Britain’s homegrown identity crisis

Immigrants are not causing the confusion over common values.

Munira Mirza

Topics Culture Identity Politics

David Goodhart’s article in Prospect magazine in February caused a huge stir about its claims that national identity was being undermined by the growth of diversity. Such a claim, said numerous commentators, amounted to an attack on immigrants and ethnic minorities for threatening ‘The British Way of Life’.

The controversy coincided with discussion about the immigration of EU citizens from the new Eastern European Accession States, and the first citizenship swearing-in ceremony in the ethnically diverse area of Brent, north London. This US-style induction into society, with the national anthem, oath-taking and certificates, seemed alien to the British way, where becoming a citizen was something one did quietly and unnoticeably.

Goodhart does recognise an element of truth: our sense of national identity is weak and people feel increasingly confused about what it means to be British. Related to that is the declining trust in state institutions, such as the police, judiciary, NHS and Parliament – all of which helped to conserve post-war cohesion and consensus.

However, Goodhart is wrong to blame the identity crisis on immigration or ethnic diversity. He sees the problem as one of an invasion of difference, which is so forceful that it cannot be absorbed by society’s common values.

The crisis of common values is a homegrown problem. If we want to work out why people don’t feel British anymore, it is not because of the 13 per cent of the population that is ethnic (half of whom were born in Britain anyway). After all, the welfare state was built on the labours of immigrants, and had once been able to incorporate different cultural expectations within the welfare state ideal. Rather, we should look to the internal fragmentation of British values and the institutions that embody them. It is because the political and cultural elites lack a sense of who they are or what they stand for, that immigrants are perceived as a destabilising influence today.

The crisis of British identity hasn’t happened overnight, but it has become more stark in recent years. While former prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously managed the Falklands Factor in 1982, by 1992 British identity was looking a lot more shaky. This was the Queen’s infamous Annus horribulus, which witnessed the pound crashing out of the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) on Black Wednesday, and a wave of political and royal scandals. Behind these troubles lay the broader crisis of elites across the Western world, brought into focus by the end of the Cold War. As cultural historian Robert Hewison notes: ‘Collectively, the fundamental assumptions upon which British institutions had operated since the Second World War no longer seemed to be valid; daily the pretences that sustained them were exposed.’ (1)

Institutions’ attempts to respond to the crisis only seemed to make things worse. The Tory Party’s morality campaigns were derailed by sex scandals, the most notorious of which involved the head of the Department of Heritage David Mellor. Meanwhile, the Royal Family’s attempts to prove that they were just ordinary people, by giving TV interviews and offering emotional disclosures, only undermined any remaining public respect.

Today, over a decade later, the Canute-like strategies to protect Britishness appear even more absurd. Consider how ridiculous it is to expect new British citizens to sing the national anthem at their swearing-in ceremony, the lyrics of which most of the population struggle to remember. Or, as has been proposed, asking them to take a ‘cultural test’ on being British, as if a multiple questionnaire might encapsulate the complexity of the national experience. How would such a cultural test incorporate the subtle shades of Britishness, represented by poets as diverse as the late Sir John Betejeman’s or the contemporary Benjamin Zephaniah?

The reality is that the swearing-in ceremony and citizenship classes are less for the benefit of immigrants and more for us. When Prince Charles presided over the ceremony in Brent, he said that he hoped it ‘added some value’ to their experience of becoming citizens and that it made them feel, ‘as if there were any doubt’ that they were British. Such words are not intended for the 19 citizens, but for the television cameras, national press and the political elite. The ceremony is less a sacrament than a pantomime. Where is British identity? The audience responds to cue, ‘It’s behind you!’.

These initiatives grab much of the news attention, but the crisis lies at the heart of the changes in the state itself. Politicians increasingly retract their responsibility for proclaiming the ‘national interest’ and prefer to talk about the different needs of ‘local communities’ and devolving power to ‘ordinary people’. This approach brought us the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies – not enormous democratic successes if electoral turnout is anything to go by. The state of the past promised to cohere the nation; such coherence seems impossible today.

Of course, there is little to romanticise in old-style Britishness. The Union Jack has been a symbol of terror and oppression for many – the other side of national pride has often been imperialism. The trouble is that the collapse of national identity has not brought about anything in its place. Sadly, our culture is not internationalist – fears of globalisation dominate discussions of media, food and lifestyle. Instead Britishness has been emptied out of any genuine meaning and transformed into that emotionally constipated sound-bite of New Labour – Cool Britannia.

What has been lost is any sense of universal or common values. Contemporary society finds it difficult to claim that there are values and needs that are shared by everyone, regardless of their particular cultural upbringing, skin colour or ethnic background. Surely we cannot restore the British welfare state of the 1950s – nor would we want to, for all its contradictions and failed promises. So how are we to resolve the problem of social disconnection and atomisation?

The question to ask is perhaps not ‘who are we?’ but ‘what kind of society do we want?’. The former question delivers clichéd answers such as cycling maidens or hip, ethnic urbanites. The latter demands that we explore the purpose of society.

This could cover areas such as our view of high culture, whether we develop new scientific knowledge to improve standards of living, whether we believe in the freedom to migrate, and whether we will welcome migrants to help build a new society. Such issues are rarely on the politicians’ radar, but if asked, they open up a wider range of possibilities. The challenge is that there is no immediate consensus. But challenges are also opportunities and to begin the debate would be a good place to start.

Munira Mirza is a researcher in cultural policy at the University of Kent.

(1) Culture & Consensus, R Hewison (1995) London: Methuen, p3

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Topics Culture Identity Politics


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