Stay informed with free updates
Simply sign up to the Life & Arts myFT Digest — delivered directly to your inbox.
Look, this is becoming awkward now. Britain’s prime minister? Asian. London’s mayor? Asian. Scotland’s first minister? Asian. His main opponent? Asian. As for the probable next chairman of the BBC, he isn’t Cornish.
“Chin up, son,” I keep wanting to say to friends in the ethnic majority. “These jobs come round again.”
This column isn’t about the diversification of Britain’s governing class. It is about the lack of domestic interest in that trend. The arrival of a non-white prime minister detained British commentators for, what, the first week, at most? I, who field lots of interview requests from broadcast producers, some of whom are sweet enough to think that I am awake and ambulant at 8am, have never been invited to discuss this subject. You don’t hear much in the way of conservative misgivings about the change in who runs Britain, or much liberal self-congratulation either. After four years in America, the relative absence of an identity discourse is startling. (And, to me, freeing).
I have written before about the difference between diversity and cosmopolitanism. One is a material fact. A place that contains several ethnic groups might be called diverse. The second is an attitude. It is an indifference to that diversity. Lots of places are good at the first. Why is the UK so good at the second? I have entertained all sorts of theories, from commercial necessity (a trading nation has to get used to unfamiliar faces) to the English respect for privacy. But the answer, I think, is more prosaic than that.
We aren’t very reflective people generally. “Anti-intellectual”, the old line of attack against England in particular, often from those within it, is fair enough. Now, to be clear, anti-intellectual doesn’t mean stupid. The nation doesn’t have less cognitive processing power than the next. What it does have is a certain impatience with, and perhaps even a suspicion of, abstract thought. Immigration? That we can discuss to the nth degree. It is a practical matter, to do with numbers, public resources and geographic space. But “identity”? The “meaning” of having a Diwali-celebrating prime minister? The metaphysics of Britishness? Even our intelligentsia isn’t at home with this stuff.
Consider the greatest British minds. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays and 150-odd poems without giving the slightest hint of an overarching worldview. David Hume, the most important philosopher to have written in English, dealt in a sort of anti-philosophy, which put the stress on experience, not reason, as the basis of knowledge. In his penetrating book on British art, Sensations, the critic Jonathan Jones argues that one theme runs from Thomas Gainsborough to Lucian Freud and beyond: empirical observation. While continental painting had its ideas, its academicism, British art grew alongside and in response to science.
At all turns, there is, or has been, a bias in the UK against the theoretical. While Paris and New York obey grand schematic plans, London must be the most improvised of the major western cities. (Even LA has a grid of sorts.) Compare the casualness of an English garden with the Euclidean lines of a French one.
So, yes, we skirt the subject of identity. But then we skirt most disembodied concepts. In the end, Britain is cosmopolitan because it doesn’t overthink. Our ability to have a heterogenous elite, while not much discussing or even noticing it, doesn’t stem from our sophistication, but almost the opposite.
Of course, anti-intellectualism comes at a price for a nation. Much of Britain’s media has been lost to the lower-middlebrow and the twee. (Advice to those pitching features: write about what your favourite biscuit says about you.) For decades, English football, to its cost, dismissed elevated tactics talk as continental humbug.
But as a tax to pay for living in a true cosmopolis, I’ll put up with it. I keep going back to the Wham! documentary that came out on Netflix last year. Two immigrants, one from Egypt and the other from Cyprus, work their way into the Metroland suburbs north of London, where they rear international pop-star sons. There are countries where the documentary would have veered off at that point into a seven-episode disquisition on the duality of selfhood, or whatever. The boys from Wham! dispose of the subject in 50 seconds.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read the full article here