Noises have recently been heard in the press about extracting Christian ritual from British life – in other words, getting on with the idea that it really is a post-Christian society in spite of Her Majesty’s headship of the Anglican Church. Since then, counter-voices have piped up about the merits of affirming that it is a “traditionally Christian society” while counter-counter-voices have joined in to assert the Christianity in Britain was but an interim chapter in a long “faith history” which includes pre-Christian Saxons household gods, Stonehenge and the blatantly fictional Wicker Man of cult-movie fame. All of these should now be celebrated – the argument goes – if the Man on the Cross is not to hog the historical limelight in what remains of historical time. Now, that’s a right diet of worms! Let’s see …
The well-loved Britain of classroom history is a liberal-secular country whose signature achievement has been the cultivation of an outlook identified with the notion of enlightened self-interest and which became in due course a model for emerging societies in modern times. By the end of the nineteenth century Christianity was increasingly in the background for the intellectual class and widely absent for the working class experience – apparently due to the trauma of the Industrial Revolution but equally on account of their pragmatic grasp on things and hence their incredulity at the pretensions of the Anglican clergy who had the hard task of picking out the deserving poor from the undeserving masses.
This view had its obvious pitfalls but it nevertheless remained the prevalent opinion that our secular values were significantly indebted to a form of non-dogmatic Christianity which the English likewise cultivated under the colours of the Reformation – though some would argue that Scottish Presbyterianism was the real engine of democratic progress. (From this perspective John Wesley was arguably the ‘ideal’ Englishman – neither excessively puritanical nor episcopalian.) But all that is in the past. The question today is whether to opt for Materialism – of the consumerist variety if not the Dialectical Materialism of philosophers – or else adopt some academic concoction of ideas suited to the end-of-civilisation scenario we are currently enjoying. In which connection, Post-modernism is still the front runner unless the turbulence of world politics frighten the masses back into some sort of numinous belief system such as stone-age animism or gluten-free Buddhism with yoga and Pilates thrown in.
Why not embrace paganism, then? Well, English History before Christianity is actually of little interest to the modern Englishmen probably because the nation wasn’t formed before the Christian era. After all, Alfred was a Christian gentleman, and his Christian stamp is on most of the earliest examples of our literature aside from Beowulf – which is actually a blood-thirsty Scandanavian saga about the derring-do of Danes and thanes. No one in Britain today is patriotic about the builders of Stonehenge – though a handful become entertainingly weird about it during the winter solstice. No, the English have trundled along with only a workmanlike form economic nationalism, unhindered by any serious allegiance to religion for so long that one would be forgiven for supposing that economic nationalism was actually their religion.
If so, it is a very low-key affair which consistently represents itself in the form of good works, scientific progress, fair play and an imperial bonus or two along the way under the guise of Pax Britannica whether in Ireland, India or – most recently – Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Needless to say, the Irish intervention was met with some objections from the local population and doubtful glances from the international community to match. Let Iraq and Syria speak for themselves in time future. Notwithstanding, the point can be made that the case of Ireland is somewhat different since the cultural recipe for local nationalism during the revolutionary period whose long shadow we inherit involved a potent mixture of racial mythology and Christian piety – a “dragon’s soup”, in fact. Thus Britain may have been wrong, but it is still possible for the right side to be wronger.
Ironically, the strongest elements in the ecclesiastical establishment of the Christian churches today are representatives of former British colonies. Hence, Anglican and Catholic bishops are, and will increasingly become, Africans rather than British or Irish natives – though a chair must surely be in waiting for a Polish bishop in the Irish Catholic Synod today. Well, it’s only natural. Just as the keenest evangelicals have long been Americans – staving off Papists and Indians on the Bible Belt – the African and Polish prelates have resisted Apartheid in South Africa and held the bridge against Communism in Eastern Europe.
So where does Liberalism figure in all of this? Well, clinging to Liberalism as a social philosophy has been rendered difficult today by the ill-repute of the so-called ‘Neo-Liberals’ and equally by the hard work of the Labour Party, which long espoused a socialist/communist outlook and condemned Liberalism from the pulpit in the process. In its most iron-cast form, Labour theory favours the primacy of the State for the benefit of the Workers – a generous idea which unfortunately tends to tear down social edifices with all the alacrity of an iconoclast in the Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army – but that was in the 1930s when a mole-ish understanding with the Comintern seemed the proper kind of relationship to cultivate for any right-thinking Leftist undergraduate at Cambridge. Then came the Cold War and then it went. More recently, adapting to an altered climate, New Labour constituted itself as a standard-bearer for multiculturalism and associated pluralisms in metropolitan Britain, and thus captured the Liberal banner for the Left. Official Liberalism meanwhile died the death of inanition, accelerated by sexual scandals in the upper echelons.
