Skip to content

To Be or Not to Be…..British?

December 16, 2013

Why is it that streams of immigrants arriving in the United States since its foundation have been spurred on by an “American Dream”, yet the main motivation for those coming to the United Kingdom appears to have been “streets paved with gold”?

Both countries have welcomed their share of the oppressed and the persecuted, yet the American Dream  – a new world, a new life, where an immigrant’s son can rise to be the President – seems a far more idealistic notion than the prospect of gaining a beachhead in the nation of shopkeepers.

Is that the reason why so many immigrants to the United States think of themselves as Americans first, and within a single generation produce proud, patriotic and fully-integrated citizens, whereas many first and second generation new Britons, especially those who have arrived from outside Europe, think of themselves as Somalis, Indians, Pakistanis – or in some cases Muslims  – first, and Britons second?

What is it about the “American way” that inspires the loyalty of successive waves of new Americans, whereas so many new Britons still identify with their old country, or indeed the all-pervading Kingdom of God?

Throughout my adult life I have listened to British politicians of one political stripe or another warning about the consequences of unfettered immigration or blaming opponents for mishandling national policy on the issue.

The big bad wolf of my youth was one John Enoch Powell. Powell was a classical scholar, politician and orator who hailed from the same neck of the woods, Birmingham, as me. In 1968 he warned of the dangers of immigration in his famous Rivers of Blood speech:

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the 20th century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now.”

He was, of course, speaking at a time when the United States was racked by race riots. The town he represented in Parliament, Wolverhampton, had a high proportion of Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. He was immediately cast into the outer darkness by his own Conservative Party, and thereafter was demonised by the political left.

Fast forward to 2013, and there are many who would still subscribe to Powell’s concerns, not least the UK Independence Party. They would point to our own race riots, to 7/7 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the UK as evidence that he was a prophet crying out in the wilderness.

More recently we have seen senior Labour Party politicians such as Jack Straw, admitting that his government’s failure to push for restrictions to limit the influx of migrant workers from the new members of the European Union – such as Poland and the Baltic states – was a disastrous mistake. The government at the time – in 2004 – anticipated that 15,000 such migrants would come to Britain every year, whereas the next influx in the 8 years since then has been over 1.2 million people, including half a million Poles.

The Poles were not in Enoch’s cross hairs back in 1968, even though there was a substantial community that settled in Britain during and after the Second World War. It was mainly citizens of the commonwealth – and specifically those with dark skins – to which he was referring, with the result that he became the poster boy for every racist fringe group of the time, not to mention a large number of frightened middle Englanders who had never seen a dark face in their small towns and villages.

So today we have a pervasive narrative. Potential terrorists in the suburbs. Lithuanian waiters, Polish builders, Albanian gangsters. And coming soon to a street corner near you, hordes of Roma sucking benefit cash out of the system and camping in the parks. Our own people unable to find jobs because the East Europeans are hovering up employment opportunities and undercutting the locals.

At the upper end of the scale, we hear that foreign plutocrats, bankers and oligarchs are buying up central London and, because they are absent much of the time, turning it into a lifeless wasteland, a city without a heart. No affordable housing for nurses, firemen, teachers and dustmen – people who keep the city running and humming.

People who don’t see a foreigner from one day to the next live with a sense of unease, stoked up by politicians and the loud end of the media. A feeling that the British – or English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish – way of life is under threat as never before. That Polish sausage and halal chicken will soon trump the good old Sunday roast in the public affection. That before long no churches will have lead roofs because of itinerant metal thieves.

And horror of horrors, that whole neighbourhoods will become no-go areas because “the Muslims” have taken them over and implemented an informal sharia, with vigilantes patrolling the streets, pubs closed down and advertising hoardings with images offensive to fundamentalists torched or ripped down. And in those neighbourhoods women dressed head to toe in black robes drifting like malevolent phantoms from one shop to another.

But hold on.

