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Copyright © 2006 riceNpeas

The face of Britain has changed. Local fish and chip shops now serve West Indian patties, Oriental spring rolls and Asian curries.

Here in 2006, post-imperialism, post-European Unification, the face of Britain has changed.  Skin tones have gone from white to black, to Asian, to olive, to a mixture of all of these.  The local fish and chip shops now serve West Indian patties, Oriental spring rolls, and Asian curries.  And, yes, this is all with chips, and the entire British nation’s munching!  So has Britain’s history been led along a road to a crisis: a mish-mash so far from anything British that no one now knows what British actually means?

The world has known Britain a long time.  It was always the chief example of pomp, pageantry and class.  Royal families rode along rainy roads to street party cheers, streams of red, white and blue bunting, and masses of fluttering Union Jacks.  Britain’s tidy green hills and drab terraced homes seemed to represent an ordered society where the poor suffered respectfully and revered their betters.

Let’s take a look at World Cup 2006; our boys are out there fighting for premiership!  Do we get a sense of that same nationhood and patriotism of yesteryear?  Well, the country’s now a lot more multicultural than it was back in the day.  We have flagrant exhibitions of sprayed red and white hair, and painted babies; flags of St. George fly proudly from cars, and drape over half-naked bodies.  Maybe it’s the fact that someone said, “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack” that it’s the red cross and not the multi-coloured stripes that is brandished, but, for some, that’s just not good enough!

How times have changed!  Is patriotism no longer something to aspire towards?  Elements of the British press are outraged by who they call “small-minded killjoys” as they urge “the slaying of the dragon of political correctness.”  Business and public services that have not allowed their workers to fly England’s national flag in their course of duty have been named and shamed by The Sun newspaper.  Martin Phillips writes, “The cross of St George no more belongs to the loony busybodies than it does to loathsome bigoted racists.  It belongs to us – the English – whatever colour our skin; whatever our cultural or religious background.”

But are Britain’s minority communities convinced?  The leader of the Islamic Human Rights Commission is said to be unimpressed.  The paper claims he said that England’s flags continue to evoke images of racial prejudice and the BNP.  And he is not alone in thinking that a choice to revere the accomplishments of the Crusaders or those of the Imperialists is no choice at all.  This is not to say that there are no red crossed flags being flown from the vehicles of blacks and Asians, but support for “our boys” still comes from but a minority of Britain’s minorities.

We’ve made some headway along the line of time, and minority babies being born today are of third generation immigrant descent.  Surely you can’t get much more British than that!  Despite this, cars careering Britain’s streets with non-whites at the wheel are flying flags for Trinidad, Ghana and Brazil, even when the drivers are from Jamaica!  Some are even supporting Togo, a country they didn’t even know existed before May of this year. 

When the Ashes are being vied for by our nation’s cricketers, our Asian communities are backing India and Pakistan, and the blacks, the West Indies, under-performing or not!  England’s cricket team have non-white faces, and Sven’s first team line-up includes Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole.  But still, support tends to be wavering and conditional, reserved for when England plays against a team that bears no relevance to their origin.  Is this simply due to some supernatural influence of their fathers and grandfathers, or is there some greater force at play?  Perhaps the fact that communities have been here for over 50 years and still fail to feel a sense of nationhood does indeed constitute a crisis.

European Unification has continued to bring about an influx of continentals.  We’re used to the French and the Spaniards; we’ve long visited them, and they’ve long visited us.  We share each other’s foods and bathe on each other’s shores. But it’s the “other ones” that the media now constitutes as a problem: the Eastern Europeans. The idea of European Unification is said to have come from Sir Winston Churchill back in 1945.  He thought it would engender more amicable relations between the various states, economic cooperation and, as the wounds of war healed, a sense of a European identity.  The more liberal minds support his view.  Almost fearlessly, they welcome the hordes of immigrants, as they anticipate a Europe of more stable democracies and economic fortunes from a fresh reservoir of new trading partners. 

On the flip side to these optimists, however, are the Euro-sceptics.  Through their eyes they see crisis: strain on the British economy, tax rises, an invitation to criminal types, more corruption, greater bureaucracy, and a loss of British identity.  Britain has a vast immigrant population.  Its imperialist past led to the fostering of many overseas connections.  Years on, people flock here seeking freedoms of varying kinds.  Somalians, Ethiopians, Afghanistanis, Iraqis: European Unification merely compounds the confusion.

Then admidst this potpourri of cultures we have the BNP gaining strongholds locally.  The climate is ripe for the sort of propaganda and hysteria they seek to raise amongst the masses; the nation’s schools are brimming with children who speak no English and teachers’ time is diverted away from the curriculum.  They’re taking all our jobs with their willingness to do cheap labour; even our newly-built or empty long-awaited homes are going to immigrants.  Yes, the BNP are gaining seats; surely, that’s the crisis!

