Brave New Country; Immigration and Terrorism Are Forcing Britain to Rethink Its National Identity

By Mcguire, Stryker; Hayes, Nick | Newsweek International, August 6, 2007 | Go to article overview

Brave New Country; Immigration and Terrorism Are Forcing Britain to Rethink Its National Identity


Mcguire, Stryker, Hayes, Nick, Newsweek International


Byline: Stryker Mcguire (With Nick Hayes in London)

Once upon a time, cricket seemed the most British of sports. Leisurely games on the village green. Rain breaks. Warm beer. White men (for the most part) in fussy white uniforms. Such reverence for fair play and civility that a casual observer could hardly tell who was rooting for whom, much less who was winning. Today, however, it is football--with its boisterous crowds and huge financial stakes--that reveals most about what the country has become. Consider: nearly half of Britain's top football clubs are now owned by foreigners. Most of the best players are likewise foreign. In some ways, the most emblematic of the modern clubs is now London's Chelsea--or Chelski, as it's called, in a wry homage to its Russian-billionaire owner--famous for being the first big British club to field a starting lineup composed entirely of non-Britons.

As this suggests, Britain is changing fast--off the football pitch as well as on it. Having absorbed the end of empire and the collapse of its industrial base, Britain is now facing new pressures. Chief among them is the greatest wave of immigration in British history: in 2004 and 2005 alone, more than 600,000 immigrants poured into the country, mostly from Eastern Europe, increasing Britain's population by a full 1 percent. Equally important is a growing concern, verging on dread, that terrorism has rooted in and is being nurtured on British soil.

For these reasons, the so-called Britishness debate, once confined to think tanks and the chattering classes, has gone public. The new prime minister, Gordon Brown, has put the debate at the heart of his agenda. While it would be folly to try to impose a definition on the British public, Brown is hoping to at least clear a path in that direction--enabling Britons to come to terms with the big changes of the last few decades and find a new sense of themselves by, among other things, augmenting the teaching of British history in schools and teaching citizenship in Britain's 1,000 madrassas. The pillars on which British identity once rested are either gone or have been weakened: the empire, the great industries, the monarchy, the Church of England. Even the English language suffers in its birthplace: it may rule the world, but according to a Home Office study, only 26 percent of the 1.3 million British residents of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent are fluent in it.

For better and worse, globalization and immigration have rendered Britain virtually unrecognizable over the last decade. London's financial district now rivals Wall Street as the world capital of finance. At the same time, every second child in London is now born to an immigrant mother. Most of these profound changes to Britain's character have been patently or at least arguably beneficial, but they can be unsettling nonetheless. Even before Brown took over from Tony Blair five weeks ago, he began to lay the groundwork for the Britishness agenda he's now putting in practice. Last year, prepping for his new job, he proposed a day of national celebration like the Fourth of July in the United States and, conjuring up a dewy-eyed vision of the Stars and Stripes "in every garden" in America, called for Britons to similarly embrace the Union Jack, which in recent decades has been overshadowed by regional symbols like England's red-and-white St. George's Cross. He sought something broader, more concrete and more fundamental, too--a redefinition of Britishness itself around such values as tolerance and fair play. As he said at the time: "We have to be clearer now about how diverse cultures, which inevitably contain differences, can find the essential common purpose ... without which no society can flourish."

A week into his administration, Brown announced a series of important reforms. Striving to banish the much-criticized "presidentialism" of Blair's Downing Street-centric governing style and restore broad popular support for the ancient cornerstones of British governance, he proclaimed the transfer of certain powers from the executive to the Parliament, such as declaring war and making key public appointments. …

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