What is this way of life that is so under threat? And if you could preserve it, what would you preserve? The News of the World? East End sweatshops? Pubs that don’t serve food? Dirty, inefficient trains? Coal mines spewing out workers after every shift who are destined for an early death through lung disease? Foxes disembowelled by packs of killer dogs? Dreary seaside towns with poisoned surf?

Or would you be nostalgic about young kids vomiting in the streets after a night of clubbing? Cocaine, corrupt police, Methodist ketamine users, reality TV and daytime shows about home improvement?

Probably not, but try defining the essential elements of Britishness you would like to preserve, and you will find any number of criteria depending on where you go to get the answer and who you ask.

And before we start blaming the foreigner for our fractured identity, can we point to any sustained period in our country’s history when our island has been closed to foreign influence and immigration?

Looking at the past three hundred years, you could say that the rise of Britain to imperial greatness was achieved through conquest and trade – the latter greatly assisted by the former. Did we close our doors to merchants and metalworkers? To labourers, jewellers, glassblowers, tailors, merchant bankers and mercenaries who kept our colonies in order? To Huguenots, Jews, Irish, and latterly Italians who were once prisoners of war, and Poles who fled the Nazis and died in the defence of our country? To Asian Muslims whose kinsmen died in their thousands crewing the convoys that re-armed us and stopped us from starving at the hands of Hitler’s U-Boats? To Indians, Nepalis, Kenyans and Barbadians who fought for our cause in Africa, Europe and the Far East? And after the war, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Nigerians and Cypriots who came to Britain to enhance our depleted workforce?

So we lost our empire, and had to start living by our wits rather than brute force and the barrel of the gun. No more conquest, but plenty of trade. The transition was painful, especially when our industry was outclassed and out-priced by competitors both close to home and far away.

To speed pour regeneration we welcomed foreign investors with open arms. Japanese car manufacturers, American chip makers, Swedish phone makers and German bankers. So why were we surprised that after we let letting so many of our own industrial powerhouses wither on the vine, the newcomers brought a new wave of immigration in their wake?

Companies who invested in Britain did so because they could become honorary members of an immensely valuable club – the European Union. Through us, the markets of continental Europe were open as they never were before. And as the price of our membership, we chose to accept freedom of movement and labour for citizens of the EU.

Did we sign a pact with the devil when we joined the EU and started selling off the family silver, as Harold Macmillan described Margaret Thatcher’s wave of utility privatisations?

It makes no difference now. We are where we are.

So is it too late to find a way to define an essence of Britishness? Perhaps one answer lies in our constitution, or lack of one.

English law is a patchwork of statutes and common law, some of which date from the middle ages. Overlaid on top of this massive body of acts of Parliament and legal precedents is the more recent addition of pan-European law, binding upon us by treaty, of which perhaps the most significant are the Social Chapter and the Human Rights Act. Yet we have no written constitution.

Compare our system with that of the US, where a written constitution is the bedrock of the nation. There you will find laws guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly and religion, fair trial and the due process of law. The constitution has been amended a mere twenty seven times in the 250-odd years of its existence. But it can only be changed by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress. There is a federal court system with the Supreme Court at its apex that rules on whether any proposed legislation – either at state or federal level – is unconstitutional and has the power to strike down the offending legislation.

In the United Kingdom, no such constraints exist. Only the will of Parliament, where a simple majority often elected by as few as 35% of the voters, hold the whip hand. The lower house of Parliament can enact any law, foolish, draconian or otherwise, by a simple majority. The upper house can only delay the law’s passage, but cannot block it. UK legislation trumps all legal precedents. Our Supreme Court exists only to adjudicate over the grey areas, where a law might not be clear, or has not anticipated a new condition or scenario, or where an issue is not manifestly dealt with by legislation and needs to be tested in the light of centuries of precedent and case law. Yes, there is a set of overriding principles, such of habeas corpus, that have existed for centuries and in some cases are enshrined in legislation. Yet even a principle as fundamental as habeas corpus can be qualified by legislation, as was the case in the post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation that enabled the police to hold suspects without having to show just cause for a far longer period than any time in our recent history.