This might have been the end of the matter – a new ideology to suit the heterogeneous composition of modern Britain with its large other-nation communities and its increasingly resemblance to the inherently multi-racial societies of the future. Or the present, if we think of postcolonial lands such as Brazil in South America. As it turns out, embracing multi-culturalism is a daunting prospect for Britons with long-standing insular roots who see it as involving degradation for the form of identity on which their self-esteem and sense of civic-pride are found. This is not necessarily to speak of the form of outright racism which conceives of darker races as intrinsically inferior to so-called “white” ones yet nor is it to deny that many native Britons believe that the overall effect of multi-racialism on their society is a minus sum rather than a happy addition to their way of life. Real statistics on such ways of feel are hard to get at and certainly they don’t equate with parliamentary votes – if only because many decent Britons are reluctant to invest a crudely racists politics with executive power in Britain. On the other hand, close observers become acquainted with a resumption of the stiff upper lip and the sardonic shrug when the question of multiculturalism is raised at dinner.
Meanwhile, in the case of Mr Blair, the new orthodoxy was actually combined with the tonic of Catholic conversion – a personal “vade mecum” which places it on a different plane from the majority of his party peers as reflecting the doctrine of Christian universalism. (This also explains his impervious good humour in the face of disquieting accusations.)
All things considered, then, the naive attempt to laud Christianity as the “traditional” religion of Britain with which we started most probably represents a desire to anchor the culture of the country in a white, Anglo-Saxon formation which others may or may not “join” as best they can – a form of guarded hospitality to foreigners which veils a very real sense of affright at the apparent capitulation of core English values to the diversity of migrant culture. That Notting Hill should become the cultural capital of Britain is less agreeable to Little Englanders than that it should be the epicentre of riots and mayhem – all provided there is an adequate police force to maintain good order in the suburbs.
Obviously the best outcome is that Britons should rejoice in the vitality of one of their best integrated and most vibrant migrant communities. But today it is not Jamaicans or even the Pakistans and their less able Bangla cousins who are troubling the British mind. Probably, in fact, the occasional savagery of some Eastern European visitors has unsettled the British more than any of these socially adroit and generally companionable settlers. In proof of this, there is a nasty game going on today in the Red Tops called ‘spot the Eastern European’ in the monthly line-up of frightful mug-shots which comprise the contents of Crime Watch journalist and Metropolitan Police reports. This new sport certainly acts as an encouragement to anyone who thinks of Britain as an embattled culture. At the same time, a brief glance at the photo-gallery of last week’s most wanted burglars printed in “The Guardian” (21 December) seems to show that the vast majority of these are very much non-British in national origin – though the two house-breakers batting for the Irish team are probably second generation migrants and therefore British as the day is long, leaving Ireland’s national image utterly unblemished.
Images like that have a razor-like capacity to cut through all the party-political waffle about the migrant problem. In simple terms they tell us that migrants are more likely to be members of the class of persons who have no regard for private property and probably possess an uncomplicated hostility to the host society which no amount of public education, social benefit or housing provision has managed to allay. The trouble is that the author of any such observation is immediately suspected of fascist tendencies whereas it can – and should – be taken to mean that the challenge of organising a civil society in times of mass migration is probably greater than in previous epochs when the majority could rely on an assumed identity of values, social rules and sense of justice. (If ever such a time really existed.)
Naive or not, the urge to preach historical British Christianity is borderline fascist too since the underlying anxiety in question is patently about the presumed demolition of traditional Britishness by incoming Muslims who, quite manifestly, have few if any misgivings at all about the existence of their Deity or the rightness of their own ethical standards derived from Revelation – even when it includes female mutilation. My own enquiries in Lugdanum suggest that the average Ethiopian taxi-driver considers FGM to be quite properly illegal but not necessarily a bad thing for all that. (I believe I recall hearing the same opinion expounded by a grateful victim of the Christian Brothers’ pandy-bat.) In such a scenario there is obviously room for the negotiation of civic standards and it is devoutly to be hoped that a consensus will finally emerge as to the common values of the British people.
Be that as it may, an impartial observer can only gasp at the scale of the irony involved in the fact that the greatest imperialist nation of modern times has itself become the setting for the most advanced experiment in large-scale multi-culturalism on the planet. But perhaps this is not so much a paradox as a natural consequence of Empire by analogy with the Big Bang theory which depicts our universe as a balloon expanding to vast proportions and then shrivelling to the size of a pea while sucking in all the loose material at the edges (pace Stephen Hawking). If everything loose in America slides into California, as the natives are prone to say, then the same is true of Britain in relation to the former Empire – and now, arguable, the European Union as well. Everything loose in the Baltic and the Adriatic has recently evinced a inclination to slip into London, and from there to radiate out to northern cities – where half of the Punjab has been living for some time.
