May 2002

What does it mean to be British?

Margaret-Ann Fisken

Does cultural diversity enrich a nation or divide it? Margaret-Ann Fisken, the daughter of a diplomat, now works as a barrister in London. She draws on her own experience of life in both the USA and Britain to consider the implications of national identity on individuals and nations.

The concept of national identity has long been the subject of passionate debate. If you are looking for services that can help you with arguments and context, turn to elite writing, where you can find current theoretical achievements and links only to trusted sources. The notion of what gives a society its distinguishing character and sense of identity is often claimed as a source of political legitimacy by those who seek to govern. In this era of widespread global migration, the issues surrounding the debate have become increasingly complex and poignant.

The tragic events of 11 September 2001 have left their scar not only on the American psyche, but throughout the world. They have fuelled a surge of nationalism throughout the West, where emotions continue to run high. For some, the concept of national identity is no longer plausible. Instead, they seek to define and distinguish cultural identities within nations. This inevitably takes on narrow, negative interpretations which lead to the exclusivity of some groups and the marginalisation of others. Sadly, much of the published and spoken debate on the subject has its roots in xenophobia and bigotry rather than in reason.

Threat to peace?
A disturbing link has been drawn between violence, terrorism and international migration. Multiculturalism has been highlighted, not as a source of richness and diversity, but rather as a potential threat to world peace.

Britain’s civilisation is in mortal danger. The race riots in Oldham, Leeds and Bradford are the future of Britain — and will become the future of Europe if European countries do not get their migration procedures under control.

This stark and unambiguous warning is delivered by Patrick Buchanan, former American presidential candidate, in his recently published book, The Death of the West. Buchanan is a staunch Roman Catholic and a conservative politician. He argues passionately that mass migration has altered British identity beyond recognition and laments the cultural and social revolutions which both Britain and America have undergone in the last three decades. Buchanan despairs of a new chasm in Western society, the cause of which he attributes to differences of ethnicity and loyalty. The declining birth rate of European-Americans coupled with increasing immigration from non-white countries is, we are told, placing the future of Western civilisation in peril. Specifically, he argues that the United States now harbours a ‘nation within a nation’. If America is to survive as a single nation, the tide of mass migration must be stemmed as a matter of urgency.

But is the essence of American nationhood based upon incorporation or exclusion? For over two centuries, immigrants have been attracted to proclaimed American ideals of liberty and equality. When the United States declared its independence from Britain on 4 July 1776, the British settlers formed the largest single component of American society (the indigenous Native Americans and the black slaves who were brought to the colonies from 1619 onwards were not worthy of consideration as part of that society) and the social, cultural and religious foundations which they established have had a significant influence on American national identity ever since.

America’s contradictory thinking in respect of immigration is illustrated by the two symbolic landmarks which greeted immigrants upon arrival — the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Inscribed in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty are the famous words:

Give me your poor, your huddled masses,
yearning to be free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-lost, to me.

The reality at the immigration screening station at Ellis Island (separated from the Statue of Liberty by only a few hundred metres of water) was somewhat different. The screening process was rigid, consisting of dozens of tests, questionnaires and interviews. For those who successfully completed the process, the welcome was not unconditional. They were not received eagerly or openly into ‘American’ society. Instead, they were greeted with suspicion and hostility. These new arrivals settled in a foreign land and struggled to build their own communities, bringing with them those aspects of their cultures which they valued most.

Unashamedly racist
As levels of immigration rose, Acts of Congress were passed which allowed the United States to exclude ‘convicts, polygamists, prostitutes, persons suffering from loathsome or contagious diseases and persons liable to become public charges’. In due course, some anti-immigration legislation was unashamedly ‘racist’. In 1862, Congress passed a law forbidding American vessels from transporting Chinese immigrants to the US. This law was made even more draconian when it was extended, in 1882, to prohibit all Chinese immigration to the US.

Buchanan’s analysis, which blames America’s lack of political and social cohesion in the twenty-first century on the lack of a common culture, ignores this chequered heritage in terms of immigration and assumes a past homogeneity amongst its population. It also ignores the internal pressures which challenged the American way of life in the 1960s (black nationalism, the Vietnam war) and contends that it is the tide of international migration, beginning in the latter part of this decade, which overwhelmed America’s ability to assimilate the newcomer. America is, we are told, no longer a healthy melting pot. But was it ever?

