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Being British – what do we mean by “we”?

January 29, 2016
Land of Hope and Glory

Land of Hope and Glory – Last Night of the Proms

Now class – consider these statements:

“It’s our values that make this country what it is, and it’s only by standing up for them assertively that they will endure.” (David Cameron, arguing that migrants who fail to learn English should not be allowed to remain in the UK.)

“Continually pretending that a group is somehow going to become like the rest of us is perhaps the deepest form of disrespect. Because what you are essentially saying is the fact that they behave in a different way, some of which we may not like, is because they haven’t yet seen the light. It may be because they see the world differently than the rest of us.” (Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, talking about British Muslims.)

Both statements, it seems to me, beg three critical questions. What do we mean by British values? What do we mean by integration? And finally, what do we mean by “we” and “the rest of us”?

Let’s look at David Cameron’s “British values”. The best definition I could find comes from government guidelines for teaching primary school children in state schools:

“Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”

According to Mr Cameron, we should kick out migrants who don’t learn English. Can anyone tell me how inability to speak English compromises British values? Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps Mr Cameron is referring to other values beyond those defined by his government. Free speech maybe, or love of country. After all, no point blaspheming or cursing your host country in a language most people won’t understand.

Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily nit-picking (note to migrants with an uncertain grasp of English idiom: nit-picking literally means removing head-lice, but it has come to mean “to be excessively concerned with or critical of inconsequential details”).

Is he saying that it’s OK for us to kick out migrants, because we can, but we should put up with EU migrants – Bulgarians and Romanians for example – who don’t learn English, because we can’t do anything about their linguistic shortcomings? Is he also saying that there’s something special about the British values he talks about? Would not half the countries in the world say that they believe in the same values? More on that later.

Let’s now look at integration.

I spent a total of fifteen years living in Arab countries. I did not learn Arabic with any level of fluency, nor was I expected to by my hosts. What Arabic I acquired was at my initiative, and in the interest of being able to communicate better with my hosts. You could argue that I was a migrant, yet I was not expected to convert to Islam, nor was I expected to adopt native social norms. All that was expected of me was that I respect local customs and comply with the law.

For much of that time, I and most of the other westerners working in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain lived in enclaves. We were, in other words, very far from being integrated into Saudi society. Are we not being just a trifle hypocritical in expecting migrants to our country to integrate into ours?

In the US state of Pennsylvania, which I visited a couple of months ago, there are large communities of a Christian sect called the Amish. They live by their own values, they eschew most modern technology, they dress in a uniform manner, and most of the men wear long beards. This in America, the great melting pot, the nation that prides itself on its ability to integrate new arrivals. And yet the Amish flourish, content in their own communities, and nobody in America contests their right to do so.

In my country, there are communities whose men wear Victorian frock coats, long beards, black hats and ringlets of hair on the side of their heads. They do not work on Saturdays. Their wives are required by religious law to cover their hair. Some wear wigs. Others wear hats or other forms of head covering.  They live according to an elaborate set of practices and rituals, most of which are unique to members of their community. They are called Orthodox Jews. Nobody in the UK seeks to persuade them to abandon their rituals and their clothing in the cause of social integration.

A good friend of mine was born in Wales. He was raised in a Welsh-speaking family. He did not start to speak English until he was seven years old. He grew up to be a patriotic officer in the British Army, and subsequently a senior executive with a number of technology companies. His parents still speak Welsh at home, yet no fingers are pointed at them for failing to integrate with the rest of the population.

So let’s now consider these diverse groups – the British in Saudi Arabia, the Amish, the Welsh-speaking Welsh, the Orthodox Jews. Do they respect the rule of law? Mostly yes. Do they participate in democratic processes? Again, mostly yes. Do they respect the individual liberties of others? Yes, provided that the others do not break the norms of the communities in which they live. Do they respect and tolerate those who have different faiths and beliefs from their own? By and large yes, because they are in a minority and have little choice but to do so, and in any event actions they might take that indicate otherwise are curtailed by law.

And what about our Muslim citizens? The vast majority respect the rule of law, vote in elections, respect the liberties of others, subject to the same conditions about the norms of their communities, and respect and tolerate people who have different faiths and beliefs. The vast majority. A small minority don’t, often with damaging and occasionally lethal consequences. Which is why we, America and most European countries are focused on that small minority, their beliefs and activities. And why we seem to expect the Muslim communities to integrate further than the Amish, the Orthodox Jews and any number of self-contained groups. The difference? We consider that non-Muslim minorities pose no threat to the established order.

But what do we mean by integrate? Is there such a thing as total integration, or are there degrees of integration? If the latter, how much does a group of people have to be like “the rest of us” to be considered integrated to a satisfactory degree?

It’s also highly likely that were it not for the small minority of Muslims who believe in the ideologies of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, most of us wouldn’t be any more concerned about the practices, rituals and beliefs of our Muslims than we are about those of our Orthodox Jews, or Americans of their Amish.

And if we look back at the Britain of my youth, we could argue that a social and legal system that executed murderers, criminalised homosexuals and frowned on extramarital sexual relations would have been far more compatible with the beliefs of our Muslim communities in Britain today.

But things have changed, and they will continue to change. So integration is a constantly moving target.

