“Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.
Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.
Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.
Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.
Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
Then add to the melting pot.
Leave the ingredients to simmer.
As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.
Allow time to be cool.
Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.
Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.’
– Benjamin Zephaniah
Written by the Birmingham-born Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and cleverly imitating the style of a cooking recipe, this poem offers a key to unlocking the mythology surrounding the problematic national question: ‘who are the British?’
If like myself, you identify as British then it is exceedingly difficult to disapprove of Zephaniah’s final heed:
‘an unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.’
The significance of the pursuit of justice within British society is embedded deep within our history. Whilst we may lack the written constitution of our American cousins, the desire for justice within English, and later UK law can be traced back to Magna Carta (1215), and carries through to the landmark legislation of the Bill of Rights (1689). The United Kingdom’s legal system is undoubtedly an identifiable source from which the British people can draw great pride. Yet, whilst our legislation may pile high, whilst our courts may continue to take the scalps of the corrupt and the immoral, and whilst our scales of justice may appear in equilibrium; true justice is not afforded to all. Certain notable victims of this injustice have long been the unsung heroes of British history. The lives of their ancestors were committed to helping forge Britain into a global empire. Then, when Europe was on its knees, the same communities resurrected Britain from the ashes of the Second World War. However, many of these people are not regarded as a part of ‘the British’. If this crisis of British identity remains unsolved, injustices will continue to rage on. The injustice being dealt out to the Windrush generation is one such current example of this. Whilst they may be the headline victims of today, unless we seek to resolve this deeply embedded issue, we cannot be sure that we can help protect the victims of tomorrow. Quite rightfully, it is the question of how we define who is British that Zephaniah is desperate to answer.
If one were to ask Benjamin Zephaniah ‘who in fact are the British?’, then it would not be unreasonable to assume that the first nine stanzas of this poem would be his well-assured reply. For Zephaniah, his portrait of the British is as a conglomeration of cultural groups; living harmoniously beside one another. To extend his charming and witty cooking metaphor, ‘the British’ is the dish to be served, and the ingredients required to cook this dish all consist of various historical and modern cultures. This is, of course, mostly true. Every cultural group Zephaniah mentions has at some point settled on the British Isles. Zephaniah’s error lies in his extension of this view to the idea that ‘Britain has always been multicultural, right back to settlers in medieval times.’ Unfortunately for Zephaniah, and some others, the state-adopted policy of multiculturalism did not pre-exist the twentieth century. It has come to my attention that there are some who seek to bathe and revel in what I regard to be a multicultural sentimental rhapsody: the belief that there is no such thing as British culture, that we are instead merely an assortment of cultural communities that have always lived side-by-side in peace and harmony. Unlike my historically themed Lego figurines (now confined deep within my garage, I might add), cultures such as the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons rarely stood rigidly side-by-side with a large painted smiley face.
It is my view that what defines the British is not a policy of multiculturalism, but is instead a process of ‘acculturation’. British culture and the British people have long been shaped by continuous interactions between different cultures. Inevitably, this results in a slow integration into one singular cultural entity. This has continued to occur over the course of the history of the British Isles and as a result, Britain has evolved considerably and has become greatly enriched. The answer to ‘who are the British?’ is a difficult question to answer because it never stays consistent. The multiculturalist would take Zephaniah’s poem, and read the listed various cultures as different, separate communities all living alongside one another within Britain. Such a view is ahistorical. All the cultures listed have at some point or another, merged and evolved into what we can now define as the modern Briton. Whether black or white, of Caribbean or of Indian heritage, the Britain of the twenty-first century is a pluralist and dynamic multiethnic nation. We may be vastly different in some ways, but we should all be united by our institutions and communities – whether local or national – that we share with our fellow Britons.
Contrast this with the words uttered in a speech, originally broadcast fifty years ago, that was rerun nationally by the BBC last weekend. It served, once again, to remind us of the bigotry spewed and vitriolic racial hatred stirred by Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. At a time when criticism of mass immigration is high and where incorrigible individuals have begun to, once again, ponder the question ‘was Enoch right?’, we must choose to remember the heroes who, when faced with such hate, helped build us the Britain we can cherish today.
The Windrush generation are an example to all Britons of what we should be. When many of them arrived with their parents, they came to build a better life and to build a home. Whether it’s their contribution to our National Health Service, or to the British culture they have helped enrich, these people have become the Britons we all wish to be: responsible, dedicated citizens who greatly enhance the spirit of our local communities. In contrast to what advocates of multiculturalism believe, the Windrush generation show the benefits of a multiethnic nation united by one culture – the British culture.
However, this week has demonstrated that governments do not always share the values and spirit of the modern nation. The way that the Conservative Government has dealt with this issue proves to many what we have long suspected to be true. This recent action has removed the veil from the face of bureaucracy and revealed the drab, austere, and soulless face of government administration underneath. They do not see the British as its people do; their attention and sole focus are drawn to aged documents, expired statuses, foreign birth certificates and non-existent visas. If they were new migrants arriving today they would, in the absence of legal documents, be rightfully denied entry. Yet, their case is entirely different. They have lived, contributed and helped to further Britain. Like the EU citizens whose rights we also seek to secure, we must remember that this country is as much their right as it is ours. We built and inherited this nation together.