6 March 2004


One nation under Her Majesty
Ferdinand Mount says that the new citizenship ceremony signals the death of multiculturalism, and should be welcomed by the Tories

As of last Thursday, multiculturalism was officially declared dead in this country. The funeral took place in Brent Town Hall in the presence of the Prince of Wales and the Home Secretary and was accompanied by the National Anthem and the theme music from Four Weddings and a Funeral. Although the event was not billed in these terms, these were symbolic obsequies as emphatic in their way as the pouring of the ashes of English cricket into that fragile urn in 1882.

English cricket smouldered on, of course, occasionally flaring into a brief revival, but its old unquestioned dominance was gone for good. In the same way, we shall still hear people mouthing the old platitudes about Britain being a multicultural country, but that dogma will no longer be driving the debate.

Instead of ‘celebrating diversity’, the ceremony to welcome new British citizens celebrates in the most flagrant way imaginable the common culture of these islands. The new Briton takes an oath: ‘I swear by Almighty God (or do solemnly and truly declare and affirm) that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.’ The oath in itself is not new but was previously sworn privately in front of a solicitor. Now it is to be taken at a public ceremony as in the US, Canada and Australia. To it is now added the pledge: ‘I will give my loyalty to the UK and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.’

Nothing could be plainer or more unabashed in its ambition to cement national unity by declaring the existence of a single common culture, within which other minority cultures may happily nest and flourish but which is itself not to be sidelined or suppressed. Held in the heart of London’s most polyglot borough — where as it happens Zadie Smith was brought up and where she sets White Teeth, her gorgeous comedy of interracial confusions — the ceremony asserts an overarching uniformity which shelters us all, whether we like it or not. Beneath that particular sky British citizens may follow their preferred faiths, speak their own languages, indulge their own tribal quirks, but that is the sky they live under. Naturally you would not expect those who are in the multicultural business to accept the significance of the ceremony. Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, grumbled that ‘going to a ceremony to wave a flag and take an oath to the Queen seems meaningless’. Keith Best, head of the Immigration Advisory Service and a former Tory MP, denounced it as ‘an attempt to grab the headlines more than anything else’ — a criticism repeated by David Davis, who has made a querulous and unconvincing start as shadow Home Secretary. The BBC news programmes did report the pledge to uphold our democratic values, but most of them could not quite bring themselves to mention the oath of allegiance to the Queen. The language was too raw, too stirring and, for many in the media, too repugnant to their own mindset.

Yet oaths of this sort are routinely sworn by high public officials, judges and privy councillors and MPs, and it is in this language that the Queen extends her Commission to her officers. Far from being a humiliating subjection for incoming citizens, the taking of such an oath admits them on equal terms to a community in the true sense of that much abused word.

What makes it so piquant is that this ceremony has been devised by a Labour Home Secretary, who was once upon a time the white hope of the Left. It was David Blunkett who in September 2002 set up the advisory group on Life in the United Kingdom under his old politics professor from Sheffield, Sir Bernard Crick. Other stuff is to follow — language classes, booklets explaining the rights and duties of citizens — but the Lion and the Unicorn come first.

To see how startling this is, you have to look back to the furore which greeted Keith Joseph back in the 1980s when he suggested that the school curriculum should include lessons about our national heritage. The intelligentsia jumped to denounce any such initiative as a quasi-fascist conspiracy to impose outmoded jingoistic values and repress the cultures of ethnic minorities. It was, per contra, the duty of all public institutions in this country not only to respect but also to foster those minority cultures and to be extremely wary of indulging in anything which sounded too overtly British. Local authorities, state schools, libraries, the Arts Council, parts of the BBC felt themselves under unremitting pressure. The Church of England and the monarchy — being the two most prominent aspects of the traditional culture — were especially marshy areas. All over Britain, headteachers, head librarians and council leaders fretted over whether it was correct to display Christmas trees, union flags or photographs of the Queen on their premises. In vain mullahs and rabbis would explain that they took no offence at the display of such religious and national emblems. On the contrary, they often expressed polite surprise that the national Church should be so hesitant about proclaiming itself.

But there was more behind the multicultural movement than a desire not to give offence. If it had been only an admirable impulse to show courtesy to new arrivals, there would never have been such a fierce urgency about it.

Multiculturalism had and has other motives of a more negative kind. It is the loathing that dare not speak its name. For it is not the desire to respect minority cultures that has fuelled such a crusade to reform our traditional practices. It is the unuttered desire to blot out and where possible erase all visible traces of the majority culture. The multiculturalist’s interest in Chanukkah or Diwali seldom goes beyond the mild and patronising curiosity of the tourist; it is the hatred of Christmas that stirs his juices.

Britishness in all its embarrassing traditional manifestations is the enemy — or rather Englishness, for you do not on the whole catch the Scots or the Welsh or the Irish wishing to shrug off their native cultures. If they find their ancestral glens and valleys too narrow, they can always go into exile — not such a bitter alternative when they need only hop over Hadrian’s Wall or Offa’s Dyke.

The English intelligentsia’s dislike of its own shadow is unusual. You do not often encounter the same revulsion in Paris or Berlin or Rome. But it is not a novelty. Bernard Crick’s life of George Orwell has been criticised for its interpretation of Orwell’s political stances. But on Orwell’s patriotism and hatred of anti-patriotic intellectuals Crick is very sound. In The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell argues that ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality’. All through the critical years of the war, many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying, he says, to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British.

