A Confusion of Tongues

Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, Spring 2008

Acting recently as an expert witness in a murder trial, I became aware of a small legal problem caused by the increasingly multicultural nature of our society. According to English law, a man is guilty of murder if he kills someone with the intention either to kill or to injure seriously. But he is guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter if he has been sufficiently provoked or if his state of mind at the time was abnormal enough to reduce his responsibility. The legal test here is a comparison with the supposedly ordinary man—the man on the Clapham omnibus, as the legal cliché has it. Would that ordinary person feel provoked under similar circumstances? Was the accused’s state of mind at the time of the killing very different from that of an average man?

But who is that ordinary man nowadays, now that he might come from any of a hundred countries? The accused in this instance was a foreign-born Sikh who had married, and killed, a native-born woman of the same minority. The defense argued—unsuccessfully—that an ordinary man of the defendant’s traditional culture would have found the wife’s repeated infidelity particularly wounding and would therefore have acted in the same way.


Problems with interpreting the law are not the only, or even the most important, ones that arise in an ever more diverse society. A feeling of unease is widespread, even among the longer-resident immigrants themselves, that Britain has lost its distinctive character: or rather, that the loss of a distinctive character is now its most distinctive character. The country that those immigrants came to, or thought they were coming to, no longer exists. It has changed beyond all recognition—far beyond and more radically than the inevitable change that has accompanied human existence since the dawn of civilization. A sense of continuity has been lost, disconcerting in a country with an unwritten constitution founded upon continuity.

London is now the most ethnically diverse city in the world—more so, according to United Nations reports, even than New York. And this is not just a matter of a sprinkling of a few people of every race and nation, or of the fructifying cultural effect of foreigners (a culture closed to outsiders is dead, though perhaps that is not the only way for a culture to die). Walk down certain streets in London and one encounters a Babel of languages. If a blind person had only the speech of passersby to help him get his bearings, he would be lost; though perhaps the very lack of a predominant language might give him a clue. (This promiscuity is not to say that monocultural ghettos of foreigners do not also exist in today’s Britain.)

A third of London’s residents were born outside Britain, a higher percentage of newcomers than in any other city in the world except Miami, and the percentage continues to rise. Likewise, migration figures for the country as a whole—emigration and immigration—suggest that its population is undergoing swift replacement. Many of the newcomers are from Pakistan, India, and Africa; others are from Eastern Europe and China. If present trends continue, experts predict, in 20 years’ time, between a quarter and a third of the British population will have been born outside it, and at least a fifth of the native population will have emigrated. Britain has always had immigrants—from the French Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes to Germans fleeing Prussian repression, from Jews escaping czarist oppression to Italian prisoners of war who stayed on after World War II—and absorbed them. But never so many, or so quickly.

To the anxiety about these unprecedented demographic changes—a substantial majority of the public, when asked, says that it wants a dramatic reduction in immigration—one can add a reticence in openly expressing it. Inducing this hesitancy are intellectuals of the self-hating variety, who welcome the destruction of the national identity and who argue—in part, correctly—that every person’s identity is multiple; that identity can and ought to change over time; and that too strong an emphasis on national identity has in the past led to barbarism. By reiteration, they have insinuated a sense of guilt into everyone’s mind, so that even to doubt the wisdom or viability of a society consisting of myriad ethnic and religious groups with no mutual sympathy (and often with mutual antagonisms) is to suspect oneself of sliding toward extreme nationalism or fascism; so that even to doubt the wisdom or viability of a society in which everyone feels himself part of an oppressed minority puts one in the same category as Jean-Marie Le Pen, or worse. This anxiety inhibits discussion of the cultural question. In view of Europe’s twentieth century, the inhibition is understandable. One consequence, however, is that little attempt has been made to question what attachment Britain’s immigrants have to the traditions and institutions of their new home.


But nor can one deny, if one is honest (and this is true of every Western European country), that many in the unprecedented influx of immigrants, often poorly educated, have little interest in, or appreciation of, the society to which they have come. Many are not learning to speak English, or speak it poorly, and forced marriages and other practices foreign to British law and custom remain common among them. A government report several years ago found that Britain’s whites and ethnic minorities led radically separate lives, with no sense of shared nationality. And as is now well-known, a disturbing number of British Muslims have proved susceptible to the ideology of Islamism. A recent survey found that 40 percent of British Muslims under 24 wanted to live under sharia; 36 percent supported the death penalty for apostasy. Significantly, the figures for older Muslims were considerably lower. Another poll found that a fifth of all British Muslims had sympathy with the “feelings and motives” of the London suicide bombers. Only a third of British Muslims, a Guardian survey found, want more integration into British culture.


Even absent multicultural doctrinalism, it would not have been easy to explain the advantages and philosophical underpinnings of the Burkean, nonideological state to peasants newly arrived from, say, the Pakistani Punjab and Bangladesh. The advantages and underpinnings are like the rules of cricket: one can with application and dedication learn them, but it is far easier to assume them as part of your mental and cultural heritage, to be born into them. What could you give the immigrants to read that would explain the British political tradition to them? Reflections on the Revolution in France, perhaps, or Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics? Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity is a slogan, and much easier to teach and to learn.

Making matters worse, in Britain, multiculturalism became a career opportunity and a source of political patronage. So-called experts on cultural sensitivity and equal opportunity—generally people whose ambitions far exceeded their talent, except for bureaucratic intrigue—built little empires, whose continued existence depended on the permanence of racial and other divisions in society. The hospital where I once worked recently sent a questionnaire to its staff, asking them to supply the personnel department with details of their race (17 categories), their sexual orientation (6 categories), their marital status (6 categories), and their religion (7 categories), so that discrimination against any of the 4,284 possible resultant categories might be eliminated. Clearly, there is no end to the work of the bureaucrats of equal opportunity.


However, increased contact between people does not necessarily result in increased sympathy among them. A large proportion of the indigenous Muslim terrorists caught in Britain are children of prosperous small businessmen, who have been to university and whose individual prospects for the future were good, if they had chosen to follow a normal career path. Cultural dislocation, the readiness to hand of an ideology of hatred that seems to answer their personal need for a fixed identity and an end to cultural confusion, and a disposable income—these, not poverty, account for their terrorism.


Aware of the polls on immigration, Brown’s Labour government has just taken some hesitant but sensible steps, putting aspiring British citizens on “probation” to show that they can speak English, pay taxes, and avoid jail before granting them citizenship. Britain and France, though, have never been very good at learning from each other: the Channel might as well be an ocean.


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