lady painting

 

Dec 2000 Journal

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Multicultural Britain

Two words – each capable of stirring up a separate controversy.

In recent weeks two news items have cast a revealing light on the problems that beset the evolution of a multicultural society in Britain. The first related to a Gallup poll showing a widespread belief that ethnic immigrants and asylum seekers have been flooding into the country at such a prodigious rate that they now constitute a quarter of all inhabitants. The true figure is around six per cent of the population, although it may well be true that in London – which is atypical – every fourth resident hails from outside the United Kingdom. The widely believed inflated figure feeds the paranoid delusion that the native Brits are about to be swamped and that the country will lose its traditional identity. Such a Doomsday scenario does not merely start out from the premise of a hugely exaggerated alien presence; it also leaves out of account the effect prolonged residence in this country will have on the immigrants’ lifestyle in terms of more intermarriage, smaller families, etc.

Fears about the perceived loss of British identity are a different matter. Here, the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ seems to apply. Unlike their US counterparts, black British athletes have never jibbed at wrapping themselves in the national flag at Olympic award ceremonies. Indian cuisine and Afro-Caribbean music have made major contributions to contemporary British life. Although these exotic components have been quite smoothly subsumed into the concept of ‘Britishness’, the Runnymede Trust (composed of homegrown Liberals and ethnic spokespersons) has lately advocated dropping the term ‘British’ as redolent of the days of the Raj. The Trust’s report warns that the retention of the word with its Imperial connotations could present an obstacle to the identification of coloured immigrants with their new country.

This ‘project’, however well-intentioned, strikes one as fundamentally ill-conceived. The very act of emigrating from one’s homeland involves a readiness to leave ‘home-grown’ values behind, and fit into a pre-established, different way of life. When our ‘founding fathers’ created AJR Information it didn’t even cross their minds to make it a German language publication. We readily adopted the custom of ‘trick or treat’ and ‘a penny for the guy’ – especially since Guy Fawkes put us in mind of van der Lubbe, the arsonist in the Reichstag.

Admittedly, the Empire builders who set out to paint large parts of the globe pink were not driven by the ambition to replicate the parliament that had been saved from the Gunpowder Plot in all the capitals where the Union Jack flew. Even so, by the end of the Raj, Westminster-style parliaments were to be found in places as far apart as Delhi, Accra, Lagos and Nairobi. This transformation owed a lot to figures like Gandhi and Kenyatta – but also to such exemplary British personalities as Gladstone, Annie Besant, Arthur Creech-Jones and Fenner Brockway. Descendants of former colonial subjects are therefore hardly justified in looking upon the term ‘British’ as a barrier to identification with their new country of domicile.

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