Examining The Importance Of Being British Cultural Studies Essay

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Say the words "British" or "English," and most people think "enduring": a royal succession that goes back to 1066, the language of Shakespeare, ancient universities, the mother of Parliaments. But the reality of Blair's post-imperial, globalized Britain - when the royals are tabloid fodder, hereditary peers have been kicked out of the House of Lords, and Scotland and Wales have their own assemblies - is better described as fluctuating. And that is giving British politics a case of vertigo. In small ways and large, national identity, and its more prickly cousins immigration and race, keep popping onto the national agenda.

They did so with a vengeance two weekends ago in Oldham, a former textile town near Manchester. A skirmish outside a shop between two British-born teenagers, one of Asian descent and one white, triggered fighting between whites and non-whites. The Asian youths then turned on the police. The violence left dozens injured, cars torched and properties smashed. Though Oldham has quieted down, race relations are likely to remain contentious issues even after the election. Says Chris Myant, of the publicly funded Commission for Racial Equality (C.R.E.), "While you have a picture of significant success in some areas, you still have a vast backlog of problems pulling down a number of groups, and you still have a high degree of racial prejudice among some white members of the public."

Ethnic minorities make up only 6% of the population, but immigrants have more than doubled from the annual 90,000 during the early 1990s. The suffocation of 58 Chinese being smuggled across the English Channel in a refrigerator truck last year added fuel to a debate about who should be entitled to enter and remain in the country. Is Britain a "soft touch"? Does it need more foreign workers, or fewer? There is no consensus. William Hague has made the temporary detention of asylum seekers a central plank of his campaign, responding to anxieties in some towns where asylum seekers are now housed. It opened him to charges of racism, but the stance is popular among his core voters.

Even before the campaign started, the C.R.E. asked M.P.s to sign a pledge calling on candidates to refrain from stirring up racial hostility. It sounds harmless, but some refused on the grounds that it was wrong for the group to enforce "political correctness." Shortly thereafter, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook suggested - to some derision - that Britain's multicultural success was shown by chicken tikka masala becoming the country's most popular dish. Then a retiring Tory backbencher raised temperatures when he said the British were becoming a "mongrel" race through immigration. Hague forced him to apologize. The gusts of opinion that these incidents provoked are signs of how hard Britain is finding it to answer the question of who is "really" British.

There is another complicating factor: shifting political institutions and allegiances within the country. The Labour government sold the idea of a new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly as ways to strengthen the Union. It may be having the opposite effect. Though most English approve of this devolution, there are strains. Scottish M.P.s at Westminster can vote on English laws, for example, but English M.P.s have no vote on many Scottish matters. There is also irritation that the Scots, unlike the English, now only pay their university fees once they start earning. A recent survey found that 17% of people in England now saw themselves as English, not British, up from 7% two years ago.

And then there is Europe. Tony Blair recently argued the "patriotic case" for engaging with the E.U., but two-thirds of voters want to stay out of the euro, and half would even leave the E.U., mostly because they feel it threatens British identity.

Despite Oldham, British anxiety about national identity has the virtue of being a mostly peaceful sport. "People's conception of what it is to be British, what it is to be English, is an ever-changing one, and so it should be," Home Secretary Jack Straw said recently. But those shifts may not always come without hurt. As Chris Myant says, "Race and identity are very close to people's hearts."

III. 1. The general idea the majority of people have of the terms "British" or "English" is that of something enduring. They may think of royalty whose succession dates back to the days of the Norman Conquest in 1066 or the age-old universities of Oxford and Cambridge. There is also something lasting in the language of William Shakespeare or in the fact that the English Parliament was the mother of all Parliaments. The times, however, have changed. Today the royal family is "x-rayed" by the tabloids and hereditary peerage in the House of Lords has been abolished. There is devolution to the extent that Scotland and Wales have their own assemblies now. At the beginning of the 21st century Britain is in a state of fluctuation. And we may not forget about the problems that come with that changing society: immigration and racial problems.

2. Oldham, the place of the worst race riots within a decade, is a former textile producing town near Manchester in the North of England. Two teenagers, one of them of Asian descent, the other one white, had a clash in front of an Oldham shop in late May this year. The incident gave rise to large-scale fighting between members of the two ethnic groups. When the police went in they were attacked by the young Asians. The riots resulted in a considerable number of injured persons and a lot of damage.

3. After the Oldham riots people will continue to discuss the highly controversial issue of race relations. According to the British Commission for Racial Equality there is still a lot of racial prejudice among some white citizens. They wonder if the country really needs so many foreign workers. In the cities which house asylum seekers there is much concern about security. This forces the politicians to take measures.

4. As the C.R.E. knew that there is still a high degree of racial prejudice among parts of the population and that the politicians tend to misuse this kind of attitude for their purposes in their election campaigns, they asked the M.P.s to sign a pledge calling on them to refrain from stirring up all form of racial hostility. And the behavior of some British leading politicians proved them right. Robin Cook, for example, criticized the decrease of restaurants selling "typical" British food saying that chicken tikka masala was becoming the country's most popular food thus showing Britain's multicultural success. What he really meant was the growing lack of national identity. Or there was this very conservative Tory backbencher who painted the grim picture of the British becoming a "mongrel" race through immigration. There really was a strong need for the C.R.E. to demand political correctness from the candidates.

There are two other complicating factors. One the one hand the British were told by their government that devolution would strengthen the Union. On the other hand the English M.P.s have no vote on Scottish matters whereas their Scottish colleagues may vote on English laws. This results in a growing number of citizens all over England seeing themselves as English. Finally the British people and their Prime Minister strongly disagree on the issue of Europe. While two-thirds of the voters want to keep their pound as currency and with it their British identity, Tony Blair wants to engage with the E.U..

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