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The Importance of Being British

4 minute read

Say the words “British” or “English,” and most people think “enduring”: a royal succession that goes back to 1066, the language of Shakespeare, ancient universities, the mother of Parliaments. But the reality of Blair’s post-imperial, globalized Britain — when the royals are tabloid fodder, hereditary peers have been kicked out of the House of Lords, and Scotland and Wales have their own assemblies — is better described as fluctuating. And that is giving British politics a case of vertigo. In small ways and large, national identity, and its more prickly cousins immigration and race, keep popping onto the national agenda.

They did so with a vengeance two weekends ago in Oldham, a former textile town near Manchester. A skirmish outside a shop between two British-born teenagers, one of Asian descent and one white, triggered fighting between whites and non-whites. The Asian youths then turned on the police. The violence left dozens injured, cars torched and properties smashed. Though Oldham has quieted down, race relations are likely to remain contentious issues even after the election. Says Chris Myant, of the publicly funded Commision for Racial Equality (C.R.E.), “While you have a picture of significant success in some areas, you still have a vast backlog of problems pulling down a number of groups, and you still have a high degree of racial prejudice among some white members of the public.”

Ethnic minorities make up only 6% of the population, but immigrants have more than doubled from the annual 90,000 during the early 1990s. The suffocation of 58 Chinese being smuggled across the English Channel in a refrigerator truck last year added fuel to a debate about who should be entitled to enter and remain in the country. Is Britain a “soft touch”? Does it need more foreign workers, or fewer? There is no consensus. William Hague has made the temporary detention of asylum seekers a central plank of his campaign, responding to anxieties in some towns where asylum seekers are now housed. It opened him to charges of racism, but the stance is popular among his core voters.

Even before the campaign started, the C.R.E. asked M.P.s to sign a pledge calling on candidates to refrain from stirring up racial hostility. It sounds harmless, but some refused on the grounds that it was wrong for the group to enforce “political correctness.” Shortly thereafter, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook suggested — to some derision — that Britain’s multicultural success was shown by chicken tikka masala becoming the country’s most popular dish. Then a retiring Tory backbencher raised temperatures when he said the British were becoming a “mongrel” race through immigration. Hague forced him to apologize. The gusts of opinion that these incidents provoked are signs of how hard Britain is finding it to answer the question of who is “really” British.

There is another complicating factor: shifting political institutions and allegiances within the country. The Labour government sold the idea of a new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly as ways to strengthen the Union. It may be having the opposite effect. Though most English approve of this devolution, there are strains. Scottish M.P.s at Westminster can vote on English laws, for example, but English M.P.s have no vote on many Scottish matters. There is also irritation that the Scots, unlike the English, now only pay their university fees once they start earning. A recent survey found that 17% of people in England now saw themselves as English, not British, up from 7% two years ago.

And then there is Europe. Tony Blair recently argued the “patriotic case” for engaging with the E.U., but two-thirds of voters want to stay out of the euro, and half would even leave the E.U., mostly because they feel it threatens British identity.

Despite Oldham, British anxiety about national identity has the virtue of being a mostly peaceful sport. “People’s conception of what it is to be British, what it is to be English, is an ever-changing one, and so it should be,” Home Secretary Jack Straw said recently. But those shifts may not always come without hurt. As Chris Myant says, “Race and identity are very close to people’s hearts.”

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