My formative schooling took place at an Ursuline Convent in Washington, DC. It was a solid, middle-class educational establishment. When I arrived at the school at the age of six, my classmates were all American and all white. As a black Trinidadian in the midst of this, I was a bit of a novelty to the nuns. This was the 1960s — segregation, race riots, Martin Luther King. The only other black face was a woman who cleaned the convent. She had to travel quite a distance to get to work as the suburb where the convent was located was segregated and no ‘coloured’ person was allowed to live anywhere in the vicinity.

The nuns were very protective of me. I had not yet acquired my American accent and couldn’t always make myself understood to the other children. I didn’t grasp much of the social interaction but got on well academically and, to some extent, that protected me.

I was the daughter of a diplomat. I was in America for an indeterminate period of time but one of the first things that I was taught was to ‘pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God; indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. Like school children around the country, every morning I solemnly turned to face the Star-Spangled Banner, put my right hand firmly on my chest and delivered the Pledge of Allegiance.

As children do, I settled seamlessly into an American lifestyle. I quickly learned to say candy instead of sweets, cookies instead of biscuits and soon knew the difference between a nickel, a dime and a quarter. I made friends. In Buchanan’s terms, I assimilated into the melting pot. Or so it appeared.

The concept of a melting pot must be premised upon inclusion. But inclusion, American style, has its roots firmly in Anglo-Saxon culture. The American ideal espouses a fundamental belief in equality but some have always been more equal than others in American society. When we speak about traditional American values, we mean White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) values. When America’s political leaders strive for national unity in the twenty-first century, they mean cultural homogeneity.

As a child, the subtleties of class and ethnicity were lost on me. However, it was readily apparent that whilst the parents of my school friends were fiercely proud of being American (‘the greatest nation on earth’, ‘my country, right or wrong’), they were equally proud of being Irish, Hungarian, Italian or Polish. They had retained a pride in their heritage long after their ancestors had settled on American shores, whilst, at the same time, becoming loyal citizens of the United States. These parallel loyalties are not, however, an option for today’s immigrants. Cultural pluralism is now a threat to many Americans. To be American, one must assimilate. The level of assimilation open to individuals will, however, continue to be determined by factors such as ancestry, race and ethnicity.

It was never an option for me to adopt wholescale American values. My many years in America were therefore spent concurrently at the heart of American society and on the fringes of it. As an adult, I can look back and see that being American came more naturally to some than to others. The cultural constructs ensured that it was more difficult for those like myself to gain full acceptance in this nation-state founded on the principles of ‘liberty and justice for all’.

British identity?
But what of Britain? What does it mean to be British? Britain has long identified with and taken pride in a liberal tradition demonstrated through a robust defence of human rights. This hallmark of British national identity, as well as the complex and delicate issues of citizenship and nationality, have been challenged since the end of the Second World War, through the post-colonial era and beyond. International migration is not a recent phenomenon for Britain; it has been a consequence of Empire. In spite of this, however, the first wave of non-white immigration to the UK caused alarm both within government circles and within the community at large.

The arrival of unprecedented numbers of black and Asian immigrants from the Commonwealth, many of whom had fought for Britain during the war, established an important landmark as the seedling of modern British multiculturalism. The SS Empire Windrush sailed into Tilbury Docks from the Caribbean on 22 June 1948. Amongst the 492 West Indian passengers on board was my father. He recalls with amusement the circuitous route taken by the now famous troop ship, ‘It took nearly as long as any voyage that Columbus made.’ An unscheduled stop was made in Mexico to collect thirty Polish refugees. This detour caused the ship to run out of water and she was diverted to Havana, Cuba. US immigration officials feared, however, that these immigrants might jump ship and swim to American shores. Windrush was consequently not allowed to dock and was directed to the British colony of Bermuda, from where she set sail on the final leg of her legendary journey.

