Saturday, 30 May 2009


I've always been interested in Britishness. The word itself sounds not quite right, clumsy; it's certainly not used very often. But I believe it to be one of the most under-rated inventions of the people on our Atlantic archipelago. It permits an interleaving of identities that is very valuable.

Here are two posts examining Britain's established Celtic inhabitants, their nationalisms and allegiances. They are witty and engaging field notes reporting on the rich political-cultural ecology of Britain. I'm very glad to have come across the writer, Lincoln Allison (a Lancastrian, as it happens).

British nationality is a rare example of a nationalism which is a political and civic identifier more than an ethnic or even cultural one. This is in its DNA, having been conceived under Tudors and born under Stuarts so as to justify one Crown ruling over more than one nation. It reached maturity under the Hanoverians in resistance to the challenge of Catholic France. As such it had a powerful Protestant component but this has now atrophied to the point of invisibility.

The original design of a British identity - to give political unity to diverse cultures and ethnicities - still gives it the capacity to absorb a splendid variety of ways of life. Today, to be British at a fundamental level you only need support a couple of core ideas: the supremacy of the Crown-in-Parliament and the rule of law.

This isn't always appreciated, however. Peter Hitchens*, in railing against mass immigration here, writes about Britain possessing a 'monoculture' which is in process of being irreparably damaged and without which no nation can survive.

There are good arguments against mass immigration, of course. And I'm not arguing that the relative ease of becoming British means mass immigration will be a breeze. There's the influence of economics for a start. But I don't think the argument against mass immigration is sustainable on the grounds of our having a fragile and soon-to-be doomed 'monoculture', indispensable to nationhood.

Monoculture? I've sometimes wondered what my Welsh-speaking, Bible-quoting Baptist, Snowdonian, quarryman great-grandfather would have to say to my Lithuanian-Jewish, East Ender/Cardiffian, bigamist, scrap metal-dealing great-grandfather. Not very much presumably, as the former only spoke English haltingly. But they were both British and I'm pretty sure both believed in, or at least acknowledged, the legitimacy of British parliamentary democracy under the rule of law, even if they didn't think of it in these terms. That's Britishness, and its elasticity has to be a huge advantage in our ability to absorb immigrants.

It's also why the battle against Islamism has to be fought wholly on political grounds. It would be pointlessly destructive to engage with the enemy on the field of culture. It would necessitate an attempt to define a universal but substantive British culture. I don't believe this can done within current definitions. The cultural content of being British is so dilute as to be almost homeopathic: a tendency to watch the BBC is not sufficient.

More aggressively, a 'core' British culture might be carved out (perhaps that of, say, an East Anglian insurance underwriter?). This obviously excludes the multifarious others; giving Britishness a centre means it cannot hold. There is the risk that the living idea might not survive the forced - and discrediting - application from the political and civic to the cultural.

The end of Britishness would mean the end of Britain. Some may welcome this. I don't as, never mind Islamism, this carries its own potential for violence and strife. Ethnic nationalisms freed from the trammels of history are invariably productive of fascism.

Those who enjoy the ironies of history would relish the actions of soi disant defenders of a British monoculture destroying Britishness as it really is.

Besides, the biggest problem we have in the battle against Islamism is a reluctance of politicians and police to defend tolerance and counter sedition with the judicious application of the law. Here's the sort of cycle that builds when this isn't done**. A breach of the peace is permitted alongside various sorts of incitement: the vile and provocative defamations of our returning soldiers by Islamists in Luton. This passivity in policing results in vigilantism: an innocently by-standing mosque is fire-bombed and there are street battles between Muslim factions. If we don't want to suffer further from this dialectic - one which is clearly fueling the BNP - we need to be a lot more intolerant in our defence of tolerance. There's no absence of law to allow this to happen, but there is a clear absence of will.

*H/t to Elberry. PH is a former Trot and so is accustomed to thinking in absolutist terms; it seems to be a habit difficult to break.