The meaning of citizenship is another telling difference between the UK and the US. When you become a US citizen, you swear to defend and uphold the constitution and the laws of the country.

A new British subject, however, only swears loyalty to the Queen. Note that we are subjects. Americans are citizens.

So consider the difference in clarity between the US constitution and our mishmash. In the US, a citizen is able to say “as an American I have fundamental rights and obligations enshrined in the constitution”.

But in the UK, for each fundamental right you first have to identify which statute guarantees you that right or places an obligation on you – not an easy task without a lawyer sitting by your side. You might even find that more than one statute has a bearing on that right, as we will see later. In other words, there is no fundamental big picture.

I’m not suggesting that we Brits adopt wholesale the checks, balances and separation of powers at the heart of the US constitution. But a written constitution that can only be changed with the approval of two thirds of the each house of the UK parliament might well provide us with a politically neutral benchmark against which to assess new legislation. It can also provide a statement of what as a nation we consider to be the most fundamental characteristics of our identity.

A good case in point is the anti-terrorism legislation in the UK and the US.

The US constitution did not stop Congress from passing the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11 despite the opposition of many Americans. The most controversial provisions of the Act, among other things, gave the federal government enhanced powers of electronic surveillance over individuals, businesses, public institutions and cross-border communications. But since it was passed, and renewed in 2006, the Act has been subject to a number of legal challenges, many of them on grounds of potential violation of civil liberties. The federal courts have ruled several provisions to be unconstitutional, with the result that the 2006 Act incorporated a number of changes.

In the United Kingdom, according to the Civil Rights organisation Liberty, “there  are over five Acts of Parliament and numerous regulations, rules and Orders which provide for special counter-terrorism powers and offences”. In an Overview of Terrorism Legislation, Liberty goes on to list what it believes are “the worst excesses of counter-terror law passed since 2000”:

“- indefinite detention without charge of foreign nationals if suspected of involvement in terrorism;

– unsafe and unfair control orders imposing severe and intrusive prohibitions, including indefinite house arrest for up to 16 hours a day without charge, let alone conviction;

– pre-charge detention in terrorism cases, currently allowing for 28 days detention without charge, more than seven times the normal criminal period and the longest period of any comparable democracy;

– section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allowing stop and search without suspicion which has been disproportionately used against peaceful protesters and ethnic minority groups;

Other counter-terrorism laws that raise grave concerns include:

– the dangerously broad definition of terrorism which applies to action taken to advance any ‘political, religious, racial or ideological’ cause designed to influence the government of any country or international organisation or to intimidate any member of the public anywhere in the world. Many offences are linked to this definition of terrorism which means that large numbers are potentially criminalised. The definition stretches to action which is designed to seriously disrupt an electronic system.

– broad new speech offences including the ‘encouragement of terrorism’ which encompasses making statements that glorify terrorist acts. It is an offence even if the person or group making the statement doesn’t intend to encourage terrorism. As the definition of terrorism is so wide this could criminalise people speaking out against repressive regimes anywhere in the world. These offences have the potential to seriously infringe free speech rights, criminalising careless talk and having a chilling effect on free speech surrounding, for example, foreign policy.

– the offence of photographing anything that might be useful to someone committing or preparing an act of terrorism. This measure has seen many tourists and professional photographers stopped from taking photos of police officers or landmark buildings.

– the banning of non-violent political organisations, amounting effectively to state censorship of political views, which has the potential to drive debate underground.

– the power given to a constable, immigration officer or customs officer at a port or border to question, detain and (for the police) to take the DNA of anyone entering or leaving the UK to determine whether they are involved in some ways in acts of terrorism – a power that can be exercised without any reasonable suspicion of such involvement.

– the extraordinarily broad powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which allow a Minister, whenever there is the threat of terrorism, to make emergency regulations that could temporarily override almost all other legislation.”

While clearly Liberty has a specific axe to grind in making these observations on Britain’s anti-terrorism legislation, it’s hard to believe that some of the provisions about which it is most concerned would escape a legal challenge on constitutional grounds if they had been enacted in the US.  The fact that these regulations are enshrined in four separate pieces of legislation speaks volumes about the confusing and opaque nature of our legal landscape.