When these loyal British subjects arrived in the ‘mother country’, Britain was recovering from the ravages of war. There were many low-skilled jobs which needed to be filled as a matter of urgency. These colonial citizens came full of optimism, at the invitation of the British government, in search of career opportunities. Their optimistic expectations were seldom met. Although they had the right to work and were readily accepted into the labour market, they came up against considerable local opposition in other spheres, particularly in their search for accommodation. The problem became so acute that the Colonial Office was forced to reopen an air-raid shelter in Clapham Common to accommodate 230 immigrants. The nearest labour exchange was in Brixton, which consequently became the setting for Britain’s first West Indian community.

This initial attempt at ‘managed migration’, based purely on economic considerations, brought with it unforeseen pressures on traditional British society. These new immigrants not only contributed to the rebuilding of the British economy, but also began the transformation of its societal norms. John Major’s oft-quoted romantic vision of an England with ‘old maids on bicycles and cricketers playing on the village green’ did not welcome these new arrivals. Unable to participate in many social and economic areas of indigenous life, they took refuge in aspects of their culture which they brought with them. The native population had to learn to adapt to what was slowly but inexorably becoming a multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multicultural society. Many indigenous Britons felt the need to defend their interests and protect their traditional values from the changes which were taking place around them. A Colonial Office report of 1955 cautioned that ‘a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached’.

Slow changes
The adaptation to a culturally diverse Britain is in many ways still taking place. The colonial legacy is fading but the pace of change is slow. Until relatively recently, prior to Britain’s reluctant participation in Europe, those reaching a port of entry in Britain were classified as either ‘British Citizens’ or ‘Aliens’. Immigrants and their British-born descendants who have settled in this country and who participate in every aspect of mainstream life are still considered by some to be ‘foreigners’. Prejudice and discrimination remain facts of life for many.

Genuine progress has, however, been made in appreciating the true value of cultural diversity in Britain. Each generation should consciously seek to redefine its national identity so as to make sense of ever-changing circumstances. To do any less would be to show a blatant disregard for those who, whatever their ethnic origin, have chosen Britain as their home and contributed in a positive way to its pluralist identity. As Prince Charles observed in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush in Britain:

I knew of the beginnings of organised immigration from the West Indies in the late Forties, and have watched the subsequent growth of the Black community into what we have today. I grew up with the controversies surrounding the gradual acceptance not only that such a community existed, but that it was here to stay. I have seen those controversies subside as subsequent generations — certainly that of my sons — have grown up knowing only a multicultural Britain.

By multicultural, I mean not a Britain where different cultures coexist in sealed compartments, but one inhabited by individuals whose own culture has been enriched by contact with people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. I am proud to be part of such a Britain.

Sadly, as we settle into the twenty-first century, this vision of Britain, in which the Prince of Wales and many others take pride, is under siege. The progress which many have stoically struggled to achieve is being dissipated. Those ‘sealed compartments’ are in danger of becoming a reality. Increasingly, within British society we see the coexistence of groups defined by race, religion or ethnicity choosing to live in relative independence of one another, but without any bonds of mutual trust or respect.

Last summer’s race riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham were indicative of this dangerous multi-ethnic coexistence based on community mistrust and racism. These disturbances were the worst in Britain for nearly two decades and were, of themselves, socially divisive. Their impact was, however, compounded following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The combined effect was to exacerbate tensions and produce an anti-Islamic backlash throughout the UK. Many people have had to grapple with the reality that Europe is not ‘Christian’ territory. Border distinctions such as these are obsolete and unhelpful. British Muslims are not guests in somebody else’s country. They belong in Britain and they are entitled to expect that the rest of the British nation will respect their cultural differences. Fundamentalism and terrorism should not be assumed to be tenets of a Muslim way of life.

The official government response to the northern riots was set out in the Cantle report. It defines the government’s strategy for maintaining order in the future. This new strategy is ‘community cohesion’, based on greater knowledge, contact and respect amongst communities. There is, however, a fundamental dishonesty in the way that some politicians seek to revive damaging links between immigration and race under the banner of cohesion.