Where the “small minority” fall short of our expectations is in respecting the rule of law. Female genital mutilation is against the law. So are honour crimes. So are expressions of hatred on religious grounds. So is the formation of vigilante groups to interdict the legal behaviour of others. So is murder and conspiracy to murder. So is failure to apply legally mandated standards of education.

These are all matters of law, even if underlying these kinds of unlawful activity is a lack of respect for the other “British values” defined in the schools guidelines. There are many people in the United Kingdom – not just Muslims – who disagree with any number of laws. There are people who want to bring back hanging, that drug use should be decriminalised, that migrants should be denied benefits. And it’s not just Muslims who believe that blasphemy should be a crime. But the law is the law. If you want to change a law, there is a process, which starts with democracy, for doing so.

Now Trevor Phillips says that we are wrong to expect that Muslims over time will become “more like us”, because they see the world in a different way from “the rest of us”. Broadly speaking I think he’s right. There are some aspects of Islamic teaching which are fundamentally at odds with other belief systems. But there are two problems with what he is saying.

First, he is implying that our Muslims are a heterogeneous group with identical views on all subjects. Clearly they are not, hence the small, or substantial (depending on who you listen to) minority who do not subscribe to the British values as described above. Equally, the majority of Muslims – if we are to believe surveys and research – don’t subscribe to the harsh interpretation of the Islamic scriptures followed by the minority. You don’t, for example, hear many Muslim voices in this country calling for the reintroduction of slavery and the slaying of homosexuals.

Muslims in Britain are as diverse as any other section of the population. Many are integrated to a high degree socially, politically and economically. They would no more think of mutilating their daughters or raising the black flag over Downing Street as any non-Muslim. And there is no consistency about the length of time they or their ancestors have been in this country. We have first-generation British Muslims in parliament, and third generation Muslim citizens making their way to Syria.

I have many Muslim friends, some of whom visit me when they come to the UK from the Middle East. They are educated, intelligent people. There is no big gulf between us that prevents them from being friends. We respect each other’s differences, and what we have in common far outweighs the differences. To suggest that these people should become “more like us” is as insulting as it is unreasonable.

So, sorry again for nit-picking, but making broad statements about Muslims puts Mr Phillips on shaky ground.

Then there’s the question of “we”. Who the hell are we? Big question, I know. Is there a gigantic basket that includes naturalised Russian oligarchs living in Kensington townhouses, agricultural labourers in East Anglia, call centre agents in Manchester, lawyers in Glasgow and shelf-stackers in Cardiff? Of course not, and I suspect that the gap in values, attitudes and perceptions between many of these groups is far wider than what divides any of these groups from most of our Muslim citizens.

So you could argue that it’s meaningless to use the word “we”, unless you’re speaking from the perspective of one of the many social, economic and geographical tribes that make up our country. Lots of minorities, in other words, of which our Muslims are but one. You could also argue that the overarching “we”, Britishness, is a figment of the imagination.

You could still make a case for there being uber-tribes who identify themselves as English, Scottish Welsh and Irish. But Britishness? I don’t think so, except when we’re watching the Olympic Games, or cheering on Johanna Konta, an ethnic Hungarian tennis player who grew up in Australia, moved to Britain at 14 and has just reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open.

Let’s move on to David Cameron’s latest initiative, in which he wishes to compel migrants to learn English. Yes, I know what Cameron’s trying to achieve. He’s concerned at Muslim families living in Muslim-only urban districts where the women are kept at home and out of view, districts which he believes are breeding grounds for extremism.

Yet many of those families hold British citizenship, so he can’t do a thing to force them to integrate, linguistically or otherwise. Just as he can’t force French migrants, whose home country espouses the same values as Britain, to become fluent in English. Nor would he, because he knows that it is in their interest to do so. Without a reasonable command of our language, a Parisian is not likely to find it easy to gain employment in London. The same applies to a Londoner wishing to work in Paris.

So the whole issue of language as a means of forcing the pace of integration seems a bit of a red herring, in that it would be impossible to enforce broadly enough to make it effective. I’m all in favour of it being a condition for the granting of citizenship that candidates should speak an acceptable level of English, as the law currently requires (for reasons of political correctness Welsh and Scottish Gaelic are acceptable alternatives, though I wonder how many would-be citizens invest in Gaelic lessons).

But in the case of migrants, encouragement is surely more in keeping with our values than compulsion. And even for economically inactive dependants, learning the local language would seem to be a matter of self-interest, especially if the migrants are intending to settle in the country permanently. But we should not forget that many migrants are here on a temporary basis. Is it reasonable to expect all member of their families to become fluent in our language, when they fully intend to return to their homelands as soon as it is safe to do so?

None of this contributes towards solving the problems that David Cameron and Trevor Phillips have raised. But we do need to remember that rhetoric is cheap, emotion is as abundant as water, and big pictures are always more attractive than their constituent pixels of detail. Unfortunately, details ignored more often than not lead to unintended consequences.

We also need to remember that solutions are never perfect. Most are the result of trial and error, muddling through, even if we chose to dress them up as grand strategies. And each day that goes by erodes the status quo, and requires us to think again – no matter that the demagogues who peddle panaceas would have you believe otherwise.

Now for your next essay:

“Britain should have a zero-tolerance approach to intolerance – discuss”

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