February 10, 2019 Abdul Haqq

Brexit: [Re]birth of a Nation?

Brexit continues to preoccupy many of our thoughts as the impending deadline for leaving approaches. Arguably the most divisive issue in British politics for a generation, Brexit has accelerated an increase in racist and religiously motivated crimes across the UK.[1] In the midst of this ensuing toxic climate, debates regarding what actually constitutes Britishness are taking place. Before exploring this fundamentally important question, it is necessary to first attempt to define identity within today’s societally diverse context. Reference will occasionally be made to my PhD research and subsequent book that discussed this issue in some detail.[2] With what appears to be a socio-political regression as a result of Brexit, previous identity constructs will be revisited. Among existing definitions of identity is:

‘…an expressed sense of personal distinctiveness, personal continuity and personal autonomy.’[3]

Another definition describes it as:

 ‘…sharing of some kind of [the individual’s] essential character with others.’ [4]

Today, British identity accords to a more dynamic mosaic that comprises an:

…implosion of cultural differences, where the collision of cultures…[does not cause further divisions]…but scattered fragments inwards, into the body of colliding cultures.’ [5]

Since the mid 20th Century up until now, multiculturalism has become the spectrum across which collective identities have merged. However, for a few years now – predating Brexit – underlying fissures have widened and a shift towards nationalism is now beginning to take root and challenge the premise of multiculturalism in 21st Century Britain.

The Death of Multiculturalism?

In 2014, an article of the above-mentioned name appeared in the Huffington Post.[6] It referred to statements of senior MPs describing multiculturalism as being something that “…had become an excuse for justifying separateness, and subsequently called for a “…stronger sense of patriotic purpose.[7] In 2011, David Cameron – who precipitated the entire Brexit saga –  denounced multiculturalism, claiming that it “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives…[8] The Mayor of Newham followed suit in 2015 ‘declaring a war’ on multiculturalism in an effort to encourage integration. Scapegoating multiculturalism as the primary cause for existing societal conflicts is too simplistic; however, the above-mentioned concerns regarding some communities living a separated/segregated existence do bear a degree of legitimacy. In an effort to address these concerns, a review of the existing model should be made and if necessary, adapt components of alternative, more conducive frameworks that better encapsulate UK values.

Cultural Pluralism

Cultural pluralism refers to ‘… the acceptance within a society of differences in the beliefs, values and traditions to which members of that society have a commitment.[9] Among the principles of Cultural Pluralism is that each group or community has the right to retain its distinctive culture so long as it does not conflict with the shared values of society as a whole. The problem arises when actually defining what constitutes shared values.We only have to reflect on the past 20 years to witness the fluidity with which society’s values have changed to acknowledge the challenge of identifying unchanging universal but ethical foundations. Halstead also questioned the problematical concept of shared values, querying what would occur in the event of disagreement.[10]

An example of shared values during the 90s is witnessed from the following Independent news article in which it illustrated:

 ‘…it is common for children of other religions to take part in nominally Christian events. As well as appearing in nativity plays, Muslims, Hindu and Sikh children learn to sing carols, send Christmas cards and make Advent calendars… At other times of the year, the whole school recognises different festivals…’ [11]

In contrast to the above, when shared values conflicted with particular community groups or faiths, multiculturalism was highlighted as the cause for such dissonance. More recently, in 2015 a conflict with such values resulted in legal proceedings brought against a Christian-owned bakery for refusing to prepare a celebratory cake bearing pro-gay slogans for marriage. The proprietors of Ashers Baking Company stated in their defence:

“We happily serve everyone but we cannot promote a cause that goes against what the Bible says about marriage. We have tried to be guided in our actions by our Christian beliefs.” [12]

Today, in 2019, conflict with shared values within the existing multicultural framework continue to surface; this time in regard to Muslim parents removing their children from a state school due to the nature of sex education lessons:

‘A group of Muslim parents have staged a protest outside a primary school with a gay assistant head teacher after claiming its sex education programme was ‘over-promoting LGBT movements’.’[13]

Undoubtedly, there are challenges with the Cultural Pluralism model that has arguably been the prevalent trend shaping multiculturalism to date. Perhaps the 2nd model that follows is more suited to current societal norms; however, it allows for the retention, practice and fostering of community or religious beliefs, considered sacrosanct to each group while embracing particular shared societal values.

