After God, a new deity. After religion, a new faith. In our increasingly secular culture, one creed remains protected from blasphemy and sacrilege. Diversity, we know to recite, is our greatest strength.
Last week, Prof. Matthew Goodwin caused a stir among some of those who police the parameters of “acceptable” debate. In an interview promoting his new book, Goodwin dared to utter a heresy. “If you look at our national conversation,” he said, criticising cultural elites, “you can only talk about Britain if you’re equating Britishness with diversity. It’s almost like saying we don’t have an identity of our own.”
The inquisition rushed to its favourite lines. Goodwin was called “an absolute joke”, and accused of “nonsense”, “populism”, and outdoing even Nigel Farage. But while Goodwin’s critics dissembled about the death of the Queen and engaged in ad hominem attacks, nobody disproved his charge: that the acceptable mainstream account of Britain today judges the acceptability of Britishness by its diversity.
A case in point is a speech given recently by the British High Commissioner, Victoria Treadell, in Australia. The speech was, in part, a response to comments made by Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, who had earlier said Britain must confront its history of empire and stop “sheltering in narrower versions” of its past.
Yet the speech was no repudiation of what Wong had said. Venturing into contentious political territory, Vicki Treadell did exactly what Goodwin describes. She justified Britain and its history through the prism of “our modern multicultural reality”. She explained Britain’s worth by describing the contributions migrants and their descendants have made to the world.
These contributions are many and growing in number and importance. But in attempting to demonstrate that Britain was not sheltering in a narrow version of its past, the High Commissioner articulated too narrow a version of its present. Yes, Britain is a multiracial society and one that is, compared to other European countries, reasonably successful at confronting discrimination and accepting difference. But we are obviously so much more than that.
If our national identity really were just about diversity and inclusivity, we would be nothing more than a vacuum to be filled by others. There can be no single description of a national identity, but it is a complex mix of the places we have in common, our history and shared stories, institutions large and small, language, culture, and norms and rules that set out our expectations of decent behaviour.
This is all how we recognise familiarity in strangers, and that familiarity gives us a commonality, trust, and justified expectation of reciprocity. That reciprocity is what makes the give and take of citizenship a reality: a willingness to respect the law, pay taxes that help others, and fight – as the people of Ukraine remind us – to defend our compatriots and homeland.
In her case for diversity above all, Treadell like others deploys several tropes and straw man arguments. As somebody born in Malaysia to Dutch and Chinese parents, she says she is a legacy of empire. “You reap what you sow”, she warned, joking she is proof that “the empire strikes back”. But this “we are here because you were there” argument, presented by many as the price for having had an empire, is unnecessarily confrontational, divisive – and not even true.
Treadell’s assertion that she is “proudly British”, despite being “without a drop of English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish blood” is another familiar but dangerous argument. It is not the case that British identity is civic while English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish identities are ethnic. Ask Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Nationalist. Presenting these identities in ways that exclude newcomers is what racists once did, but it is the paradoxical endpoint for those obsessed with colour and ethnicity.
Treadell says she rejects “the idea that Britain was a ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon society, before the arrival of communities from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa.” But this is another absurdity because nobody credible makes the claim she rejects. More common are the fashionable assertions that Britain “has always been a country of immigrants” and “diversity built Britain”, which three years ago was emblazoned on a 50p coin.
Both arguments are specious. Until recently our population was remarkably stable. Immigration over the last 25 years exceeds the total immigration Britain has experienced in the last two thousand. And while many migrants have contributed in many ways, neither immigration nor diversity “built Britain”. In a country as old as ours, our language, buildings, laws, institutions, culture and history span back many centuries.
This is the problem with defining Britishness as diversity and inclusivity: doing so is unavoidably exclusive, since it ignores history, culture and norms that pre-date our very recent radical diversity. The thinkers who took England from civil war to pluralism and pragmatism; the leaders who gave us constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy; the innovators and engineers behind the industrial revolution; the men and women who defeated fascism; the writers who enriched our language. Their achievements are downplayed, or worse, they are cancelled or written off as old, white and racist. Yet they are part of us, because they built Britain.
There are many reasons why some wish to pretend we have always been as radically diverse as we are today. Perhaps it helps to justify record immigration and an unprecedented pace of change. Perhaps it helps to upend the race-based hierarchies imagined by critical theorists. Perhaps, for many who advance it, the argument is simply completely and unthinkingly entrenched.
Diversity may be a strength, but it is not our only strength, nor even our greatest. Britain is proving that it can succeed as a multiracial democracy precisely because of the legacy of the many generations who built this country over centuries. Diversity matters, as does the inclusion of all our citizens in our national identity. But what matters most is the common thread: the shared story that binds us all together. That story never ends, and it is for every generation to keep writing it. But we should beware. We risk it at our peril.