Saturday, August 25, 2007

This happy breed of men

News that a quarter of UK babies are born to foreign parents has caused a stir. Robert Winder gives a positive spin (Brazil but for the sunshine), and makes some good points. But he skirts a widespread anxiety which is that a new indentity, discontinuous with and hostile to the history of these islands has implanted itself and is growing fast. As Robert Colls wrote (English Journeys), "You have to wonder how much...all the way down hatred and alienation [of the kind expressed by the four London underground bombers of 7/7] exists in our country".

My hunch is that many people fear a new 'nation' is taking route in the UK alongside the three or four of the last thousand to fifteen hundred years or so, a beachhead of the 'Ummah' that threatens the others: a variant on the 'rivers of blood' theme.

The idea may be quite wrong (life, identity and the reasons for conflict are more complicated, including for the reason that Britain may be quite like Sarkozy's France, where a poll last year showed that almost as many French Muslims think of themselves as French first and Muslim second as think of themselves as Muslims first and French second). But it is there.

Among the key points to bear in mind, though, is that any idea of Britain/England/Scotland/Wales etc worth the name that people want to protect is a construct that takes constant work, vigilance and renewal. In The Progressive Patriot, Billy Bragg asks, "how do newcomers fit into our island story? Is there room in this concept of Britishness for those whose ancestors were not here when Magna Carta was written or the Bill of Rights passed?". He also points out that he was the first in his family line to have been born in a time of universal suffrage. "When my grandfather was called up to join the 28th Middlesex Regiment in November 1915, he and millions like him did not have the right to vote".

[P.S. Both I and my daughter had one parent born abroad.]

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