Yesterday, I went walkabout in multi-cultural Britain: in Wood Green and Tottenham in North London, to be precise. Time was, back in the 1970s when I was growing up not far from there, that the white English population was in a clear majority, even in areas such as Wood Green and Tottenham where there were concentrations of what we used to refer to as ‘immigrant’ populations: mostly black-Caribbean and Indian-subcontinental, with a sizeable Cypriot community around Tottenham. Over the intervening period – and at an accelerating rate over the last 15 years or so – all of that has changed. The area is now a complete ethnic melting pot, with large populations of Muslims from a variety of backgrounds (not just Pakistani, by any means) but also, it seems, virtually every ethnic group under the sun. While waiting in the remarkably orderly, English-style queue at the overcrowded Morrisons store, I estimated that no more than one in 20 of the people around me were ‘native white English’, judging from their appearance and voices. Such a ‘minoritisation’ of what is commonly designated as the ‘majority white-British’ population actualises on the ground the sort of minority-equivalent status that is given to white-English people in one of the proposed ethnic categorisations for the 2011 census in England, in which that category is indeed one of a list of 20.
Such a living, pulsating experience of multi-cultural diversity challenges the attitudes of people such as myself who remain deeply attached to the idea that the primary culture of England should be that of England, which has indeed been traditionally associated with the ‘native white’ ethnic group but which can in theory be just as easily embraced by ethnic minorities; and which, conversely, can also expand and adapt to accommodate greater ethnic diversity. In some respects, this has already happened with the waves of immigration into England from the 1950s to the 1970s, as a considerable degree of integration of those black and Asian communities has already occurred: meaning they have come to be seen as playing an integral part in English society and culture (and are accepted as ‘English’); while people of those backgrounds have increasingly adopted many facets of English life and culture into their own lifestyles and communities, and see themselves as English.
But, really, when one is confronted by the sheer volume of what is now more often referred to as ‘migration’ – rather than immigration – that has taken place in recent years, one does begin to feel a stranger in one’s own land. Virtually all of the more economically successful white people have now moved out of areas like Wood Green and Tottenham, establishing themselves in the greener suburbs, Essex and the wider commuter belt. Consequently, the white people who are left are often the poorest and most socially disadvantaged. As an evidently middle-class and seemingly – but not, regrettably, in reality – more wealthy white male, I stand out in the crowd even more than what used to be called the white working class. I find myself exchanging fleeting looks of mutual recognition with these fellow white Brits and sense that they feel pleased, even relieved, that there are still educated middle-class white people in the neighbourhood. Except, of course, I haven’t lived permanently in North London since the early 1980s when I was effectively among the first waves of mass migration of white people from the area.
I wonder whether, if I did live there, I would in my turn embrace and celebrate its multi-cultural diversity. On one level, there certainly is much to celebrate and take delight in. There is a huge variety of shops, businesses, people and languages from all over the world to engage the senses and enrich the mind. But, as someone from outside the area, I can indulgently dip in and out of it, and don’t have to be confronted and assuaged by the constant sights and sounds of real-world diversity day and, increasingly, night. I think that, if you were going to commit yourself to living in such an area, and to working to make it a more functional and truly cross-cultural community, you really would have to embrace its multi-culturalism whole-heartedly. By ‘multi-culturalism’, here, I don’t mean the now much discredited aim of facilitating different communities in retaining and expressing their separate cultures alongside one another, which has been accused of fostering divisions and hindering integration. No, I mean the sheer fact of multiple cultures co-existing and interacting, albeit that people might still walk around in their own cultural-ethnic-religious-linguistic bubbles, and the actual fusion of cultures is limited in extent, partly in consequence of the ideology of multi-culturalism itself.
That multi-culturalism is almost always labelled ‘British multi-culturalism’. I did so myself at the beginning of this piece, in part by association with a brochure on one of the much-improved local schools I found lying around our Tottenham friends’ house. This booklet made much of the school’s multi-cultural diversity: the fact that each culture was celebrated, learnt about and factored in to the teaching of each child; and the fact that there were 54 languages – at the last count – spoken by the children at the school. In summary, the school was characterised as a living – and functioning – example of ‘multi-cultural Britain’. I don’t question the fact, as attested in recent Ofsted survey results, that this school is indeed one of the most improved schools in ‘the country’. But I do wonder whether a) the fact that it is such a multi-cultural mish-mash was one of the main reasons why it previously had so many problems; and b) whether the English children at the school really have a better educational experience for being in such a small minority than if they were in a school that embodied and taught their English culture and identity first and foremost.
