Can a shared British identity depend on a shared culture alone?

Ever since Britain ascended into the role of leading naval empire in the world the influx of non-native subjects into the British Isles has been a persistent phenomenon.  During this period the nature and complexion of British culture and identity has also undergone noticeable change.  It would be safe to say that Britain today is a more multicultural and multiethnic society than it has ever been.   In this context the question whether shared British identity depends on a share culture assumes special significance.  This report will first explain the aforementioned assessment and later delve deeper into it as way of evaluating its merits.

Firstly, there is much veracity to the claim that a shared British identity does not equate to a shared British culture.  As British society becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, it is going to be difficult to pinpoint and define what exactly constitutes British identity, as people from different backgrounds might embrace and emphasize different aspects of British culture.  In other words, while culture encompasses the broader descriptions of our society, identities can be formed as subsets of these.  This situation can be deemed unprecedented in British history, for till the first half of the twentieth century British culture and identity could be fairly well defined.  Since the end of the Second World War, in what has come to be called retrospectively as the post-colonial period, the British Isles has witnesses a rapid increase in immigrants from erstwhile colonies.  Added to this, the recent European Union trade and labour agreements has facilitated movement of workers across borders.  These radical transformations to the demographic composistion of the nation have left commentators, politicians and intellectuals confused.  While there are obvious merits to the idea of open borders, there is also a strong contingency of opposition to this trend (Making Social Lives, 2009).  Especially the conservative sections of British intelligentsia and politics are shrill and vocal in its opposition to the emerging multicultural trend.  While it might have been true in the early decades of the twentieth century, it no longer holds true that a shared British identity necessarily translates into a shared British culture.  That is, one could be a British citizen of Pakistani Muslim descent and yet claim the country as his/her own.  In this particular case the individual’s culture is borrowed from afar but by virtue of having been integrated into British society, the claim to a British identity becomes legitimate.  To emphasize this point, one only needs to look at what has taken centre stage in English Literature in the post-colonial period.  Authors such as V.S.Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Meera Syal, among others have gained recognition and fame through their literary works.  While each of these authors comes from a unique colonial background having been brought up in one of the erstwhile colonies their claim to a shared British identity remains valid; although they do not apparently share a common cultural background with native British authors such as Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, etc. (Alia, & Bull, 2005)

But despite such examples of successful integration of immigrants into British society, some of the mainstream establishments in the UK that are dominated by conservative leaders are sceptical that this change is for the good.  As a result, the United Kingdom as a multicultural society has had its fair share of criticisms since the post Second World War period.  The British media – both print and electronic mediums – has also been criticized for its reluctance to discuss openly issues of race and ethnicity in its programmes.  The advent of new mediums of communication too has not made a significant contribution toward racial conciliation in Britain.  The tendency of the native British to maintain their unique cultural identity has had pervasive effects.  In the political front, Britain is still holding on to Pound Sterling even as the rest of Europe is integrating economically and thereby becoming stronger.  In the social realm, “the issue of racism has become a latent one, lurking behind media discussions and TV programmes such as the recent five-part “BBC White Season” which focused on what the BBC termed ‘the disappearing White Britain’, and the media’s examination of the 40th anniversary of the infamous speech by the controversial Tory politician, Enoch Powell, who spoke about ‘rivers of blood’ if immigration into the UK was not halted” (Thompson, 2006).

Such accentuated fears are not based on measurable evidence, for it indicates quite the contrary.  For example, as was elaborately explained by Parvati Raghuram in Chapter 4 of Making Social Lives, skilled immigrant labour is the backbone of the National Health Services organization.  Each year, the number of skilled and experienced doctors, nurses and other specialist hospital staff that join the NHS and contribute to its success come from abroad.  Although politicians of all parties claim the NHS to be a uniquely British institution, its persistent success is made possible by its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural staff members.  Many of the émigré healthcare professionals that join the NHS eventually take British citizenship and eventually start to recognize themselves as British.  Here is a classic example of the case that immigrants to Britain can share a common British identity without actually sharing a common culture.  To elaborate further, doctors from India constitute a major chunk of foreign nationals in NHS.  This group continues to celebrate traditional Indian festivals such as Diwali and Holi even after gaining citizenship in Britain.  This illustrates that while they have adapted to the norms and conventions of living in Britain and may even see Britain as their own, they do retain and practice cultural traditions of their native land, which in this particular case is India. (Making Social Lives, 2009)

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