A real hotchpotch, that’s the British.  It’s no wonder New Labour thought to launch a new identity for the nation.  New Labour’s election victory in 1997 and the approach of a new millennium created what seemed ideal conditions for Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” schemes of the same period.  Britain’s youngest Prime Minister appeared ready to take new risks to renew Britain’s identity. 

By invitation to a party at 10 Downing St, Blair formed an association with young pop and art icons: Blur, Oasis, the Spice Girls in Union Jack dresses, as well as Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Austin Powers, and the like.  Britain was ripe for rejuvenation after an 18-year Conservative reign.  And what better way for a leader to show acceptance of that than to stand with those who are young, vibrant, and ready to make a statement?

But the whole scheme was actually even cleverer than that: the BritArt and BritPop world’s alignment with New Labour was no natural progression; it was being mindfully engineered as far back as the days of Neil Kinnock and Mo Mowlam.  No wonder Blair went to the Brit Awards in 1996!  The aim was to give the Party an image that would help to garner young voters who might be influenced by their idols.

 “Cool Britannia” didn’t necessarily want to lose Britain’s image of a country of quaint traditions and heritage, and a people persistently uttering “sorry,” “thank you,” and “please.”  It was more concerned with highlighting British cultural and technological innovations, its creativity, and establishing the nation’s place on the map as a global centre for high quality goods and services and a vibrant workforce. Nothing wrong with that!

But when related to Britain’s minority communities, how inclusive did it seem?  Did New Labour’s pride in Britain’s multiculturalism, epitomized by the Notting Hill Carnival, seem tokenistic?  In any case, years on the “Cool Britannia” scheme are criticized for being as faddish and short-lived as the Millennium Dome; remember that?!  Even now we can hear a bewildered nation whisper: “What was that about?”

Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Blair became overwhelmed and realized that he, himself, didn’t understand what the British identity is or has become.  Should he encourage diversity, the young voices that truly believe in diversity?  Could he dare to go for something so new and fresh from maverick and rebel types, trusting to let it unfold, not knowing where it would take the nation?  Did someone nudge him discreetly and say, “you’ve got the votes, now jump ship”?

Still, the fearful can rest assured, Britain is still white.  It’s only when you visit its cities, particularly London, that you get a sense of the global village.  London is known for its vibrancy, and no group better typifies that than the youth.  Cultures have crossed and no one is unaffected; journey into the cities and you will see the true homogeneity of Britain’s youth.  You’ll see it in their walk, hear it in their music, and even in their talk.

The street style of dress, formally considered the “black” style of dress, is now everybody’s style of dress.  White boys, Moroccan boys, and Indian boys bop through our streets in expensive trainers and baggy trousers that sag beneath their bum cheeks.   Tops are big and hooded, bandannas tight, and caps askew.  White girls don cane-row and find baby hairs to gel down onto the side of their faces, highlighting big hoop earrings just like the black girls in their crew.  Boys and girls: they all do the bling thing!

America has Eminem, and Britain has Tim Westwood, but it’s the UK hiphop/garage scene that’s in tune with our youth.  The likes of Lethal B, Kano and Asher D lead Lady Sovereign and other white characters in N-Dubs who show how well they can all “chat the lingo”:

“Nar, man, your beggin’ it, your on a nex’ ting – a long ting, das dred, trus’ me, you get me, Blood.” (kissing of teeth) “Safe, Rude Bwoy, gone!” 

Confused?  Talk to anyone young and street – white, black, Chinese…

What is going on in Britain?  We even saw the crossing of cultures seep its way into the royal family.  Remember when Princess Diana was dating and in love with an Arab, Dodi Al Fayed?  I wonder who’ll be the next royal that lives to do the same?

But enough banter!  Does all of this indeed constitute a crisis?  I guess that depends on one’s outlook.  If to be British must mean something in particular, something one-dimensional and ordered, then perhaps it is.  On the other hand, if one believes deeply in the transience of humanity, then Britain’s current inability to form a clear perspective on nationhood, patriotism and identity might actually be quite exciting.

Britain is going to host the Olympics for the world just 6 years from now.  Let us watch and see what new perceptions that might bring.  Perhaps time is presenting our nation with the opportunity to be a real vanguard of diversity.  If the British embrace this challenge and acknowledge the value of all its various offerings, what a lesson for humanity that could be!  Perhaps concepts of patriotism, nationhood and identity, as we now know them, belong to a different time: a time that is past.  Maybe something new is happening, unfolding.  Maybe divine seeds are looking to fall on a land that is open, honest, fearless and generous on a people who will lie fallow a while and be nourished until it is time for goodness to grow and be yielded.

1st July 2006
The British Identity Crisis
By Lawna Elayn Tapper