** The fecund Elberry again. The piece is from the Daily Mail and the comments underneath the story are heartening. There is some criticism of Muslims for taking their time over challenging the Islamists. But the overwhelming sentiment is gratitude that the challenge has now been made, accompanied by well-merited disgust with the police.


Anonymous said...

Interesting distinction between the political and cultural - the cultural is extremely hard to define: it's one of those things which dissolves as soon as you try to grip it, but when you say 'okay, so there is no difference between the cultures of England and Pakistan' it reappears - so you try to define it again, whereupon it dissolves once more. It's impossible to closely define but nonetheless it exists.

A culture is much more flexible than many suppose - otherwise it wouldn't evolve, it would either stay more or less as it is or it would self-destruct. A culture is flexible and can (over time) incorporate a great deal - so Indian doctors are now a part of England, i don't just mean a grim FACT but a part of the culture, a part that fits well. There IS a continuity between Shakespeare's England and ours, though it seems at times very very different.

However, i think even a flexible culture can only absorb so much before it has difficulties - Islam, for example, is very different, it can't be compared to the culture of Viking invaders, or to the cultures of the sheep-shaggers or potato-eaters or crackheads - i'm sure it CAN be incorporated, but at the moment it's way too much too quickly and too strange & violent.

However, i suspect you're in the right - the answer isn't to enforce cultural singularity, which would only mean PC bullshit lessons for immigrants about how single mother families are ideal, white people are evil, Shakespeare was a slave trader, etc. etc. Even if it were in my hands it wouldn't work - i think you have to stick to the political, the legal, and hope our culture can absorb the invaders, rather than being destroyed and giving way to Saudi-style Sharia law, with women stoned to death and burnt alive for refusing to marry their first cousins, etc. i am not optimistic.

Anonymous said...

im a member of the Dobunni peoples and we have severed all links with luton airport

Lutonist said...

I am a member of Luton Airport and we have severed all links with the rest of the world.

Hey Skipper said...

It's also why the battle against Islamism has to be fought wholly on political grounds. It would be pointlessly destructive to engage with the enemy on the field of culture.

The gulf between cultures is so great I'm not sure how the battle against Islamism can be wholly political.

British culture is indeed distinct, as even an American readily notices. However, despite that, it is also one instance of Enlightenment cultures. There is no getting to England except through Gutenberg, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Restoration, Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Hobbes, Locke, Darwin and Adam Smith.

Culturally, Islam simply has no counterpart to any of that.

Legally, Britain has done what it can: Last year, blasphemy laws were repealed.

Politically, though, there is an unavoidable contradiction. Enlightenment values are inherently universal. Britain has a unique culture, but the political fight must be based upon what is not unique: freedom of conscience and expression is simply not negotiable.

Gaw said...

Skipper: As Elb says above, culture is a slippery term and I would agree that it's difficult to draw a clear dividing line between specific cultural values and potentially universal political values. But in the West at least an accommodation has always somehow been worked out. All the 'native' religions of the British Isles have gradually accommodated themselves to secularism. Unfortunately Britain is going to be one of the arenas where we witness Islam's struggle to do so.

Lutonist: We now know who is responsible for the stubborn road works on the M1. The irredentist Dubonni. I'm surprised though given your previous accommodations. Perhaps you have a new charismatic leader?

Hey Skipper said...

If culture is a slippery term, so is politics.

I remember "The Troubles" (aka Northern Ireland in case I am gooning up the terminology).

Which caused the near cessation in hostilities?

Winning the culture, or the political, war?

Gaw said...

Skipper: That's a great comparison and you're right if, as I think, you're indicating that both changing politics and culture played a part in what you rightly call 'the near cessation in hostilities'.

But I also think it's true to say that the British state focused on the political aspects of change, taking a culturally neutral line in matters of culture and religion. The cultural change came about in the same way as it usually does - it just happened.

Not least important was the increasing secularisation of the Irish Republic, where the unwinding of De Valera's near-theocratic settlement had a huge influence on attitudes on both sides of the religious divide.