So is a written constitution the answer to our quest for a defined national identity?

Although it might provide us with a framework on which to hang our Britishness, a formal constitution is hardly likely to stir the emotions of the average Brit. After all, patriotism and national pride are emotions, which are often the opposite of logic. For example, is there a more illogical statement than “my country, right or wrong”?

There are no epithets that characterise our nation in the same way as Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, nails the French tricolour to the mast, or Land of the Free sums up American aspirations, or even Deutschland Über Alles celebrates a belief in German superiority.

We are a fairly cynical bunch and we wear our patriotism lightly. The tears only seem to form in our eyes when we celebrate the traditions of our component parts, often on the sporting field. So Scotland becomes The Brave. Wales is the Land of our Fathers, and England is Jerusalem and Hearts of Oak. Northern Irish sentiment, sectarian as it is, appeals to tribes rather than nation. Rebel songs and ditties about King Billy divide as much as they unite.

So, with the distinct possibility that Scotland the Brave might soon morph into the Kingdom or Republic of Scotland, should we not use the opportunity to encourage Englishness, Welshness and Irishness?

I leave it to the Welsh and Irish to define their national characteristics. As an Englishman, I’m primarily interested in Englishness. Curiously enough, England, the major component of the Kingdom that imposed its will, often in brutal fashion, over half the planet, has been praised over the centuries for its passive and rather inward-looking virtues. We’re seen as reticent. Our home is our castle. We are tolerant of the next man. We are courageous, stubborn and sometimes truculent, in a hedgehog kind of way. We are modest, yet when you scratch our surface we are smugly confident that we live in the finest nation on earth.

For all that our empire was built on commercial greed, our ancestors convinced themselves that by colonising all the pink areas we were bringing civilisation to a dark and barbarous world.

Our long and only occasionally uninterrupted adherence to the rule of law, and perhaps our attitude to sporting endeavour, has given us the reputation for “fair play”, even if the French delight in referring to their nearest and closest rival “perfidious Albion”.

Unfortunately none of these qualities is enough to capture the imagination of the would-be Englishman, let alone the would-be Brit. We do not live in a land of opportunity, but in a land with a superior welfare state, of job opportunities and disparate communities where newcomers find themselves welcomed into a familiar sub-culture.

So how do we bring together these communities and forge some kind of enduring national identity?

A written constitution that clearly enshrines our civil values might be a start. But perhaps we should also remember that we are the home of Shakespeare, Newton, Brunel, Fleming, Whittle and Lennon. That we invent things, make things, discover things, and through our artists, writers and musicians we articulate, dream, create and transcend.

So instead of lamenting our fractured society, perhaps we should re-double our efforts to honour and encourage our writers, musicians, scientists, doctors and engineers instead of Scrooge-like cutting of subsidies here, grants there and research projects everywhere. And we should ask yourselves why we put potential Nobel prize-winners who want to come here to study and conduct research with the brightest of our scientists and technologists through such ludicrous hoops before they can get leave to enter the country.

Perhaps we’re overreacting as we face what the media forewarn is an imminent deluge of Rumanians and Bulgarians across our borders. Yes, this is a practical and financial issue, and perhaps we should take measures to restrict further immigration from the EU – but on the basis of common sense, not xenophobia.

Finally, should we not remind ourselves that the immigrants of a century ago have long since spread out from the East End of London and other refuges of the poor, and except perhaps in the matter of religion are indistinguishable from the rest of us? Should we not cherish the hope that, barring disaster, within a generation the current crop of newcomers will be writing, singing, inventing things and healing people just like their predecessors? Maybe a little patience is in order.

There’s no turning back. But while we shall for ever after be the multi-racial society that we always were, there’s no reason why, like the United States, the United Kingdom should not share a common culture based on purpose and values to which all the British subscribe – no doubt in our apologetic, shambling but hopefully not complacent British way.

From → Politics, Religion, Social, UK, USA

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: