Sunday, May 19, 2013
When in Britain, do as the Great Britons did
By Swapan Dasgupta
Last Friday's British newspapers contained a startling revelation: the number of self-professed Christians in the United Kingdom has fallen below 50 per cent. The Census report, on which this finding is based, has also led some demographers to conclude that by 2060, the majority of Britons will be non-white.
Considering that immigration to the UK from the erstwhile colonies began in full steam from the early 1950s, and mainly in response to the post-war labour shortages, and was given an additional fillip by the movement of European Union nationals from the 1980s, the demographic shifts will be monumental. In just a century or so - a very small time in the history of nations - the Britain which we knew (and in many cases idolized) will be a completely different place. The "green and pleasant land" invoked by the hymn 'Jerusalem' will probably still be there, unless the property developers and road builders are given unlimited powers of desecration, but it will be littered with abandoned churches , pubs serving tepid bitter and samosas and its bustling markets filled with hijabwearing housewives. The England of P G Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, John Betjeman and Agatha Christie will be a thing of the past.
"Change? Why should things change?" Guy Burgess, the upper-class British traitor living in grey Moscow remarked in Alan Bennett's celebrated play 'An Englishman Abroad' . It's a question that many who were deeply influenced by the soft power of Empire often ask in exasperation when confronted by Caucasian waitresses for whom English is at best a fourth language.
"Change and decay" may well be all around we see but transformation is inevitable. Indeed, there is little point opposing it, demanding the return of the pre-decimal currency and the meat-and-two-veg diet that was a feature of the culinary wasteland. The real challenge is to manage change so that the future doesn't break with the past and present entirely.
Fortunately, there are politicians whose vision doesn't merely extend to the next general election. One of the most intellectually stimulating members of David Cameron's government is education secretary Michael Gove, a man many commentators say could end up as a future leader of the Conservative Party.
What distinguishes Gove from the 'modern' Conservatives of the Cameron school is his innate distrust of fashionable theories and politically expedient choices. Gove has offended the powerful teacher's unions by suggesting shorter holidays, longer school hours and tougher evaluation standards. He has called for a renewed emphasis on teaching grammar and encouraged the establishment of independent schools that put a premium on academic excellence. It would also be fair to say that Gove's stress on raising standards has enjoyed the backing of parents with school-going children.
However, what has raised the hackles of the 'progressives' who have dominated the education establishment for very long is his proposal for a fundamental change in the teaching of history - an issue that remains a favourite with ideologically-driven politicians.
The changes proposed by Gove fall into two broad categories . First, he has sought the return of the traditional narrative history within a chronological framework. Therefore, rather than present history as a 'fun' exercise replete with fancy dress shows and allusions to popular characters from comics and Disney films, Gove has sought to reinject history teaching with the cultivation of lucidity, analysis and logically consistent thinking . Secondly, and this is important in the context of a Britain that is changing a bit too rapidly for anyone's comfort, he has suggested that curriculum include a substantial chunk of British history.
The patchy syllabus of the past where familiarity with Tudor England was blended with an awareness of Germany's Nazi experience has been attacked and sought to be replaced with a more thorough and chronologically flowing awareness of the British experience.
Predictably, Gove has been attacked for encouraging insularity and putting the UK at the centre of the world. There is merit in that charge. But when you consider that in the next few decades Britain will have a generation which lacks the moorings of the British oak, he is right to emphasize the importance of the national over the cosmopolitan.
When people make a choice to live in Britain, leaving the 'old country' behind, they also accept the obligations of citizenship. And these obligations are better appreciated by imbibing the essence of the entire British experience. If multiculturalism becomes a celebration of the ethnic menagerie, the next 50 years will see Britain undergoing a personality change. That, to me at least, would be undesirable.