These feelings were confined to the intelligentsia. In the nation as a whole, ‘patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them’. Rightly Crick emphasises Orwell’s eagerness to demonstrate the radical roots of English patriotism, the tradition of William Cobbett and Michael Foot. For long-established cultures are twined and complex. Blake’s radical hymn was adopted by the Women’s Institute and by dozens of public schools. An old negro spiritual has become the anthem of Barbour-clad Englishmen at Twickenham. Cricket and warm beer were just as much the heritage of Merrie England socialists as of Tory squires. England, in Orwell’s most famous phrase, was a family but with the wrong members in control.

Orwell claimed that the Bloomsbury highbrow with his mechanical snigger at the expense of anything typically English was as out of date as the cavalry colonel. It was time for patriotism and intelligence to come together again.

This hope was premature. Half a century later patriotism and the intelligentsia seemed to have moved further apart. As the spirit went out of socialism in the ordinary sense, radical discontent groped for another means of expressing itself. If it was no longer possible to purify the nation by abolishing capitalism and seizing the commanding heights of the economy, then at least one could purify the atmosphere. The national culture could be bleached and leached, leaving a more or less blank space in which every citizen was able to express his or her own preferences. The nation would become one giant cultural mall, in which we would all wander, free to choose from a variety of equally valuable lifestyles, to take back and exchange purchases which had not given satisfaction, or simply to windowshop.

But why has the heyday of multiculturalism been so short? You would expect to see the Left drift even further away from its national moorings. This would only be a logical extension of its scheme of historical development. The Communist Manifesto is the first great tract on globalisation. Marx is far less interested in what communism would be like than in how the bourgeoisie destroys all the old feudal, religious and traditional bonds. Under the relentless pressure of capitalism national prejudices become unsustainable. Local literatures dissolve into a world literature. Nationalism is but a fleeting phase, already past its peak. According to Eric Hobsbawm in 1990, nations and nationalism had become ‘historically less important’. They were in the process of retreating before ‘the new supranational restructuring of the globe’.

New Labour is conspicuously contemptuous of Queen and Country, much more so than the Labour party of Attlee and Bevin which took such things for granted, having other fish to fry. Today’s Labour MPs may be less left-wing on most things, but they are much more likely to be republicans. And the government is still appeasing this tendency by such pointless gestures as taking the Crown out of Crown Prosecution Service. Yet I have not heard a peep of protest out of Labour MPs about the new citizenship ceremony. Even the Guardian, which has pushed hard for a British republic, merely commented ‘Hmm’ on the pledge of allegiance to the Queen and, somewhat plaintively, reminded new citizens that they were now free to campaign for a republic if they so wished.

So why the volte-face? There are, I think, two reasons for the change of heart. First, globalisation can be a frightening thing, for much the reasons that Marx gave. It sweeps through the remotest corners of the earth with unpredictable rapidity and force, making arguments for the long-term benefits of free trade seem cold and theoretical. Economists point out that in many respects the world is less globalised than before 1914. We are still recovering from nearly a century of war, protectionism and government controls. Yet that is not how it feels to those whose jobs are suddenly outsourced to India or China. If there is no effective protection against such gales of creative destruction, national culture can at least provide a few comfort blankets until the weather improves.

At the same time, even left-wing intellectuals have become dimly conscious that immigration in all its forms — economic, illegal, asylum-seeking — has had unnerving reverberations. To put it bluntly, working-class whites in run-down towns like Burnley have come to feel that everything is done for incomers who constitute, at most, 9 per cent of the population. The reappearance of the BNP is on a tiny scale compared with the massive inroads made by Le Pen or the heirs of Pim Fortuyn. Much more widespread is a sour disenchantment or alienation which so far expresses itself in political terms only by a refusal to vote at all. And we have seen too the long-term effects of a failure to entrench a single overarching national culture, in Palestine and Northern Ireland to name but two of the worst: intercommunal conflict, rule by ruthless vigilantes, peace walls.

David Goodhart in his essay in last month’s Prospect recognises that, contrary to the long-standing wishful thinking of the liberal Left, there may be limits to diversity. The squawks of protest he has provoked suggest that he has hit a nerve. But I am unconvinced by his attempt to make some connection between racial homogeneity and willingness to support generous levels of welfare. I also think he is too defeatist.

‘Relative to the other big European nations,’ Goodhart claims, ‘the British sense of national culture and solidarity has been rather weak’ — undermined, he thinks, by class, empire and the four different nations within the United Kingdom among other things. Yet other European nations have their dividing factors too. In any case, the evidence of our reactions to great national events — wars, jubilees and world cups — would surely indicate that underlying feelings of solidarity are at least as vigorous here as anywhere else.

We do not need to attempt the unrewarding task of actually defining Britishness (Sense of humour? Reverence for Parliament? Love of fish and chips? — I can think of exceptions to all these). Enough to say that an unmistakable, even pungent quality of Britishness exists and can be recognised a hundred yards off by natives and foreigners alike.

Blunkett is simply setting out to restore public credit to our national culture in a way that is taken for granted in every other nation. And the Tories would be wise to give him credit for it. I agree that national culture is a repellent phrase. Many of its manifestations, here as elsewhere, are liable to be bombastic or comic or both. But something of the sort is indispensable if even the worst-off — in fact particularly the worst-off — are fully to enjoy a sense of belonging. For once we can use ‘Orwellian’ as a term of praise.

Ferdinand Mount is a columnist for the Sunday Times.

© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk