A Unitary Society

Here is an illustration of what is meant by a unitary society. Fifteen years ago, the House of Lords was debating religious education. One noble lady happened to say, ‘Of course, Britain is a Christian country’. Afterwards a Jewish peer, whose family had been in Britain for over one hundred and fifty years asked, ‘How long do you have to live here before you count as British?’

Some while ago former Prime Minister John Major drew this picture of what England would be like fifty years from now:
‘Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and … old maids cycling to holy communion through the early morning mist.’

This may have reassured his Conservative audience – but, as Robin Richardson, who was editor of the report on Islamaphobia, has said:

amongst other faults, Major’s picture fails to recognise, indeed renders invisible, the voices, experiences, stories and grand narratives of British people for whom being African, African-Caribbean, Black, Chinese, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Kashmiri, Muslim, Punjabi, Sikh, South Asian or Traveller is an important and non-tradable component of their identity. Equally obviously, women’s experiences are not recognised – women don’t belong to the foreground of pubs, cricket fields and pools coupons. They lurk in the story invisibly behind the front doors of houses in the green suburbs, whilst their husbands engage with the lurid sullen light and harsh music of the city.

This is the picture and the only language of discourse, of course, is English. The unitary model requires the imposition of the dominant language. In living memory children in the Highlands of Scotland were punished by teachers if they heard them speaking Gaelic, and in Southern America, Spanish conquerors sometimes suppressed indigenous languages by cutting out the tongues of mothers so that they would not speak their ‘mother tongue’ to their children. Many educationalists, however, argue that a child is likely to be far more creative if they learn and write in their mother tongue. Knowledge of English is important for all who live in Britain because it is an international language and it is the dominant language of the country, but as Vivek Chaudhary, who is chief sports correspondent of the Guardian, said, ‘For many Asians, language is a way of preserving cultural and family ties… A concern to many Asians is the fact that many of the younger generation do not speak their mother tongue at all.’ Equally many Asians do not want British culture imposed upon their children. As one Muslim writer and mother said recently, ‘I do not want my teenage children to experiment with drugs and sexual intercourse.’

But there is a widespread and long-established view that newcomers should adapt to the British way of life. Britain has a long history of receiving asylum seekers and refugees – many of whom have enormously enriched British life, but there has always been vocal opposition. ‘When I visit the poor, I often heard the weary complaint, “It’s them Jews. They live on less, work longer and take our jobs.” If they buy a house, they move in on a Sunday – the Englishman’s day of rest … and they put down sand in the passages instead of oilcloth or carpet.’ – a quotation from the beginning of the twentieth century.

And now a quotation from the Times for 2002.

‘When I tell people the stories of asylum seekers, they often react in anger. “Don’t talk to me about asylum!”, says one man, who declares that everyone from Albania is a thief. ‘Do you know any Albanian asylum-seekers?”, I ask “No, but I know someone who does”, he replies.