Brexiteers frequently talk of protecting “our culture”, demanding that newcomers subscribe to it, pass tests in it or generalising that “they” do not understand it. Do those who have been born and brought up here understand even what it is, ourselves? Do we have the right to talk about “us” as if there were still some race of Britons who form the core of the population, which is gradually being eroded by the pollution of immigration?
What can “our culture” be? This is a hybrid country, a federation of nations with their own cultures, mixed with a long history of new ingredients contributed by arrivals from many and varied parts of the world. The truth is that this is a nation composed of a huge variety of ethnicities, forming a culture enriched by each and all of these. Whenever there was a British tribe, it was before the histories taught even in our most reactionary institutions. Angles, Jutes, Vikings, Romans, Huguenots, Irish, Jews, West Indians, Bengalis, Somalis, etc – these are the ingredients of our happy melting pot.
What are the fixed points, then, which we build on, using these new ingredients? The weather – for this occupies minds, typically? Nothing to be proud of there. Chaucer and Shakespeare – but how many citizens are familiar with them? Our history – largely related as kings and queens, wars and battles, imperialism and theft? Our sports – which may have been invented here but at which prowess is far from unique?
The truth is that whatever we can identify as indigenous, our political and moral philosophies are rooted in ancient Athens, our science in the Arab world, our art in Italy. More recent cultural icons in this country are not home-grown. Are not Dante, Beethoven, Voltaire and Leonardo influences on or of our culture? Our museums and galleries are packed with the works of great artists from all over the world, to be admired and even [though I am not in favour] retained as national heritage against repatriation claims. This is not to decry our home-grown national treasures, merely to declare that we are a part of a Western European culture over 2 millennia old; and that to focus on home-grown alone is to narrow our appreciation of what makes us tick or the world a better place.
The mantra “British x is the finest in the world” is mere propaganda put about by those who lack the experience or learning about the wider world. It is bandied about nonsensically in relation to our army, our football, our beef, our healthcare, and more. Put any of these to true comparison and perhaps the jingoism will prove hollow. This country is a fine place to live, with fine people and much to celebrate but it is not so very different and doubtfully superior to others. Rather, it is a part of the cultural mix of a long-evolved international society, which it is folly or tragedy to deny. To claim superiority for it is sheer hubris.
We could [and this seems to be where Brexiteers would take us] define our heritage on ethnic purity but this has been tried before, with disastrous results. We must not go there again. Anyway, who wants a dreary diet based on what our geology, climate and “true Brit” talent might allow us?