Welcome to the UK: The 21st century nation with 19th century government
Much is being made in Britain this December of 2011 census data revealing that the demographic character of the UK has changed dramatically, especially in London, a city where persons of immigrant background now outnumber white British Londoners by a ratio of 55 to 45 percent.
In the eyes of many people outside the capital, London hardly seems to belong to Britain. In truth, it has less and less in common with the country over which it looms. Thanks in no small part to the zeal with which successive British governments have pursued economic liberalization, 21st century London has been a magnet for globalized big business and for young people from Poland and other European Union “accession states,” who are often prepared to work for less pay than indigenous Britons. Meanwhile, it has absorbed labor from other parts of Britain to an unprecedented degree, reducing some British regions to socio-economic dead zones.
It could be said that London has simply become an exaggerated version of what it has long been. But the sprawling British capital of the past, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, has given way to a metropolis that it appears less a city than a mushrooming city state, a place more amorphous, more heterogeneous, more marked by inequalities than ever before.
Yet for all that it is seen by many Britons as an alien entity, London epitomizes the UK of 2012 more generally, for there is no part of the country where evidence of great demographic change is not palpable. Indeed, the nation which vaunted its imperial pre-eminence can now plausibly claim to be a world-leader in the field of miscegenation.
Rising numbers of British men and women are of mixed race, like the much-lauded Olympic gold medalist Jessica Ennis. Britain’s party leaders trumpet Britain’s transcendence of old racial categories, its confident embrace of an eclectic new identity — though they are united in setting their faces against the lax UK immigration controls of recent times and insisting on the need for an integrated British culture in which everybody speaks English and conforms to a common set of values.
What the latest census has conclusively demonstrated is that Christianity has ceased to define common British values. It is now official that Britain has said goodbye to its old identity as a largely white Christian society. Today, the public face of Britain is that of a secular, multiethnic society, in which the Church of England is becoming one among a variety of British faith groups.
In view of all this it is a curious circumstance that in 2012 Britain is governed by exactly the same white patrician class that was guiding its destiny a hundred years ago when the British Empire was at its height. Now, as then, Britain is ruled by wealthy white men who attended public (meaning costly private) schools, such as Prime Minister David Cameron’s old college, Eton. The fact is that the power structure of Britain has barely begun to mirror the epoch-making demographic changes that have overtaken British society.
It seems particularly bizarre that its phenomenally cosmopolitan capital has a mayor, another old Etonian, the Conservative politician Boris Johnson, who plays up to a certain stereotype of the British gentleman as a jocular, mildly eccentric buffoon, while making no obvious effort to surround himself with senior colleagues who reflect his city’s ethnic diversity. Johnson’s relationship with Londoners is a bit like that of a benign colonial governor with the natives in old imperial days. It is hardly less extraordinary that London’s last surviving historic newspaper, the Evening Standard, now distributed free, remains firmly in the grip of the white British establishment — even though it is now owned by the son of the Russian tycoon, Alexander Lebedev, Evgeny Lebedev. Much given to proclaiming itself the voice of London, the paper boasts not a single regular columnist from any of the new communities that comprise the capital’s multifarious make-up.
The enduring institutional hegemony of its public school-educated patrician class goes far toward explaining why, albeit at the behest of the United States, Britain persists in operating a neo-imperial foreign policy, when it is, to all appearances, a post-imperial society. Even as politicians and commentators celebrate Britain’s “rainbow” demographic, Britain is pursuing military action in Afghanistan — just as it did in the century before last. It remains, too, significantly involved in attempts to subdue militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan, through its participation, be it logistical or in terms of intelligence, in the US-led drone war being waged there.
It is astonishing to consider that Britain was bombing the tribal areas in the years leading up to India’s liberation from British rule in 1948 and that, even if it is not directing them, it is, over half a century later, lending support to aerial attacks on them still. The other day, the BBC’s current affairs program, Panorama, brought attention to the killing of innocent civilians by drone attacks in the tribal areas. At the same time, it focused on the peace convoy that the cricketer-turned-Pakistani politician, Imran Khan, and the British human rights lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, recently led toward the territories. Khan and Stafford Smith point out that the drone attacks are contrary to international law (there has been no formal declaration of hostilities in the region) and passionately contend that they are fomenting not extirpating anti-Western terrorism.
A media more properly representative of Britain’s changed demographic would be making strenuous efforts to call the British governing class to account over its foreign policy delinquencies. The UK, however, is suffering from a dangerously schizoid personality. The country that preens itself as a pioneer of 21st century social diversity is also one whose political elite remain steeped in the imperialist mindset of a bygone age.