UK- Tradition and modernity. A personal view
“A culture is the sum of all the things by which humanity can choose to differ”
I have chosen to paraphrase Brian Eno’s (British musician) words about culture to start my essay with because they are related to the issue of multiculturalism that I wish to approach in my paper. Starting from my belief that a country is what her people are, I think that the complex and diverse nature of today’s British society can be better understood if we take a close look at the ones who are actually forming this society- the British people
Since the battle of Hastings…. Say the word “British” and the thoughts of most people would be directed to the language of Shakespeare, to the famous British accent, to the royal succession, to Big Ben, to the 5 o’clock tea, to the black humor, to the bowler hat and so on.
About fifty years ago…Say the words “British people” and the following might cross their minds: conservative, traditional, polite, stiff, moderate.
Nowadays…Say the words “ British identity” and you might find it described only by “fluctuating”.
“Strange”, you might add, arguing that a portrait of “British” people or on the meaning of “being British” can be drawn in precise lines. In fact, just above, people proved to have long-established guide marks when it comes to sketching them. A simple, new and controverse word such as “fluctuating” seems rather unsuitable to stand near the traditional and well-known “British identity”.
Still, the significance of “fluctuating British identity” might pop anxiously in your mind, arising the curiosity to search for even a seed of truth in it. And, if that’s the case, I believe the starting point should be the very basic element of this identity: the character and personality of the British people.
The key question to be reviewed is whether a single and unvaried British temper entered the gates of this millenium.
A return to the historic events might provide part of the answer to this. After the Second World War, Britain faced an influx of European refugees. As a result of it, sizeable groups of Americans, Australians, Chinese and even Indian or Pakistani settled down and concentrated in communities in particular British areas. “Unsettled Multiculturalism” written by B. Hesse gives a detailed description of the process, concluding that throughout the following decades, the new foreign-born element of the population induced by the immigration waves reflected its own image in the British identity. The cultural prints left are in fact the assumptions and aspirations, the values and believes of each community, that have shaped and outlined the country’s identity.
Nowadays precisely this diversity of backgrounds and experience define Britain as a multicultural country. The traditional “Being British” has certainly taken centuries to forge but I strongly support that only by submitting to a modern and constant process of renewal with elements from different cultures can a nation survive, open new and expanding horizons for its society and build a common cultural framework for its people. Most countries embrace this flexible attitude of taking in a new human input but to me what is uniquely “British” is the ability to preserve the core traditional values of the culture and add to them the “spice’ ingredients of modernity. These don’t manage to alter British tradition, seconds J. Rutherford in his book “Young Britain”, but improve its “taste”, its glorious achievements so that a better and more complex heritage can be passed to the next generations.
From my point of view, reconciling tradition with modernity in Britain is like putting in a glass the oil (British culture) and water (foreign cultures) together. There’s no mixture in this, in fact both remain distinctive entities and conserve their properties. But most important, the content of that glass will grow, as you continue to pour in it the vitality of water. “Salting” and “ peppering” the British culture with a multitude of values from foreign cultures would certainly complete the fruits of tradition and “bake” a more vibrant, modern and dynamic British identity. And precisely the main “ingredient” used to “bake” it is the people’s personality.
Psychology recognizes that the individual’s identity is closely determined by the framework of various social encounters and experiences. As C. Squire clearly stated in “Culture in psychology”, only the collectivity’s accounts provide the foundation for individuals to make sense of their personal experience and therefore for constructing their identity. The rule is in fact a simple one and I could formulate it like this: people FORM a society but the society, too, FORMS people.
If at the macro- cultural level described above the frame traditions of the immigrant people are just an addition to the host country’s cultural heritage, without changing it in any way, at the micro- social level the common life of the native British involves an interaction with people from different backgrounds and a mixing with their habits, views, way of dressing, music, sport and so on. In such a fluctuating context, it’s almost impossible for the native British individuality to remain the same, emphasize R. Baulock, A. Heller and A. Zollberg in the study “The Challenge of Diversity Integration and Pluralism in Societies of Immigration”. Yes, it “shelters” its primary and traditional “moderation”, “politeness”, “stiffness”, but at the same time combines them with modern and distinguished Indian, American, Chinese or Asian “flavors”. Certain old inside-British stereotypes have been eroded by the new fluid identities and every field of modern British life stands as a living proof to testify this.
However, there’s no recipe to indicate us what exactly will the notion of “Britishness” comprise if so many cultures become integrate parts of a long and famed British structure. Indeed the result may be unknown, but the “cooking” stages are obvious for anyone who walks on the streets of Britain nowadays.
Cut into slices and attentively viewed, the traditional British life is increasingly spread with stereotypical immigrants ‘ traits and practices “such as vegetarianism, meditation or yoga”, explain Mike Storry and Peter Childs in “British Cultural Identities”. The same authors agree that the list could endless go on, from the new sports adopted to various forms of entertainment, fashion styles and even to food or drink. If these are just a few of the foreign “whip creams” to adorn the British life, than a further distinctive “relish” of it is given by festivals and significant dates. These are in my perspective the most clear example of culture link between the uprooted people and the native ones. They settle perhaps the most democratic arena where expression and change can take place and where tradition embraces modernity in one and unique combination wrapped in a British manner. The Chinese New Year or Halloween are just a few celebrations that show traces of foreign influence, but that acquire British dimensions because the land, the fireworks, and most important the people that take part at it are British. Sharing a common joy, being together for the same holiday borrowed or not, unit people and set up the groundwork for a transfer of cultural identity pieces. Some of them remain pure British, others emerge as a mixture of cultures. If the first category embodies British traditions, the second deals with modern British life.
A newborn child in Britain nowadays will be marked by both of them and will mould its personality from traditional British “dough” but with small modern “drops” of American flexibility, Chinese perseverance, Asian patience, European innovation, Australian cheerfulness. Perhaps in this inner mixture will the notion of “being British” truly see its future.