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Against British decline

How can we hold the nation together?

Artillery Row

The coronation of Charles III marks the continuation of a British institution that has endured since the 9th century. Whilst there was a short but bloody interregnum in the mid-17th century, the Crown is the fundamental British institution that binds together the British people with their history, and their future through the line of succession. Each monarch passes on a slightly different realm to their successor, but Elizabeth II surely bequeathed the most significantly changed kingdom to Charles in our history, even more than the industrial transformation witnessed under Victoria. 

British history has been abandoned as unifying contemporary identity

A number of recent events illustrate the significance of this change, posing many questions about the future of Britain and how our institutions are choosing to approach it. 

Most significant was the latest Census for England and Wales, published last year. It found that fewer than half of people in England and Wales identify as Christians. The proportion of the country who consider themselves “White British” has declined to 74 per cent, down from 80 per cent a decade previously. 

In January, the Sir Francis Drake Primary School in Lewisham, south east London, announced that it would be renamed Twin Oaks School because it said that Sir Francis Drake himself sat at odds with the school’s values and diversity due to his links to the 16th century slave trade. 

Finally, the events in Wakefield earlier this spring saw a malicious witch-hunt against teenage boy and his mother on spurious accusations of blasphemy by members of the local Muslim community.

Each of these affairs illustrates the social changes that have occurred in Windsor Britain. Undoubtedly, British culture and identity will change further. What is especially interesting is how our institutions and political class are choosing to respond to these developments, and where this will take Britain under Charles III. 

Charles’ coronation is fundamentally an Anglican service for an officially Anglican country. Yet it is only for a nominally Anglican country, where church attendance has been falling since the 1950s, and now the number of people who consider themselves Christian has dropped below half. 

Without a doubt, this is having and will have a huge effect on British identity. Christianity has been fundamental to the country for centuries, at least back to Alfred the Great’s unification of England, and arguably earlier to Bede, Saint Augustine in Canterbury and the late Roman Empire. 

The kingdom that Elizabeth II served was bound together not just by the shared experiences of two world wars, but also centuries of religious understanding. This understanding gained a distinct national character thanks to the Book of Common Prayer and King James Bible, from which millions of Britons would worship each week. This was probably proportionately the least discussed, but most important part of our national identity until the very end of the 20th century. 

Whilst the physical — and some of the moral — legacy of our Anglican history remains, as Tom Holland described in Dominion, the shared, national experience of it has faded away for much of the population. Only weddings and funerals, and sometimes Christmas or Easter services, really remain. Far from working out the best way to increase church attendance, and how to take lessons from the country’s busiest congregations, the Church of England is committed to reforms that will continue its decline into a sad shadow of a great national institution. 

The other story of the Census is the rapid decline in the White British share of the population, especially in London. This change is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon. Net immigration exceeded 100,000 people per year for the first time in 1998, and it has climbed to a record of over half a million last year. This is unprecedented in our history. Within three decades, Britain has become a deeply multicultural nation, with a new orthodoxy to fit. Institutional focus on integration into a British nation, British history and the British people has disappeared from our public debate around immigration. It has been replaced by a focus on diversity for diversity’s sake. 

The Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick wrote in 1891 that it is “essential” that “the persons composing [a nation] should have a consciousness of belonging to one another, of being members of one body, over and above what they derives from being under one government; so that, if their government were destroyed by war or revolution, they would still hold firmly together”. Few could argue that the scale of the change in British society today allows it to meet Sidgwick’s test. 

The decision to rename the Francis Drake Primary School in Lewisham indicates this. Putting aside the questionable depiction of Drake as a “slave-trader” (which the BBC used until it changed its article after a salvo of complaints), the school’s name-change illustrates the rapid cultural and demographic shifts that have happened in London in the 21st century. British history has been abandoned as a unifying force in contemporary British identity. This is particularly stark in South London, with its rich maritime history. 

Our elected officials are responding by burying their heads in the sand

British citizens in the 21st century do not have the same attachment to the country’s past that they once did. It is not just that people like Drake are not relevant to many British people today; he is actively offensive. 

February’s events in Wakefield suggest where this gradual death of nationhood may take us. They tell an ugly truth about modern British society and the failure to secure British identity amongst its population in the 21st century. 

Particular details of the Wakefield affair bear re-telling so we can understand their full meaning. In particular, the white British mother of the teenage boy accused of “desecrating” a copy of the Koran — an English language version, slightly scuffed — felt compelled to sit in front of Wakefield’s Muslim community, cover her hair, apologise on her son’s behalf and assure those present that she will not “press charges” against those who had threatened her and her son. 

