LONDON — British Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) Gordon Brown has been calling for a national debate on the subject of British identity and what he terms “Britishness.”
In the past, the British have been not too concerned with such matters. It all seemed simple enough and hardly worth discussing. Britain was an island with clear boundaries set by the sea around it. On this island lived the British race. So why worry about anything beyond that?
But times have changed. Suddenly the question of national identity seems much more complicated and surrounded by feelings of unease and loss of definition.
First, with the doors open to massive immigration there can be no doubt that the character of much of British society, and the pattern of life in many districts, especially in big cities, has changed sharply. But does this mean that some pristine quality of Britishness as been diluted by stranger cultures and customs?
The reality, which many people forget, is that Britain has always been an “immigrant” nation, peopled by wave after wave of new arrivals down the centuries, from the Romans to the Danes, to the Vikings, to the Saxons, to the Normans, Spanish, Dutch, French Huguenots, Jews, Indians, Muslims, and so the list goes on. Britain, in short, and England before it, has always been a melting pot of races and sects.
Unlike the Japanese, with their relatively clear racial homogeneity for nearly 2,000 years, the British are an amazing mixture. There is no pure, original British stock, although from time to time historians have tried to invent some mythical true Britons, or Celts, who were here before the Romans came. And much effort has been invested in depicting the purity of the Anglo-Saxon world before the Normans invaded in 1066 with their French ways and French language.
Since then the interweaving of races and cultures has continued. The British throne has been occupied for the last thousand years mostly by foreigners. Countless temples, mosques, synagogues and churches dedicated to every conceivable branch and sect of Christianity bear witness to the totally cosmopolitan nature of British society.
So this aspect of the British identity debate may be understandable as the immigrants keep coming in, but it yields no new results — it is a mixture as before.
The second and related “identity” issue on which questions focus is the concept of multiculturalism. What this embodies is the idea that all the customs and cultures, and even laws, of Britain’s numerous ethnic groups and minorities should be not only tolerated but actually encouraged.
The danger in this sort of multicultural tolerance is that, while it sounds liberal and enlightened enough, in practice it leads to the increased isolation and alienation of minority groups at the direct expense of social cohesion and loyalty to the nation state itself.
Hence the rising demand that all immigrants should adapt, at least to a reasonable degree, to the common customs, laws and ways of life of the host or mother country.
A third reason for revisiting these matters and asking “who are we?” is that the United Kingdom is becoming the devolved or federal kingdom. The union of Scotland and England, which is 300 years old, is clearly being challenged by the rebirth of a Scottish Parliament.
This in turn prompts English minds to ponder the difference between being British, and being English. If the Scots want to go their own way, then do the English feel the same? If the Scots have their own Parliament — and the Welsh move that way, too — should the English go back to having their own Parliament in London? And are they happy to be ruled largely by Scotsmen? (Both Finance Minister Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, whom Brown is impatient to succeed as prime minister, are from Scotland).
There is a fourth reason why identity is an issue — one which is least discussed but which may be the real one above all. That reason is Europe.
Is Britain a separate nation anymore, with its own clear interests and purposes on the international stage? Or is it fast becoming a region within a larger nation called Europe? Is it set to be ruled from its own capital through its own Parliament at Westminster, or through higher institutions based in Brussels?
Or to put it at its most emotive and symbolic, what flag should people fly — the Union Jack, the English Cross of St. George, or the ring of stars of the European Union?
This is the burning “identity” issue that, more than any other topic, is fueling the whole debate. And it is the one that is the most divisive and the hardest for the British government to answer.
People today want a clear national identity and a country to love and belong to, all the more so in an age of globalization. The many races, colors and creeds that make up modern Britain are no different from any other societies in that respect. But just at the moment, while the questions about Britishness are getting louder and more persistent, the answers seem to be getting less and less clear.
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