Striking a balance
Referring to the report, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, conceded that, ‘in the areas affected, communities are fractured and polarised’. He went on to confirm that ‘too many of our towns and cities lack any sense of civic identity’. He encouraged wide participation in a debate about ‘what citizenship and community belonging should mean in this country’. This can only be a positive process if the aim is to create greater sensitivity to cultural differences. To do this successfully, the pre-eminence of one community over another must not be assumed at any point during the course of debate. Additionally, to strike a balance between group freedoms and national legislation will require an acute analysis of local situations. As a nation, Britain must invest in knowledge, understanding and patience for the long term.

Blunkett himself has initiated the debate by flagging up the requirement that immigrants should take an oath of allegiance and that a competent level of English should be a prerequisite for citizenship. However unintentionally, the suggestion that these attributes are part and parcel of being British implies that social conflicts arise as a result of cultural diversity, rather than as a result of individual and institutional racism and social injustice. The unspoken argument is that if non-indigenous Britons became more like the indigenous population, the problems would be alleviated. This remedy deliberately sidesteps the root of the problem. It appeals to a backward-looking British nationalism and absolves the government from any responsibility to develop a positive and progressive vision for the future of Britain.

Perhaps the greatest complexities in terms of national identity arise as a result of global migration issues. Throughout the world there exists a refugee phenomenon of staggering proportions. There are tens of millions of forcibly displaced people living away from their countries of origin. Most of these are accommodated in poor, Third World countries. Some, however, seek protection in European borders. It is estimated that over the past ten years, approximately 4.4 million people have applied for asylum within Europe. In response to this, European Union nations have sought to develop the main elements of a common asylum policy. There is some concern that in developing such a policy, restricting access to European borders — the establishment of ‘Fortress Europe’ — has taken precedence over the protection of vulnerable refugees. This is no less true in Britain than in any other European Union country.

On 7 February 2002, the Home Secretary delivered the government’s most comprehensive White Paper on immigration, nationality and asylum to the House of Commons. It is entitled Secure Borders, Safe Haven: integration with diversity in modern Britain, and claims to introduce measures which will radically reform Britain’s asylum policies. In common with previous legislation, however, the emphasis is again on securing and enhancing the borders for those already in Britain, with less thought given to the provision of a safe haven for those in need of protection.

Asylum seekers
Many of Britain’s newest immigrants — those seeking asylum — take increasingly desperate action, risking their lives and paying vast sums of money, in their attempts to forge a new life. Their welcome, like that of those immigrants who preceded them, has not always been warm. The negative portrayal of asylum seekers in certain sectors of the media, and through inflammatory political rhetoric, has been damaging to community relations and has stigmatised one of the most marginalised groups in British society. It is difficult for those who are fleeing from persecution to develop a sense of belonging in a new home which brands them as ‘bogus’ and ‘scroungers’, and subjects them to a range of abuses. They have become the most recent victims of racial and ethnic discrimination. Degrading policies such as withdrawal of cash benefits, forcing a reliance on a system of vouchers, have contributed further to their marginalisation.

The government is now abandoning the voucher system for asylum seekers, admitting that it was ‘socially divisive’. It is, however, introducing accommodation centres which will house up to 3,000 asylum seekers. These are likely to be situated in disused military barracks, away from town centres, which will further hinder the successful eventual integration into British mainstream life of those asylum seekers who are granted refugee status. And yet, a significant level of positive integration with the host society is necessary to develop a shared vision of national identity. This is exactly what all members of a nation require in order to move forward as a united yet culturally pluralistic society.

As globalisation blurs national boundaries, the concept of national identity requires careful examination and continuous assessment to understand the complex historical and cultural relationships involved. The needs and challenges that confront a nation are not static. Questions of culture, descent, race and ethnicity will not disappear in the future. National identity must embody the realities of the present, as well as an understanding of the past. The quest for a national identity for Britain must be forged from a sense of present needs and future aspirations rather than from a narrow sense of common origins. Only in this way can a cohesive notion of citizenship be developed for the twenty-first century.

More by Margaret-Ann Fisken
Contents Page
 Back to Top

Home Page | Buy this Issue | Subscribe | Contents Page | Archive | The Tablet