This state of affairs is not without its rationale since history relates that subject-populations of erstwhile empires have always show a tendency to migrate towards the centre in search of the vaunted benefits of life supposed to subsist at in the mother country. It is very much as if Rudyard Kipling”s “Kim” came to live in Britain in the 1950s, to be joined in our own time by the Asian cast from Edward Said’s “Orientalism” which has now joined the mix in tragic circumstances that admit of no response other than humanitarian succour. All of this – apparently the landscape of the future – bespeaks a state of tension which, however well-managed on the domestic front and however much eased by good will on the part of both British indigenes and new immigrants alike, will certainly constitute the dominant cultural framework of English life for quite some time to come.
The future of the world is uncertain today in almost every regard and it is quite possible that the ever-adaptable British will settle into a truly multi-cultural form of national unity, or even federation, in decades ahead – the Scots leading the way. (I say that in the expectation that they will linger in the Union while demonstrating that multi-culturalism is possible on their own regional soil.) This is surely something to be wished for and to be encouraged in every possible way, but it also a development which bears within itself the seeds of profound social dissension if the worm turns, as the proverb goes. The days when Britishness might be regarded as the unique property of the native population of that island have certainly passed – but it is not certain that a wider Britishness has confidently emerged. On the other hand, it is very much part of the historical achievement of the British people that they broke the mould in which such a restricted and constricting sense of nationhood could exist anywhere in the world today. In other words, they consigned ethnic nationalism to the dump with the creation of the Union – and only ethnic nationalists would trouble to deny that claim. Hence, if Britain achieves functional multi-culturalism in the future it will simply be fulfilling the promise of a centuries-long project – the attempt to establish equity and parity among the populations and the regions of a geographically and demographically angular island whose inhabitants have no practical alternative to combining their material and spiritual resources in pacific and productive ways.
As the smouldering remains of UKIP hopes in the General Elections show, resistance to multi-culturalism is not, in fact, the dominant note in British politics today. So far from being the case, it might actually be said that the composition of the British electorate absolutely prohibits any return to the idea of a unitary culture answering to the name of “British” – just as the idea of a unitary literature answering to the name of “English” has long since given way to the many Englishes of the modern world.
Undeniably, however, resistance to the idea of unlimited migration at British ports today is a very real and widely-shared sentiment – even among many who are themselves of immigrant extraction. This sentiment is very different from the Islamophobia which has apparently gripped so many mid-Western Americans – and with which Americans as a whole will have to wrestle hard in years to come. By contrast, the British consensus is to accept as many refugees as arrive at its shore but to be much more stringent in relation to economic migrants who have mustered enough leks, leus, nairi, or rupees to escape poverty-stricken vicinities in Eastern Europe, Africa or Pakistan. In an age of mass communication and mass travel, such restraints are necessary if only to render the migrant odyssey sufficiently unpropitious to deter all but those who have no choice but to flee their country by reason of death, ruination or oppression.
Admittedly the case is always different for skilled migrants who are subject to market value as much as immigration laws but any country is entitled to draw a line to the numbers of purely dependent and potentially disruptive foreigners passing through its borders – and a forteriori coming to its shores. What matters is how and why those limitations are drawn, and what are the consequences for the ethos of the polity itself.
It is neither necessary nor practical for anyone outside of official circles to draw up protocols and quotas for immigration though all of these must eventually face vetting in a democratic forum. It is however necessary to arrive at a cogent and workable idea about the nature of the social and cultural exchanges involved in such an operation – in other words, to construct a philosophy of nationhood in a world of mass migration. In that connection it is worth reflecting on the experience and outlook of those countries which were orginally comprised of migrants such as most of the Latin American as well as those descended from the French and British colonists of the seventeenth century onwards – the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and so on. The welcoming attitude of the new Canadian government to refugees has certainly been heartwarming – though they are evidently thinking more of Middle-Eastern migrants and not of those streaming out of Africa and the Far East and have not had to trouble themselves greatly about the distinction between ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’ which exercises the minds of European politicians ad nauseam today.
By the same token it is wonderful to see that President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has had the humanity and good sense to declare from the Planalto – now embattled in a tense Impeachment struggle – that the Middle-Eastern refugees will be welcomed “de braços abertos (with open arms)” in Brazil. She herself is of second-generation Romanian extraction, while Japanese and Chinese, Germans and Italians, Lebanese and Turks, make up enough of the population of a country formerly comprised of Portuguese and Africans together with the residual Indian population – all in such numbers that Brazilians regard themselves as an inextricable mixture of races and widely rejoice in that fact. In some respects this is the forward edge of human society and the pattern of the future, whether we like it or not. Given which fact, it is surely time to develop an explicit outlook which embraces migration as a fundamental element in the modern human condition and to adapt our societies to respond to it a intrinsically liberal way.