British Identity in a Multicultural Society – 1000 words

With an increasingly diverse multi-cultural presence in Britain, the idea of an all-encompassing ‘British identity’ in no longer relevant. Discuss.


The idea of ‘British identity’ has received much media attention lately. The Government’s ‘Life in the UK Test’ for example provides a series of questions that decide whether or not someone will be granted citizenship to the UK. This test, introduced by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2005, can be seen as an attempt to fix ‘British identity’ precisely as an all-encompassing concept, which everyone living in the UK will share. On the other hand, waves of immigration constantly disrupt and change the idea of what it means to be British. I will investigate these contradictions and their effects in this essay.


James O’Driscoll points out:


Most non-whites, although themselves born in Britain, have parents who were born outside of it. The great wave of immigration from the Caribbean and South Asia took place between 1950 and 1965. These immigrants, especially from South Asia, brought with them different languages, different religions (Hindu and Muslim) and everyday habits and attitudes that were sometimes radically different from traditional British ones. (O’Driscoll 1995: 45)


Since his book was written, further waves of immigration to the UK have taken place. Most recently, since the expansion of the European Union in 2004, there has been a wave of Eastern European immigration. This, along with the discovery that the suspected July 7th bombers were British citizens, has led to much media debate over what it means to be British, and a feeling in some news stories that British identity itself is under threat:


Part of the answer [to why British citizens could carry out the terrorist attacks on July 7th 2005] has to do with how Britain sees itself…Many countries try to codify their values in law. Some oblige their citizens to speak the national language; others make it a criminal offence to show disrespect to the flag. But statutory patriotism is an intrinsically un-British notion (The Telegraph, 27/7/05)


There have been two main approaches to diversity in cultural identity. One is that of ‘muticulturalism’, which is a mode adopted from the US and has traditionally also been used in the UK, “multiculturalism has provided a framework within which ethnic diversity may be recognised by policy makers; and respect for different cultures may be encouraged between individuals” ( 2). Multiculturalism encourages concepts such as tolerance and understanding towards difference through cultural policy. This leads to radically different cultures living side by side and maintaining the difference of their own cultures. A second-generation Bangladeshi community might live alongside a white working class community in East London for example, without there ever being much interaction between the cultures. This model has come under criticism more recently, as in the article above, which argues we must have some kind of shared national values. Problems with the multicultural approach are that new communities might never feel British, and we create a divided community with no common sense of identity.


An alternative model is that which encourages integration or ‘assimilation’ into the host culture. In France for example, immigrant communities are encouraged to see themselves as first and foremost French. While there are positives to a strong sense of national identity – it may offer resistance in a post-colonial or culturally imperialist situation for example – there are also many negatives. Immigrants may lose the identity of their home culture, creating feelings of alienation. Recent rioting in Paris suburbs suggests a deep division between French police and immigrant youths. Also, it is problematic that the government should have the right to define what Frenchness, or Britishness, is in a way that may contradict with people’s lived experience.


A way out of both of these approaches is to think of cultural identity in terms of hybridity and process. Someone living in the UK for example who has family in Pakistan but was born in London may define themselves as British-Asian rather than British or Asian. This allows the forming of a new identity, which takes elements of family culture and elements of lived culture. Importantly, as this is an identity which looks to the future rather then being based on stereotypes and prejudices of the past, it is open to change and adapting to the constant shifts in multi-cultural presence in the UK. British identity is not something fixed but something that most people here will think of in different ways. Benedict Anderson has argued that national identity is always actually something imaginary:


[The nation is] an imagined political community, imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign…the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the mind of each lies the image of their communion. (Anderson 2001: 6-7)


We can never really meet every one else in the UK so we have to imagine what it means to be British, which is why media representations of Britishness become so important. As John Hill has argued, “the idea of a national resurgence in cinema and in life become intertwined” (Hill 2003: 206). The media coverage of the Olympics, as a current example, is a powerful construction of British identity, rousing a nation behind its sporting heroes who stand to attention as the national anthem plays. Such ceremonies reveal how important imagination, performance and ritual are in British identity. Rather than something that has always existed, Britishness is constantly constructed in the media.


To conclude, the idea of British identity is not relevant today as an all-encompassing fixed notion. Such a definition is problematic because it doesn’t allow for change or hybridity, and it gives the Government the power to define Britishness according to their own interests. However, discussions over British identity are still very relevant today, in terms of how it changes and adapts to the influx of new cultures, and how it has to be constantly played out, performed, negotiated and contested in various and contradictory ways.




Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991)


Hill, John. ‘British Cinema as National Cinema: Production, Audience and Representation’ The British Cinema Book Ed. Robert Murphy (London: BFI, 2003)


O’Driscoll, James. Britain: The Country and Its People, An Introduction for Learners of English (Oxford: OUP, 1995)


‘In Depth: EU Enlargement’ BBC News, 19th Feb 2003

accessed 16th Aug 2008


‘Ten core values of the British Identity’, Telegraph Opinion, The Telegraph 27th July 2005

accessed 16th Aug 2008


‘Sarkozy orders calm as riots return to Paris’. The Guardian 27th November 2007

accessed 16th Aug 2008


‘Assimilation, Multiculturalism, Anti-racism and Community cohesion’

accessed 16th Aug 2008

accessed 16th Aug 2008

accessed 16th Aug 2008