In Search of the British: Integrating... Into What?

In Search of the British: Integrating... Into What?

Last autumn I was initiated into Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service Leadership Seminar. The program was established in 1982 by Georgetown University in order to promote dialogue among rising world leaders and individuals who would shape the futures of their countries.

The selected participants by invitation only have included the former Prime Minister of France Alain Juppe, the former President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and the current Foreign Minister of Jordan Nasser Judeh. Original founding committee members included Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. I was selected and invited to represent the United Kingdom. On the last day of the programme we were treated to a presentation from former US Secretary of State in the Clinton administration and the first woman to serve in that role, Dr Madeline Albright.

A comment Dr Albright made really resonated with me from my own experiences of growing up and living in the UK. Mrs Albright was discussing the different approaches countries adopt to the integration of immigrants. She recalled how when she and her family arrived in England during World War II the attitude of the British officials they dealt with was: «Hello and welcome to England. Very pleased to have you here. Now, how long do you plan to be here and when will you be going back?» The attitude of the American officials they encountered when they left England for the United States was altogether very different and went something like this: «Hello and welcome to the United States. Very pleased to have you here. Now, when will you be taking out American citizenship?» It struck me that those contrasting experiences neatly summed up the radically different policies, and indeed mind-sets, to immigrants and their integration into their host countries that are practiced by the British and American states.

To be blunt, the United States has a far superior record of successfully integrating people of diverse backgrounds and uniting them within a common framework of identity, culture and community while the UK has been abysmal at this. No more clearly can we see the failure of the British state and successive British Governments both of the Left and the Right in integrating immigrants into British society than in the national disgrace now unfolding with the flight of so many British born Muslims to join ISIS in Syria. At least 700 people from the UK have travelled to support or fight for jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq, according to British police. This figure stands as the highest of the European Union. The United States and India, both democracies, have significant Muslim populations and have no such outpouring on the same scale that we are witnessing in Britain.

Therefore, one has to grapple with the difficult and uncomfortable question, what is it in particular about Britain and life in Britain that is so unappealing that a tiny but potent minority of British born Muslims find it a more attractive proposition to go and fight for the barbarians of ISIS than build a life for themselves in the so-called civilised, liberal, democratic United Kingdom? Why would somebody who was born in Britain, grew up in Britain, went to British schools, have family and friends in Britain and work in Britain all of a sudden one day decide to throw all that away and become an ISIS terrorist?

Sadly, successive British Governments and the British state must bear a large share of the responsibility for this national disgrace. Part of the problem lies in the fact that there is no strong sense of national unity, identity and civic pride in the United Kingdom. The UK is essentially a white, English, Anglo-Saxon Protestant artificial construct. For a small island of only sixty-four something million people there is a striking lack of an overarching and unified national identity and community. This is reflected in its sport, in its politics, in its institutions and structures. There is no United Kingdom in sport. In the World Cup there will be no «British» football team representing all of the United Kingdom. The same is true in rugby and cricket. Now, the same is true of its politics. There is no such thing as British politics or a national British body politic. What exists is fractured and regional political cultures with a Conservative Government in London only there off the back of votes in England not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland while the two main «British» political parties, the Tories and Labour, are virtually non-existent in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Culturally, the idea of Britain or the United Kingdom and the concept of «Britishness» is ethereal. In England, many people do not refer to the country as a whole as Britain or the UK but rather simply England while many people in England speak of themselves as English rather than British. Even within England there is a sharp divergence between the North of England and the South of England. The Scottish referendum and the subsequent SNP sweep at the Westminster 2015 General Election revealed a Scotland moving further and further away from the idea and structures of the United Kingdom and embracing a distinct Scottish identity while in Northern Ireland the conflict known colloquially as «The Troubles» served as a crucible for testing the inclusiveness and unity of the concept of «Britishness» and it failed this test miserably.

So, if the United Kingdom is an artificial construct which unlike the United States has little internal cohesion and unity between the constituent parts of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales with no overarching, coherent and popular national and civic identity with the indigenous white Anglo-Saxon and Celtic natives of these islands unable to fully integrate with each other in harmony, it is little wonder the British state, under Governments of both parties, have been unable to integrate ethnic minorities into the culture, identity and structures of Britain, when there is little to integrate them in to. Britain has no written constitution. It does have an Established Church unlike in the United States or France, a Christian church in the form of the Church of England which unbelievably is still entitled to have Bishops sit in the House of Lords and whose Supreme Governor is also the British Head of State.

