Blunkett’s comments about the importance of immigrants speaking English are similarly technical. Of course immigrants need to speak English to play a part in British society – and most do learn English, quickly and naturally, in the course of working and living in Britain. Perhaps some could use free English classes to give them the basics – but this should be a pragmatic matter, not a source of preoccupation for the home secretary.

But this is not just about English. Blunkett seems to see the English language issue as intertwined with the lack of ‘shared participation’ of ethnic minority communities in British society, and particularly the alienation of a new generation of Muslim youth that we saw in the 2001 riots. In Reclaiming Britishness, Blunkett suggested that immigrant parents speaking English at home would help to ‘overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships’ (6).

The idea that English-speaking ability of their parents has anything to do with youths’ lack of sense of belonging in British society is simply absurd. These are second- or third-generation immigrants, who were born and brought up in Britain. It is the absence of values and sources of cohesion in mainstream British society that underlies their lack of ‘shared participation’ – not their parents’ cultural intransigence.

The government’s attempts to lay down Britishness tests for immigrants are likely to become mired in controversy. We saw a glimpse of this when Blunkett’s suggestion that immigrants should speak English in their homes was received with howls of protest, as many people quite rightly said that the language families spoke at home was none of the home secretary’s business.

‘British values’ drawn up by committee are unlikely to be greeted with popular approval or gain a public resonance. The British identity crisis has its roots in mainstream society – and cannot be solved by some home secretary or professor striking upon a correct formula.

New forms of national identification can only come out of the process of British people living, working and debating together. Before Britain starts trying to test immigrants, it should test itself.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Reclaiming Britishness, (eds) Phoebe Griffith and Mark Leonard, Foreign Policy Centre 2002

(2) Reclaiming Britishness, (eds) Phoebe Griffith and Mark Leonard, Foreign Policy Centre 2002

(3) Blunkett establishes advisory group to set naturalisation exams, Guardian, 10 September 2002

(4) ‘How d’you know you’re British?’, Sunday Times, 15 September 2002

(5) ‘How d’you know you’re British?’, Sunday Times, 15 September 2002

(6) Reclaiming Britishness, (eds) Phoebe Griffith and Mark Leonard, Foreign Policy Centre 2002

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Topics Politics


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