HOWEVER well-intentioned they start out, invented criteria for
assessing Britishness invariably descend into silliness bordering
on the downright bizarre. You need only consider one of the many
Home Office-inspired online citizenship tests to see that.
Passing it will require you to know, among other things, how
many days a year schools must be open (190), and what proportion of
the population has tried illegal drugs (one third). That being in
possession of these two random facts should qualify you for (and
not being debar you from) British status is clearly absurd.
Try thinking of something better, however, and you soon realise
how complex it is to categorise Britishness with any degree of
But although Britishness is hard to define, it is often easy to
recognise. And, grand abstractions aside (think tolerance, humour,
fair-mindedness, courage in adversity, that sort of thing), it is
far more likely to involve everyday things such as mustard and
biscuits. Let me explain.
To go into a shop and ask for a jar of Colman's, or a packet of
Rich Tea, and be met with blank incomprehension, is slightly
disorientating. The words are simple, but the message that they are
intended to convey is not getting through. To ask where the
piccalilli is, and to be directed to the pickles, is similarly to
be faced with a lack of those shared references that oil the wheels
of social cohesion.
If this month's Home Office report into the downside of mass
immigration is to be believed, such barriers to easy communication
can only increase. True, the inability to locate a mustard-based
condiment delicious with a plate of cold cuts is a minor irritant.
Other experiences could prove to be less so.
The Lincolnshire market town of Boston, for example, has the
largest concentration of East European migrants in the country.
Many locally born residents, hearing the voices of Poles, Latvians,
Lithuanians, Russians, or Romanians on their High Street, admit to
feeling like strangers in their own town.
But when one local woman with family connections going back many
generations dared to draw attention to this uncomfortable fact on
Radio 4's Question Time earlier this year, she was loftily
dismissed by one of the panellists.
Nor are the problems confined to Boston. The report revealed
that half of the country's population now lives in a town or city
affected by demonstrably high levels of immigration.
Schools struggle valiantly to teach geography or maths or
history, but have to factor in TEFL in order to do so, while
English-speaking children twiddle their thumbs. Actually, they
often make pretty good progress, thanks to the heroic efforts of
teachers. But that is another story.
Pressure on housing and social-services departments, hospitals,
the emergency services, and the courts, grows, as already
hard-pressed institutions groan under the weight of increased and
The slow absorption of foreign cultures into our shared way of
life has been beneficial and enriching. But to expect large numbers
to be integrated overnight (or even over a decade) is to have
unrealistic expectations of people's capacity to accept change.
Indeed, as ten per cent of Boston's 65,000- strong population
now comes from Eastern Europe, we may be entitled to ask who should
integrate with whom.
The benefits that hard-working immigrants have brought this
country in recent times are real and considerable, and we rightly
celebrate their contribution to British society. But merely to
question the speed with which this transformation is happening
should not incur the charge of being a racist.
The issue, to repeat, is not immigrants: it is immigration. The
problem is not people: it is numbers, and management of those
numbers. And it will take more than the piccalilli test to get the
Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and
other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.