Knowing Who We Are

December 10, 2017 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Every face is white. At the theatre, on the bus, in the high street: every face has a pale tone. Outside of the cities this is too often the case. I wonder if I have not entered a time warp. If this really is here and now I need to ask what is happening?

What is happening is real enough. Finding the causes of this undeniable reality is problematic. Yet more problematic is finding an acceptable way of articulating what I see. It is too easy to read a situation superficially and then leap to unsupported conclusions. Surfaces conceal as much as they reveal. When it comes to matters of race we have to tread so carefully. Reasoned, informed discussion is crippled by prejudicial emotions often fuelled over many years by right-wing opportunists unable to gain advancement by responsible means.

People see the country they thought they knew changing in ways they did not anticipate. They are proud of our imperial history, while ignoring the obvious consequence. ‘London is the place for me’ goes the calypso. The gravitational pull was created by the imperial assertion of Britain’s superiority. The streets of London are paved with gold.

Perhaps the British Empire was fuelled by some good intentions, along with some selfish and cruel ones. Only the good intentions are taught as the history of the ‘Island Race’. Good intentions do not guarantee acceptable outcomes. So much post-colonial history remains inexplicable to Britons who have been told nothing of the cold, shadowy side of their past. Some of it is very cold indeed. Not all is in the distant past beyond living memory and of no relevance to our present condition.

Social experience is in a perpetual process change. It is only with hindsight [and with a high level of wishful thinking] that stability is the perceived norm.

There never was a time when cultural homogeneity was the norm. Stout yeoman in Tudor cottages is a chocolate box image for tourists. We presume a history that never was. Because of this our present condition is a society lacking a coherent and credible description of itself.

Currently the division between myth and reality is unacceptably and dangerously wide. The two sides are not speaking in the same language of the same country. To one way of thinking Britain is a country whose traditional culture has suffered a fairly recent intrusion by alien tongues and races in a miscegenation that is almost wilfully destructive. To another way of thinking the diversity we see today builds upon a long history of cultural exchange enlarging and enriching both the experience of and the idea of being British. The modern world must accept migration as inevitable and necessary.

It is easier to describe what it is to be British than it is to define it. A description observes. A definition excludes. Too strict a definition excludes many who are generally identified as British. For example, it has never been a requirement of acceptance that English should be the first language of a citizen. The Celtic languages, still spoken as living tongues, actually precede by millennia the language generically known as English.

Officially anyone carrying a British passport is British. Generally the official status is straightforward. Official status, however, is not synonymous with common acceptance. There is a widespread, if understated, feeling that a British identity can be defined by exact linguistic, cultural and racial norms. Any attempt at such a definition is certain to exclude, unintentionally, neighbours, colleagues and friends. A community is a union of disparate experiences. Monolithic uniformity defies experience.

Our common experience is that minorities always have been integral to the society of these islands. The diversity was there from the beginning. It is inherent in a sophisticated society that there shall be cultural minorities integral to society yet in some way different from the cultural core. Different, of course, is a word with several meanings, and it should be used with caution. The emphasis should be on the word integral.

To refuse this reality is to refuse engagement with the current shape of our society. Something undeniable is being denied. Although the history of empire is not denied: it is viewed as a history of British influence in the world.

British customs and values generously and selflessly were offered to the world.

That offer remains on the table, according to the white nationalist view of the world. ‘The empire has departed, but Britain remains at the centre of the world. It is to Britain that the world, including the United States, looks for a model of liberty, stability and civilized common sense.’

According to this view, we have nothing to learn from anyone else. ‘This realm of ours is an empire,’ begins the Act of Supremacy. Roasting alive those who thought differently, Thomas Cromwell denied and defied interests, experiences and values beyond his fiefdom. He set the pattern of moral disaster that is once more in advance.

A balanced history must include not only the insularity and superiority of Britain but also its inclusiveness. The history of British culture is a history of successive waves of international influence. This is in part generally known but not fully acknowledged. The ambivalence typifies British national identity.

On the one hand we were until recently a vast empire and [we think we] remain a global power. On the other hand we are the brave, little island with a proud history of repelling rapacious invaders.

We cannot be both these identities. We cannot adjust our fundamental experience to suit whatever happens to be the current mood. Every face in the high street is white but that does not mean everyone here can trace their ancestry back a thousand years with not a single foreigner to sully the pure British fruit of the family tree.

‘British’ as a political term arrived late to these islands. It is an imperial invention, an attempt to unify diverse national identities, languages and customs with different legal, administrative and, educational systems and faith cultures. An ad-hoc union is presented as an agreed and established unity.

Of course national identity, like personal identity, is necessarily complex. Various threads of history are woven into the fabric. The emphasis will be felt in different parts at different times. Wherever the stress falls the observable truth is that the adoption and absorption of migrant cultures has a long and rich tradition. What could be more British than Marks and Spencer? Or Charlie Chaplin? Or the Beatles? Need I say more?

Sadly, yes, because moral panic is fuelled by unreasoning emotions. It is the duty of all responsible opinion to counter fear with informed assurance. Some hope in this climate of mass manipulation for dishonest ends. The word ‘multicultural’ evokes the presence of colour and obvious contrasts. We look to the cities to see that. There are those who do not approve. They look at their communities and they see mainly white faces and so they think that there is no more to be said. They are living in an imagined country they believe to be more real than actual experience. It means very little to speak abstractly of loving an ideal of patriotism. It means a great deal to know exactly where you are.

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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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