Everything is changing. Many people worry that we’re “losing the British way of life”. But this is an argument that can play into the hands of the right wing and lead to divisions among workers. It is often framed in terms that suggest immigration is destroying “our way of life”. But what exactly is “British” culture? No one can really agree. For some people, it is about eating fish and chips, being good at queuing, and drinking lots of tea. The confusion exists because there is no single British way of life and there never has been. There have always been class divisions, and the lifestyle of the rich and powerful is totally alien to that of the majority.
How many people are brought up by nannies, packed off to Eton, and funnelled into top positions in the City, the army and the state? Such people are said to share the culture of the rest of us. A UK Independence Party document launched this year pronounced, “Britishness can be defined in terms of belief in democracy, fair play and freedom, as well as traits such as politeness.”
Tell that to the former colonies, the workers who have died struggling for the vote and for basic rights, or the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. The way of life of a worker in a supermarket or car factory is totally different to that of a banker paid millions in bonuses, even if they were both born in Britain. In fact the lives that workers here lead are increasingly similar to workers in other countries; they are even likely to eat similar food or wear similar clothes to each other. At the same time, the global rich share the same pampered lifestyle whether they are Saudi princes, British hedge fund managers or Texan oil magnates. Culture is not something fixed and timeless. It is always changing because of wider changes in society. In Britain it was once common for some pubs not to serve women. It isn’t today, because women’s role in society has been transformed in the past few decades. What is popular or acceptable rests on wider social and political factors, not some static “culture”.And most of the time, most people are in favour of the changes that take place.
British life has been massively enriched by the influences from outside these islands on politics, food, music and ideas. Ideas about “British culture” and “national identity” are pushed from the top of society. Our rulers use the idea of a single British identity to try and control people. And, at times of crisis, politicians blame people who don’t conform to “British” culture for all kinds of things. So, they blame hip-hop music and “gang” culture for gun and knife crime. Following the revolution in Russia in 1917, a term was developed in the US to define people suspected of being communist— “un-American”. Today the state calls people who oppose its imperialist adventures “un-British”. Ruling classes use nationalism in an attempt to class divisions.
They want British workers to feel they have more in common with British bosses than with workers in other countries. They want to pressure workers, who have no interest in a system that exploits them, into supporting that system. Sometimes people on the left accept such ideas about Britain. They may say they are proud of the 19th century Chartists demanding democracy, or the anti-fascist spirit of the mass protests in the 1930s.
But these struggles are part of an international working class culture. Socialists shouldn’t waste time trying to find something to be proud of based on where we were born. We should fight for a world where ordinary people don’t need such flimsy ideas in order to feel worth something. Instead we should celebrate the real culture of solidarity and resistance that workers here share with workers from across the world. When society is in flux, and “all that is solid melts into air”, as Karl Marx wrote, people can feel insecure. But clinging on to an illusory sense of a past “golden age” of “Britishness” only strengthens the right. Our culture is the international culture of working class struggle - that’s something to really be proud of.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.