The problem with the concept of ‘multi-cultural Britain’ is that it makes multi-culturalism and ethnic diversity an intrinsic characteristic or property of Britain and Britishness. Consequently, if one wishes to foster and engineer a multi-cultural country, the name of that country has to be Britain, not England. If Britain is the place of a multiplicity of cultures, then the singularity of the English culture and identity could be seen as just one among the many cultures that needs to be melded and shaped into the new diverse Britain. However, the difference is that the English identity is also thought of as being already British. This means that, if multi-cultural Britishness is to be affirmed and lived out in a school environment, there is no place for a singular Englishness that is distinct from the Britishness that embodies the ideal of diversity. Consequently, the singularity of the English identity is transformed into a unique form of deprivation: the English children alone are seen as having only one culture – that of (multi-cultural) Britain, not of a separate Englishness alongside, and giving life to, that Britishness. By contrast, the other ethnic groups are afforded the possibility of a continuing experience of cultural diversity that their children can ‘own’ and celebrate: ‘British’ and Polish; ‘British’ and Somali; ‘British’ and Pakistani; etc. In other words, only the English children do not have an ‘other’ (English) identity that is celebrated alongside their Britishness: they are British only. And this translates into the broader dynamic in the ‘British’ culture of England, whereby ethnic minorities are encouraged to own and affirm their original culture alongside their British identity; whereas English people are exhorted to be British and not English.
Clearly, the experience of Wood Green and Tottenham is at the extreme end of the multi-cultural scale. But, by that token, it also presents a test case to see if the multi-cultural experiment can work: if a viable multi-cultural school community can be created here, then it becomes a model for the whole of ‘the country’. That country by definition being Britain, of course. Wrong; because this particular form of educational ‘multi-culturalisation’ is limited to England. In Scottish and Welsh schools, they’re not trying to promote ‘multi-cultural Britain’ but, if anything, multi-ethnic Scotland and Wales, respectively. The schools in those countries seek to embody and inculcate a Scottish and a Welsh identity that is civic in character; which means that it reflects and takes forward the social, cultural and philosophical traditions of those nations. Because this identity is civic, and not ethnic, it can serve as the place in which all ethnic groups living in Scotland or Wales can converge, and affirm a common Scottishness or Welshness.
This comparison with Scotland and Wales helps to make clear that the project to create multi-cultural Britain in England involves the framing of Englishness as a purely ethnic category (but also only a hypothetical category owing to the non-acceptance of an Englishness distinct from Britishness), leading to a denial of any civic expression or extension of that (ethnic) Englishness within Britishness. The character of civic society – meaning the public, shared life, institutions and structures of the ‘nation’ – is applied only to Britain. Britain, not England, is the name of the civic society in which all ethnic groups and all cultures are expected to converge, including the ‘English’ that do not exist as such, since they are already British.
But the actual country in which this is supposed to happen is England, not Britain. And I don’t mean this just in the geographical sense that the UK establishment applies to England: a mere territory over which its writ applies absolutely, whereas that writ is partially devolved to elected bodies in the other ‘parts’ of the UK. No, I mean ‘country’ also in the sense that – contrary to what the establishment might wish – England exists as a nation: a real culture, a real people; with characteristics, social structures, ways of behaving, attitudes and traditions that are its own, and which are only partially reflected in those values that are so often said to be ‘British’. Multi-cultural Britain, if it is to become a reality, will in effect need to be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic England; just as the same cultural and ethnic diversity is being moulded into multi-ethnic Scotland and Wales across the northern and western borders of England. The majority culture – which is English – will remain the majority culture. For true integration of all the newer waves of migrants to take place (that place being England), this will have to involve English people over time coming to accept people of those other races and cultures as English: as part of the total experience of English life, society and culture. As I stated above, this has already happened to a considerable extent with respect to the black and Asian immigration of the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. But it’s taken time: the time for two whole generations to grow up and to experience an England where ethnic and cultural diversity is just a plain fact and an intrinsic part of their experience of England.
The only place – the country – in which further integration of the more recent migrants can occur is England; albeit that the challenges are even more acute this time round given the sheer scale of immigration and the greater diversity of the ethnic groups concerned. England is the real country and civilisation into which these newcomers must be absorbed if at all. And this means that the way out of a failed multi-culturalism is not to use the education system to inculcate a superficial Britishness (itself a sort of abstract ‘multi-culture’) but one which celebrates the country it is in – England (and, indeed, the cultural Englishness of ‘Britishness’ itself as lived out in England) – as the land that is welcoming other peoples and cultures to be part of itself.
It’s madness to think that by teaching and aspiring to a new multi-cultural Britishness – in England only – one can create it, as it were almost instantaneously. This is pure wish fulfilment: integration is a slow and painful process – the work of generations – and it can take place in England only. This Britishness – so abstract, so idealistic – is the fantasy of a harmonious, multi-cultural society we can live out now, simply by wishing it and thinking it; but it can achieve this, in its own mind, only by leaving out England, which is in fact its only basis in reality.
On a more general level, the ideology of multi-cultural Britishness, as propagated through English schools, is symptomatic of the madness of this present government and of the establishment as a whole that thinks itself to be the owner and guarantor of ‘this country’s’ civic values; but has in effect abstracted them from the only country, and the only culture, where they can truly take effect: England.