British multiculturalism – an American perspective

Janet Daley in the Independent yesterday joined the post 7/7 debate about British identity:

Much has been made of this country’s failure to give any instruction to incomers on the essentials of Britishness – whatever that is – and the consequent lack of any sense of national identity.

She notes the comparisons increasingly being made with patriotism in her home country, which she strongly defends.

American primary school-children may salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance, but a few years later, it is the constitution they learn to revere and its preamble (which begins "we the people") that they memorise.

Their high school civics classes require them to write letters to their congressmen in Washington and to their state senators, to study specific pieces of current legislation whose progress they can follow through Congress, and to campaign or canvass for the party of their choice in elections.

She adds:

What American children learn in other words, is not some amorphous concept of "American-ness" but how their system of democracy works, and by implication, what its value is to them and to the nation.

Britain too has a system of Government and principles of law, such as the independence of the judiciary, which need to be explained to school children (and not just the ones born of immigrant parents) in order to give them some understanding of the part that they would play in their national life if it is to be sustained. It too has institutions and processes that must be participated in if they are to have meaning. (Independent)

I’m not sure whether the British system is as amenable to this kind of treatment as the US constitution.

What I learnt as a schoolboy was that the Sovereign is not "we the people", but the Crown in Parliament; That the constitution is not a written document, but a combination of archaic laws and unwritten conventions, and that modern democracy has been grafted on to an older political culture which it has left in many ways unchanged.

Ironically, the American constitutional tradition owes a lot to England. The first proposal for a popular written constitution was made in England in the 1640s by the Levellers, (whose symbol, incidentally, was a green ribbon). 

They were put down by Cromwell, paving the way for his personal dictatorship under the protectorate. The current constitution dates from the revolution of 1688, launched by a Whig oligarchy, who were  determined to avoid Leveller democracy, as much as Stuart or Cromwellian autocracy.

As a result, although Britain became a democracy with the advent of universal sufrage in the 1920s, the values of democratic constitutionalism have never been firmly entrenched in British political culture.

Until they are, they cannot serve as a basis for national unity.






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