Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 October 2009

Multi-cultural Britannia

As a kind of neat synthesis of and addendum to my previous three posts, relating to multi-culturalism and the BBC One Show’s failure to say ‘England’ when England is meant, I stumbled across this One Show article about ‘multicultural Roman Britain’.

The report, by black presenter Angellica Bell, focuses on the discovery in York of a fourth-century skull which, an expert explains, must have been that of a black-white mixed-race woman. And not a slave, either; but a wealthy person with a comfortable lifestyle – perhaps the wife of a Roman soldier stationed in the city.

But the bit that I find really hilarious is that the whole report is framed at the beginning by shots of Hadrian’s Wall: the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, and the original border between Caledonia (Scotland) and Roman Britannia. This makes it quite clear that when the report that follows refers to Roman ‘Britain’, it actually means what we – or some of us – now like to call England (and Wales): the territory that constituted the Roman province of Britannia. Later, the report refers to York as a vital northern fortress city for Roman ‘Britain’; but in fact, it was a frontier city only by virtue of the fact that the Britain of that time corresponds to the England of now.

From a single skull, the report extrapolates to a picture of a highly multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan Roman Britannia, which is then explicitly compared with the multi-cultural character of ‘Britain’s’ cities today. But the report has gone out of its way to indicate that the ‘territorial extent’ of that multi-cultural Britain – then as now – is actually England (and Wales). As much as to say that ‘”Britain” has always been multi-cultural, even from Roman times’, i.e. from before the Anglo-Saxon invasions that transformed it temporarily into an apparently mono-cultural and mono-ethnic ‘England’.

And so the ‘multi-cultural Britain’ that has replaced the distinct, homogeneous, national and cultural identity of England under New Labour is projected by the programme back to pre-English times, making it appear somehow more authentic and historically rooted than the English tribe itself – now seen as just one of the many ethnic groups that have migrated to ‘Britain’ over the centuries and continue to do so. And yet what is referenced by the term ‘multi-cultural Britain’ is England only.

No wonder the One Show can’t seem to be able to say ‘England’ in relation to present-day English matters: for them, it seems, the country has only ever been ‘Britain’.

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