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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.”
Lösungsvorschlag “The Importance of being British?”
I. 1. [The students will possibly feel the need to look up ‘mongrel’ (i.e.: ‘a dog of mixed breed’ [OALD]) in their dictionaries. They should then consider the meaning of ‘mongrel’ in the context of the quotation given.]
This statement, which was obviously made by a conservative person who strongly dislikes the present situation of immigration into the U.K., takes a look at Britain’s present as well as at its future. As the influx of immigrants continues it will sooner or later be hard to decide what the British national identity is really like. The speaker seems to be afraid that the conception of what it is to be British will get lost as the number of newcomers increases.
2. [The students should gather some basic information on the development of immigration into Britain. Special attention could be paid to the period after World War II. Useful information can be obtained via internet at
http://www.cre.gov.uk/ethdiv/ed-roots.html – the site of the Commission for Racial Equality (see text).]
People have been coming to Britain for centuries, but immigration only became an issue in the 1960s. After World War II, Britain needed more workers and admitted citizens of Commonwealth countries without restriction. Many came from the Caribbean and from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They found work in hospitals, in the textile industry and in the public transport system, though most jobs were poorly paid. Nearly 500 000 Commonwealth citizens came to Britain before 1962, many of whom were later joined by their wives and children.
People from other countries were allowed in provided they had a work permit for a specific job.
When there were no longer enough jobs the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962) was passed to restrict the numbers entering Britain. The country was put under more pressure when many Asians arrived from East Africa in the late 1960s. Many had kept British citizenship after Kenya and Uganda became independent and were not subject to the restrictions of the 1962 Act. In the following years several more Acts were passed, further restricting the right to live in Britain.
Immigration is now strictly controlled. Normally, only people from the European Union and certain Commonwealth citizens can get permission to live in Britain. The right to stay may also be given to people from other countries who have special skills, and to asylum seekers and refugees. Britain now accepts about 50 000 immigrants every year.
From time to time there are reports of immigrants entering the country illegally hidden in lorries or ships. Many are deported (= sent home), and though it is possible to appeal against deportation it may take several years for a case to be decided.
In Britain, black and Asian immigrants were at first welcomed. As more of them arrived and settled near people from the same country, whole areas of cities were taken over. This created fear and distrust among the rest of the population. In the 1960s the politician Enoch Powell opposed further immigration and gained the support of many white people. Others thought he was exaggerating the problems and promoting racism (= hatred of people of a different race). About the same time then National Front was formed, and in the 1970s it held demonstrations against black people and Asians, many of which resulted in violence. More recently, there have been great efforts to integrate people from ethnic minorities into local communities and to develop a multicultural society based on equality and acceptance.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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..
IV. Man braucht nur die Wörter „britisch” oder „englisch” zu sagen, und schon denken die meisten Leute an Beständigkeit:
eine königliche Erbfolge, die bis in das Jahr 1066 zurückreicht, die Sprache Shakespeares, alte/altehrwürdige Universitäten, die Mutter der Parlamente.
Doch die Wirklichkeit in Blairs postimperialem, globalisiertem Großbritannien – in dem die Mitglieder des Königshauses Futter für die Boulevardpresse sind, Mitglieder des Oberhauses, die ihren Sitz ererbt haben, aus dem Parlament hinausgeworfen wurden und Schottland und Wales ihre eigenen Parlamente haben – lässt sich besser als fluktuierend beschreiben. Und das macht die Politik schwindlig.
Im kleinen oder im großen Rahmen kommen die Frage der nationalen Identität und ihre sensibleren Vettern Einwanderung und Rasse beständig mit einem Knall auf die Tagesordnung.
Dies taten sie vor zwei Wochen ganz gewaltig in Oldham, einer Stadt in der Nähe von Manchester, in der früher Textilien produziert wurden.
Eine Rangelei vor einem Geschäft zwischen zwei in Großbritannien geborenen Teenagern, einem asiatischer Abstammung und einem weißen, löste Kämpfe zwischen Weißen und Farbigen aus.
Die asiatischen Jugendlichen wendeten sich dann gegen die Polizei.
Ergebnis der Gewalt waren Dutzende von Verletzen, angezündete Autos und zerstörte Häuser.
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