Mythbuster 7: British Culture

There is a real fear in Britain today, and it seems with every census statistic released this fear gets worse – the fear that we are losing British culture. No-one can quite sum up what it means to be British or what British culture is, nevertheless there is a feeling by some that with the increase in immigration, residents of this country are ceasing to have things in common, things that they deem essentially British.

Peter Hitchen‘s writes in the Daily Mail:

‘Bit by bit, the people of this country are ceasing to have key things in common. They don’t share a religion, or a culture, or a history. Many don’t even share a language.’

Multi-culturalism was never meant to be a replacement of the ‘majority culture’, British culture includes our language, our religion, our literature, our legal framework and our institutions. But as reflected by the questions on British popular culture in the new Citizenship test, it can be more than this. The overlap of our shared experiences provides the most powerful sense of common British identity.1

A picture of a poem about being british
Being British

Ed Miliband has said ‘One Nation doesn’t mean one identity. People can be proudly, patriotically British without abandoning their cultural roots.’ This is not the same as saying that immigrant communities shouldn’t integrate or learn English. But that they can go to the Mosque or Synagogue, go home and eat pierogi, jerk chicken or samosas, and still go to work the next day and complain about the weather or Strictly results just like any other British person.

National identity is subjective and there are many elements to being British that will differ from person to person. For some it’s summed up in national cynicism, and cries of ‘we don’t want a millennium dome/ Olympics/ new rail system/ it’s a waste of money’. Or the love of football or cricket, even if you hate sports, the enthusiasm before the World Cup, the great sigh when the game goes to penalties and the united and inevitable disappointment. Everyone’s humour is different but banter and self-mockery are often seen as uniquely British, and it is these things added together that creates a British identity and a shared culture.

‘Islam is not inherently anti-British’

So we’ve always shared a religion have we? Well apart from the people from different religions who have lived here for centuries, I’m pretty certain there’s been some conflict between different strands of Christianity over time! Yet the perceived eradication of Christianity and the rising numbers of those identifying as Muslim has caused concern for many people.

A photo of a British Muslim woman holding a union flag and wearing a niqab
British Muslims, London UK

Is Islam a threat to British culture? In the Telegraph Jane Kelly spoke of ‘Tower Hamlets, the east London borough where ”suggestive’’ advertising is banned and last year a woman was refused a job in a pharmacy because she wasn’t veiled.’ Britain is known for its ‘tolerance’ and so discrimination is a threat to British culture. Islam however is not a religion of discrimination, and thus, is not inherently ‘anti-British’. Most Brits find headlines such as: ‘Catholic Church warns gay teachers they risk the sack if they marry or enter into civil partnerships‘ just as intolerable. In rare situations we see things like the so-called ‘Muslim Patrol‘, but these should be viewed as isolated incidents and not a reflection on an entire community or the erosion of British culture.

Many of us can remember reading some ‘political correctness gone mad’ story surrounding the cancellation of Christmas, and the end of Christianity as we know it. Some of the classics include: ‘Luton council has banned people from celebrating Christmas’, ‘Birmingham has renamed the season Winterval’, ‘Reading man has been told to take his decorations down,’ ‘The Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children banned a Christmas CD for mentioning Jesus’ (All of which were reported but never really happened). These stories were founded upon a myth that the PC brigade were there to stop religious minorities erupting with anger at the mention of Christian festivals. Yet most people of all religions and even no religion celebrate on the 25th in some way, and it has never threatened their faith or identity in the least. In Britain we celebrate Diwali, Eid and Chanukah all around the same time, with some local councils displaying lights, decorations and Chanukah menorahs – alongside, and not in place of, Christmas trees and festive street lighting. In short, there has been no attempt to replace Christianity in Britain, but there has been an attempt to celebrate diversity.

‘Britain’s second language is always going to be a foreign language’

Recently we learned that Polish is now Britain’s second language, overtaking Punjabi and Urdu. Among the hysteria this created funny man Jimmy Carr points out ‘Britain’s second language is always going to be a foreign language’. The figure that was a cause for concern highlighted that 134,000 people could not speak English. Knowing English is undoubtedly important, but this figure is only 0.3% of the population. It’s also important to note that many of these people are new arrivals or elderly grand-parents who have come to live with their children. Despite this, headlines such as ‘Job advert that was all in Polish!‘ have exasperated irrational fears that English will eventually become history in Britain.

Boris Johnson waving a Flag
Boris Johnson

Another myth portrayed is that Britain is increasing being overrun with people that don’t have a shared history. Yet Britain is unique in that many of the immigrant communities came from former British colonies, which makes their histories inextricably entwined with Britain’s. It was the British empire that helped propel us to become a global power after all.

Remembrance Sunday is a day when people of all races, creeds and genders stop to remember the fallen soldiers who died in WW1 and WW2. This includes migrants from the Commonwealth, Ireland and Eastern Europe. More than 900,000 Irish immigrants settled in England and became 30% our armed forces by 1830. Thousands of Polish airmen flew alongside the RAF during World War Two, and it was Polish mathematicians who helped break the enigma code. By December 1944, 5,000 men were enlisted in the West African Air Corps as groundcrew and over 166,500 Africans were involved in defeating the Japanese.

In Eric Pickles’ first major speech of 2013, ‘Uniting Our Communities: Integration in 2013’, he highlighted specific incidents of ‘integration in action’. The Queen’s Jubilee was the epitome of this. It would seem that despite the differences in nation of birth, race or age, national pride was displayed all across Britain.

In spite of this, some people are disturbed by the amount of languages spoken on our streets and the changing demographics of London. They are concerned that we are losing British culture and becoming a ‘foreign country’, unidentifiable to a decade ago. On the surface, Britain has changed, you can now find Chinese and Indian restaurants anywhere, we celebrate Diwali and Carnival, there are Mosques, Synagogues and Temples. And we’re going to keep on changing, that’s how we keep evolving and growing as societies. But in terms of shared values like democracy, respect for others and ‘tolerance’, Britain really hasn’t changed much at all.

1 Blank, Victor, 2009, Beyond the Cricket Test. In: d’Ancona, Matthew, ed., 2009, Being British, Edinburgh, Mainstream publishing, pp.99- 106

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