This event was attended by West Yorkshire Police’s Chief Inspector Andy Thornton, who sat alongside the panel of imams and supposed community leaders as the boy’s light-spirited behaviour was denounced. He was seen nodding in agreement, and he praised those in the room for working to “damp down tensions”. He spoke about the need for greater “awareness and education on behalf of the boy who damaged the Koran, stating that he and his friends displayed “a lack of appreciation and understanding of their actions” and “how they affect the wider community”. He hoped that the people of Wakefield would continue to “work collectively as a community to raise awareness” and heaped praise on the imam for arranging the event. 

To add insult to injury, the local Labour MP Simon Lightwood, released a statement praising the handling of the whole affair, noting the importance of “celebrating diversity and living together with tolerance”. This, ultimately, is the end point of diversity in Britain on its current trajectory: parallel societies, existing in the same state but not of the same nation, overseen by a state that gives tacit endorsement to extremists. The sectarian politics in Leicester between local Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims shows how this is not simply a crude issue of the majority versus minority, but also a growing issue between different ethnic and religious minorities. 

This poses a challenge to the British political class. Our elected officials seem to be responding by burying their heads in the sand. With net immigration as high as it is, any talk of integrating new arrivals and stopping the creation of parallel societies has died away. The numbers are too high to make it possible, and what are they integrating into anyway? Whilst today’s Labour Party is reasonably comfortable being the party of religious, racial and sexual diversity — so long as the inherent contradictions within their coalition are just about papered over — the Conservative Party is paralysed, with its largely liberal MPs and officials at odds with its conservative voters. 

Tory MPs may complain about the decline in church attendance and worry about the social effects of mass immigration, but they are incredibly unlikely to do anything about it. Trying to put into practice Sigdwick’s description of a coherent and unified nation of people seems beyond our political class, alien as a concept. 

British identity can no longer be assumed. It has to be recreated

In part it stems from our ancestors having built such a society already. From the bloodshed of the civil war, and the anarchic crime of the early 18th century, the Georgians and the Victorians built a nation out of ancient roots which was prosperous, peaceful, trusting and clean. Peter Hennesy’s “good chap” theory of governance was possible, and politics was incredibly uncorrupt, after genuine corruption in the 18th century. British institutions successfully tempered majoritarian tyranny as the franchise expanded (no mean feat considering the Gordon Riots in 1778), and the Test Acts were repealed. The British had the privilege of not needing to aggressively promote their identity or ethnicity, in the way that continental nationalists did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, Robert Tombs describes the remarkable lack of patriotism on behalf of pragmatic British soldiers in the First World War. They were more interested in “football, beer, and crumpet” than being ideological soldiers, wrapped in the Union Jack. This is a world away from the philosophical nationalism of France and Germany at the time. 

In many respects this is admirable, but it is sadly not sustainable in Britain today. If our history offers no bond, if there is no real common creed or shared religious rituals to speak of any more, and if the police allow parallel societies and religious courts to operate, then British identity can no longer be assumed. It has to be recreated. 

In his own way, Charles III is attempting to do this. Many on the right have bristled at his emphasis on diversity in the coronation and his communications since becoming King. It is understandable, but it reflects a strategic choice from the King about the best way to ensure the future of the Crown in an increasingly multicultural Britain. All monarchs require political legitimacy. Whilst that meant support of the barons in the mediaeval era, and support of Parliament from the Glorious Revolution, it clearly means something else today. The decision to place a great emphasis on the Commonwealth of Nations — not just the Commonwealth Realms of which he is actually King — is surely part of this, an attempt to cement Charles as the King of a diverse Britain in a diverse world. This may work, but it comes with the risk that it is seen as jettisoning the British people and their history, perhaps unwise for the new King of a 1200 year old Kingdom.

Democratic politics has a slightly different challenge. Balancing the competing interests of religious and ethnic groups is no sustainable way to run a democracy. It will either lead to crude majoritarianism or further ghettoisation and pork-barrel politics. The British state must take this seriously if it is to maintain any legitimacy, both with new arrivals to the UK and with a jaded native population. Its approach to identity must articulate a vision for Britain that is not just positive but unique. It must draw on what has made Britain the nation it is over centuries, whilst ruthlessly prosecuting the religious extremism seen in Wakefield and beyond. If integration is to have any chance of success at all, it is essential that immigration is brought down to sustainable levels. Without this, any hope of holding together a nation as Sidgwick described will be futile.

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