Cultural Relativism

In my MBA [Education] dissertation, I observed that Cultural Relativism:

“…concerns the various perceptions of cultural groups as to what is of educational value to their respective groups. In other words, what is perceived to be of educational value within one group is likely to be viewed differently by the other. The relativism applies when each group is allowed to pursue what it perceives to be of value.” [14]

This particular model can be further categorised into two components, strong and weak relativism:

“Strong relativism implies that an activity can be understood to be good or worth pursuing only relative to a specifiable person or group; nothing can be considered valuable or good in itself, and there are no absolute truths which cross cultural barriers; truth is simply what is accepted by a particular cultural group, and a rationality itself is culture bound.”[15]

In contrast, weak relativism:

“…does not imply that anything goes. Rather, it involves the realisation that one’s view may be part of a greater scheme, be it a major component or minor one. Weak relativism focuses on aspects that are specific but not generally universal.”[16]

The above illustrates a form of ‘dynamic pluralism…compatible with weak relativism’. This is due to its ability to adjust such relativism within a wider societal context without compromising or losing the community’s core values.[17] While observing this however, revised versions of Cultural Pluralism can also reshape the current multicultural landscape in Britain providing it is combined with Structural Pluralism. The latter would enable communities and faiths autonomy to accommodate their distinctive socio-cultural and socio-religious requirements.[18] Acknowledgement must be given at this stage to the likelihood of these more conducive forms of multiculturalism being resisted by wider society – much in the same way as when they were first introduced in Australia:

“Reliance solely on a naive form of cultural pluralism will not alleviate the discrimination these people and many members of other ethnic groups still experience. Structural and institutional pluralism must accompany it, but inevitably this will be resisted as much as possible by the dominant Anglo – Celtic majority.” [19]

Britishness: a [r]evolving identity?

As discussed in my book, the concept of Britishness originated from the establishment of the nation of Great Britain as an entity in 1707 when parliament passed the Act of the Union to amalgamate Scotland, England and Wales. Each region retained their respective identities. [20] Today, for those harking back to this romanticised era of empire, it is necessary to reevaluate the accuracy of outdated perceptions regarding Britain as a monoculture, developed predominantly by European immigrants:

‘Britain gained rather more out of slavery than the retrospective joy of abolishing the trade in slaves…The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labour. Britain’s major ports, cities and canals were built on invested slave money. Several banks can trace their origins to the financing of the slave trade. Apart from the Barclays Brothers, who were slave traders, we also know of Barings and HSBC which can be traced back to Thomas Leyland’s banking house. The Bank of England also had close connections to the trade. Hundreds of Britain’s great houses were built with the wealth of slavery and the Church of England also acknowledges its pecuniary gains from slavery.’ [21]

The contribution of 53 Commonwealth countries to the development of Britain also cannot be ignored. The palpable anger at the treatment and deportation of descendants who had been resident since childhood should suffice as evidence of their relevance in British society.[22]

In light of the above discussion so far, the following questions remain:

  1. What constitutes Britishness?
  2. Is it a [r]evolving identity construct? And;
  3. Who defines it?

These questions are undoubtedly subjective and responses will invariably differ according to the prism through which they are considered. Nevertheless, what is undeniable is a polarisation towards nationalism, fueled by Brexit alongside a misplaced patriotism that is based on romanticised perceptions of an illustrious past with few or no immigrants (except the enslaved). The far right have seized on current nationalistic sentiments but they would do well to halt the provocative tide of xenophobia that accompanies their often offensive rhetoric due to emerging evidence that has revealed brown or black communities to be the first known inhabitants in Britain:

‘The first modern Britons, who lived about 10,000 years ago had “dark to black” skin, a groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed…It was initially assumed that Cheddar Man had pale skin and fair hair, but his DNA paints a different picture, strongly suggesting he had blue eyes, a very dark brown to black complexion and dark curly hair.” [23]

As has been intimated earlier, the reality regarding the extent of Britain’s literal whitewashing of history can no longer be ignored. Indeed:

‘A more honest debate would engage with slavery’s crucial role in helping to set up capitalism itself, the system under which all of today live and labour, inextricably connecting us not only to its enslaving foundations but its controlling mechanisms and values…’ [24]

Such a debate will likely reaffirm the multicultural composition of British society and the fact that this cannot be reversed. Second and third generation descendants of immigrants – many of whom originated from Commonwealth countries – are as British as their  so-called indigenous white counterparts. In fact, the presence of Muslim communities has further obliged British culture to experience an even greater diversity of other cultures:

“A British identity has evolved that is open, plural and constantly in motion, thanks to the cross-fertilization between reclaimed cultures of origin and British culture that now includes its new citizens.” [25]

The UK climate post-Brexit appears foreboding so it is appropriate to take this opportunity to emphasise some important truths in conclusion. Xenophobic calls for non-white Britons and other citizens legally resident in the UK to ‘go back to where they came from’ no longer carries much validity in view of above-mentioned indisputable facts that:

  1. they (we) were actually on these shores long before the presence of any Caucasians, (refer to the evidence of Cheddar Man);
  2. Britain’s past and present wealth was established on the back of the transatlantic slave trade, where black Africans were commodified as human capital and;
  3. Commonwealth citizens, together with their descendants, are an intrinsic part of British society.

