Over the past twenty years, there has been a decline in the proportion of British citizens who consider their nationality primarily British. A report by Anthony Heath and Jane Roberts for the British Department of Justice shows that since 1979, the number of English, Welsh, and Scottish residents who consider their nationality to be primarily British has fallen. At the same time, the number describing themselves as Scottish, Welsh, or English has risen.
In 1979, 38 percent of Scottish people described themselves as British, a figure which fell to 20 percent in 1992, and then 14 percent by 2006. By contrast, in 1979, 56 percent of Scots described themselves as primarily Scottish, and by 2006 this had risen to 78 percent. This pattern is repeated in Wales and England.
This has led to calls for British identity to be redefined for the twenty first century. As a result, the current British government aims to reassert a ‘traditional British’ identity based on a ‘muscular liberalism’ that can create a ‘shared national identity that is open to everyone’.
The decline in British national sentiment is partly due to the change in ethnic and religious makeup of the country. In 1951, 4.2 percent of total British residents were born abroad, but this figure had risen to 8.3 percent by 2001. In other words over 2.5 million more people were born abroad in 2001 than in 1951.
The fastest rates of growth occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s, the British government offered citizens of former British colonies the opportunity to move to Britain and to automatically gain full rights as residents. This resulted in large-scale immigration from South Asia and the Caribbean to Britain.
Since the 1960s, the majority of new immigrants have come from Europe. This reflects the gradual integration of Britain into the European Union, and the subsequent easy passage of labour between the Union’s member states.
In the 1970s, the majority of European immigrants were Irish, and in the 2000s the majority were Polish. In every decade since the 1970s, Asia has been the second largest contributor to Britain’s foreign-born population, with India the largest single contributing country. All of these immigrants have brought into Britain diverse sets of cultures, belief systems, and religions that they cherish, believe in, and are not willing to lose through assimilation.
As Walter Menski notes, ‘immigrants resist outright assimilation, and will therefore reconstruct their own little worlds in diaspora in new ways’. Take a walk through Bethnal Green in London and you might mistake it for Bangladesh. Journey south to Brixton and you won’t be able to escape the sounds and smells of Jamaica.
Yet the special relationship between the Church of England the British state excludes other religions from being allowed to feel properly British despite there being a greater plurality of religious belief in Britain than ever before.
First, the close relationship excludes other religions because it symbolises the primacy of the Church of England above all other religions. Second, as Tariq Modmood notes, such a relationship:
‘reinforces the image that Jews or Catholics or Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs are not really British and therefore cannot really be trusted to understand or cherish Britain…or have a lesser birthright to it, and so may legitimately be denied some of the available jobs, prizes, and distinctions and may legitimately be objects of suspicion in times of political and international tension.’
At the same time, many British people have concluded that granting automatic citizenship to former subjects of the British Empire in the 1950s and 1960s was a mistake. British politicians are wary of promoting multicultural policies because of the feared backlash. For example, in a 2003 White Paper, the British government emphasises the view that skilled immigrants should only be accepted as long as they can fill a job that a British resident cannot.
Professor Will Kymlicka of Queens University remarked that the British government ‘felt that the public would not accept increased immigration if there were any possibility that immigrants would take jobs from new residents, even if this cost were more than outweighed by the creation of new jobs.’ The same White Paper makes no reference to ‘multiculturalism’, instead proposing that immigrants must prove they are no threat to the British way of life. In the twenty-first century, the British perceive immigrants as a burden on their society.
This does not have to be the case. Professor Rainer Baubcock at the European University Institute argues that it is nearly impossible to create a shared identity out of the past, because we can never all share the same history.
Instead, Baubock suggests a shared identity should be formed out of the potential for a common future. In this view, transnational migration is a ‘catalyst that sets into motion a process of self-transformation of collective identities towards a more pluralistic…outlook’.
Rather than the metaphors of the assimilationist melting pot or multicultural salad bowl, the catalyst model suggests that social cohesion between different groups can be assured if citizens understand identities to be overlapping and overarching, and respectfully engage in dialogue with other identities in order to create a coherent identity narrative that balances the needs of all histories and cultures.
In the future British national identity should be built on the idea of a common future. The world is smaller than ever as more people are able to migrate than ever before. A view that sees immigration as the potential catalyst for great things is a truly 21st century view. Potential will sometimes require costs to be advanced, but if we persevere, the returns will make the pain worthwhile.