One must ask the question – is Britain a modern, secular country with strict separation of Church and State and no one dominant religion influencing the politics of the Nation or is it an exclusively Christian country with its State Institutions locked into the Church of England’s theology? The Bishops who sit in the upper chamber of the British Parliament voting on the laws of the land do not even have the courtesy or sensitivity to dress in neutral business clothes when attending debates and votes in the House of Lords. They attend in full Church of England uniform complete with Christian religious symbols. This is also true of every college in Britain’s most elite of universities, Cambridge and Oxford, where each college comes complete with a Church of England chapel and a Church of England apparatchik in the form of a «Dean». No college has a synagogue or a mosque or any other religious outfit for that matter... just the Christian Church of England.

Throw into the mix that Britain’s rate of social mobility is lower than what it was during the 1950s and that many of Britain’s professions and institutions of excellence and achievement still rest largely on the quality of the secondary schooling you received in the expensive private sector or mediocre state sector alongside the need for inherited social capital, connections and parental subsidies to help launch and build a well-achieving and striving young person on their career and financial, emotional and social security in Britain and clearly a combination of confused and fragmented national civic identity within a deeply elitist and reactionary WASP social economy without a truly pluralistic and fluid social and economic classless meritocracy, there will be social tensions.

Once religion and ethnic identity become involved coupled with weak, backwards and un-inspiringly traditionalist Government it is a lethal cocktail as is the case with Britain’s domestic Muslim minorities today reflected in the deeply embarrassing and disturbing outpouring of British Muslims to join ISIS. Neither the British multi-cultural Left nor British nationalist Right have been able to effectively and smartly bind in immigrants in the UK into a sense of British patriotism. Part of the problem along with political fracture and social stagnation is the inherently outdated and small-c conservative, traditional political and cultural national intuitions of Britain. Both the British Monarchy, aristocracy and the House of Lords (the upper chamber of the UK Parliament) may be captivating, aesthetically compelling and fascinating in practice, yet in theory they are based upon extremely reactionary and backwards principles such as hereditary birth, title and position due to inheritance not hard work helping to entrench and propagate a class based, elitist and upstairs-down stairs Britain which should be of the Downtown Abbey era, not the Britain of 2016.

While John Major the Conservative Prime invoked in his infamous 1993 speech to the 1922 Committee a quaint picturesque vision of a utopian Britain favoured wrapped in the nostalgia of warm beer by the cricket fields and old maids cycling to communion in the village mist, it was the little appreciated radical modernising zeal of Tony Blair’s Labour Government which carried out much needed progressive modernising by getting rid of most of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords (though 92 remained) and getting rid of all of the Law Lords with the creation of the separate and independent UK National Supreme Court along with the scaling back of the powers of the Lord Chancellor and greater local control over key areas of public policy decision making through a transfer of powers from the central London Government to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in an effort to foster greater local stakeholder engagement combined with a hope that this would quell any clamouring for full scale divorce from the authority of Westminster and Whitehall.

In fact, however, it has merely accelerated a process that would have eventually occurred any way. Which is; under the pressures of cosmopolitan forces such as globalisation, European integration and the paralysis of Imperial decline, with no over arching, codified, deeply felt and practiced national identity of Britishness with a unified and cohesive set of commonly recognised and practiced British values, customs, documents, systems, traditions, interests, pursuits, organisations, institutions et al, the break down and eventual breakup of the United Kingdom is clear, especially if a majority of English nationalists pull the UK as a whole out of the European Union with majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in favour of remaining European Union members.

How an insular, isolationist and anti-European England outside of the EU will be able to integrate to an even more successful extent its Muslim population to tolerate in no way the allure of ISIS or harbour sympathies or plans to fight for extremist Islam in the Middle East or at home in England, will be even more of a challenge than it is at present. One thing is clear, of all the countries in Europe; it is Britain who has one of the greatest problems with domestic radical Islamists. This is just as damning an indictment on the failure of successive British Governments to build and promote a properly integrated, disciplined and balanced British identity and cohesive socio-political economy and society, as it is upon the British Muslims who prefer to fight for ISIS in Syria or Iraq than live in Britain in peace. 

Tags: ISIS   Middle East  UK  US