In fact, such bigotry could now be repelled with the same rhetoric and insistence that these racist culprits themselves return to their places of origin in mainland Europe; however, this would not be in keeping with quintessential characteristics that define Britishness; shared values, acceptance of others and inclusivity. The best approach therefore would be to avoid reducing ourselves to their uneducated and unsophisticated levels.

 

 

[1]BBC News: Religious hate crimes: Rise in offences recorded by police’, 16thOctober 2018:https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-45874265

[2]Baker, A H: ‘Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 & 2015: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Extremists-Our-Midst-Security-Challenges/dp/0230296548/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1549799598&sr=8-1&keywords=abdul+haqq+baker

[3]Rennani, S R A: ‘The impact of Globalization on British Muslim Identity’, University of London, PhD in Philosophy, 2001, p.15

[4]Cited by Mol, H. ‘Identity and The Sacred: A Sketch for a New Social-Scientific Theory of Religion’, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, Great Britain, 1976

[5]Eriksen, T.H. ‘Kulturella Veikryss Cultural Crossroads’, Oslo, Universitetsforlaget, 1994

[6]Sarwar, I: ‘The Death of Multicultiralism’, The Huffington Post, 21stMarch 2014: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/iram-sarwar/multiculturalism_b_5001582.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer_us=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_cs=lhky2S4hDC8ZIjFRu2lpyA

[7]Ibid, citing Gordon Brown

[8]Ibid

[9]Halstead, J M: ‘The Case for Voluntary – Aided Schools’, Cambridge: Islamic Academy, 1986

[10]Ibid

[11]The Independent: ‘Children from all faiths tell the Christmas Story,’ 14thDecember 1992.

[12]Glanfield, E: ‘Christian-owned bakery which refused to make ‘Bert and Ernie’ gay marriage cake found GUILTY of discrimination’, Daily Mail, 20thMay 2015: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3087624/Christian-owned-bakery-refused-make-Bert-Ernie-gay-marriage-cake-GUILTY-discrimination.html

[13]McManus, L: ‘Muslim parents take children out of school in protest at sex education lessons they claim are over promoting homosexuality’, Daily Mail, 28thJanuary 2019: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6637445/Muslim-parents-children-school-protest-sex-education-lessons.html

[14]Baker, A H: ‘The Significance of State funding for Muslim Education in Britain’, University of South Bank, London, MBA [Ed.] 1998, p.12

[15]Halstead, J M: ‘The Case for Voluntary – Aided Schools’, Cambridge: Islamic Academy, 1986, p.10

[16]Baker, A H: ‘The Significance of State funding for Muslim Education in Britain’, University of South Bank, London, MBA [Ed.] 1998, p.13

[17]Ibid

[18]Ibid, citing Bullivant, B M: ‘Pluralism: Cultural Maintenance and Evolution’, Clevedon; Multilingual Matters, 1984, p.71

[19]Ibid

[20]Baker, A H: ‘Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, p.41: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Extremists-Our-Midst-Security-Challenges/dp/0230296548/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1549799598&sr=8-1&keywords=abdul+haqq+baker

[21]Gopal, P: ‘Much of Britain’s wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn’t it pay reparations?’ New Statesman, 23rdApril 2014: https://www.newstatesman.com/economics/2014/04/much-britains-wealth-built-slavery-so-why-shouldnt-it-pay-reparations

[22]Bulman, M: ‘Windrush scandal ‘tip of iceberg’ as other commonwealth citizens targeted by hostile policies’, Independent, 19thJune 2018: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/windrush-commonwealth-hostile-india-ghana-pakistan-a8404936.html

[23]Devlin, H: First modern Britons had ‘dark to black’ skin, Cheddar Man DNA reveals’, The Guardian, 7thFebruary 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/first-modern-britons-dark-black-skin-cheddar-man-dna-analysis-reveals

[24]Gopal, P: ‘Much of Britain’s wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn’t it pay reparations?’ New Statesman, 23rdApril 2014: https://www.newstatesman.com/economics/2014/04/much-britains-wealth-built-slavery-so-why-shouldnt-it-pay-reparations

[25]Ramadan, T: ‘Western Muslims and the Future of Islam’, Oxford University Press, 2005

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