The Loss Of British Culture

There are a number of approaches taken by the anti-immigration movement to demonstrate that mass immigration is a bad thing. One is economic: it stands to reason (dunnit) that the more people in the country, the more thinly spread are the economic benefits. Naturally, this doesn’t actually stand to reason. If it did, Ireland and Portugal would be celebrating the mass exodus caused by their economic troubles. But I’ll leave others to argue the economic benefits of immigration.

The more pernicious arguments revolve around the cultural effects of immigration. While I’ve always suspected that “culture” in this context is simply a coded reference for race, I’m always prepared to hear people justify the viewpoint that we somehow “lose” or “weaken” our culture by accepting immigrants who bring other cultural ideas with them. Whenever I’m confronted with these claims, I always ask the same question: exactly what has Britain lost from its culture by accepting immigrants? Despite asking repeatedly, I’ve not been given a single example that makes sense. Perhaps the least-nonsensical replies I’ve had are along the lines of “Come on – you surely don’t believe immigration hasn’t harmed our culture do you?” to which I answer, “Yes, I really believe immigration hasn’t harmed our culture”.

In truly religious style, the anti-immigration camp always expect others to prove a negative. It would surely be easy to demonstrate that British culture has lost something: a single example would suffice. Perhaps some people remember Cockney street urchins reading the works of Dickens or quoting Shakespeare at every opportunity? Maybe, the influx of Pakistanis, Czechs and Jamaicans somehow put an end to these things? Could it be that Yardie gangsters or Islamist militants harassed and intimidated British youth until they no longer dared played the music of Benjamin Britten in public? Do Polish thugs jump on anybody who recites the poetry of Wilfred Owen? Not that I’ve noticed.

I’m given general hints like “We’ve lost London. We don’t want to lose the rest of the country”. However, last time I checked (about half an hour ago) London was still here. Although (and I think this is what they’re getting at) there are certainly more brown faces visible, and a wider variety of languages can be heard spoken in the streets, than in the past.

It’s true that, using coercion, cultures can be warped and damaged. The Yiddish culture (and language) of my great grandparents is almost extinct, courtesy of the Holocaust. Kurdish culture has been suppressed in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, as they try to destroy the Kurdish sense of nationhood. But no such coercion has happened, or could possibly happen to British culture in Britain. Sure, the Indians came here, bringing their foreign cultural values. Like cricket. And chicken tikka masala (now declared Britain’s unofficial national dish). And a taste for mathematics.

In the absence of coercion, cultures are additive. People pick the best that they encounter, and blend with what they already know. As a music lover, the strengthening effects of cultural mixing are immediately obvious to me. I would argue London has been the most musically creative city on the planet for the past couple of decades. The music made here is definitively our own, and is exported globally. London creates not just musical talent but entire new genres; the latest of many London creations is dubstep, and this has already been exported around the globe (forgive me if I’ve missed a new genre or two since dubstep – it takes a while for us older ones to notice these things). London is lucky enough to have immigration from, and thus links with, some of the deepest musical cultures on the planet – particularly West Africa and its offshoot in Jamaica.

White working class culture has long welcomed and absorbed foreign musical influences, perhaps starting with the black American troops who brought swing with them during WWII, followed by soul music in the 1960s and reggae in the 70s. Once Britain had absorbed a critical mass of immigrants, British music became truly turbo-charged, and began to flow outwards rather than simply absorb and repeat influences we heard elsewhere. The 1970s generation that tried to sound Jamaican by playing reggae was succeeded by generations that took reggae, hip-hop, house and techno, and created something new and amazing with them. Before dubstep, London made British soul, jungle, drum and bass, garage and grime. How many other cities on Earth could claim to have added so much to world music culture?

There was no tradition of British popular music prior to mass immigration, and that’s why racists can’t find any examples of anything that’s been lost. If you want to remember what European popular music sounds like without the help of immigrants, just tune into Eurovision. It’s not a spoof; that really is the best that most European countries can come up with.

Beyond music, the same points apply. We still have our fish and chips, but we also have our curry goat, lamb vindaloo and shawarmas. My local fish and chip shop is staffed by Poles, and the customers come from all over the world. Oh, and fish and chips were probably introduced by Jewish immigrants anyway.

It saddens me that, if the swivel-eyed anti-immigration loons hold sway, London may give up our hard-won cultural prize to other places. It’s tragic that Daily Mail readers and UKIP voters, in total ignorance of what constitutes modern British culture, may destroy our unique creativity, without ever noticing or caring. Those people who care least  for what British culture represents are the ones claiming to be defending it from “threats”.

All we’ve “lost” is the right to walk down the street without seeing a brown face. I’m happy to surrender that “right” in exchange for living in the most culturally exciting city on Earth. The day people from all over the world stop wanting to live in London is the day it’s no longer worth living here.

What actually defines British culture? We are an outward-looking nation, which is why the British Empire became what it was: not only a tool of global robbery and brutality, but also a giant, borderless superstate that allowed British people, Africans and Indians to travel, mix and learn from each other. British culture is multicultural, and has been for centuries. No other nation in Europe has the ability to embrace and learn from other cultures like the British, which is why this small island with less than 1% of the global population can so consistently punch above its weight. The only thing that could seriously threaten our culture would be to close our borders. That would bring to an end a story that began when the first British ship set out to explore the world.