I recently saw a comment by someone who said he had voted Remain “in order to get his country back”. At which point, I will hasten to say that this is not another post about Brexit. Well, not really: it’s about culture.
His point, though, was that Britain as he saw it was an open culture, that has always happily assimilated others into its own domestic life, from Jamaican music to Indian food and Italian coffee – and he saw Brexit as representing a return to an intolerant, mono-cultural past.
This set me thinking about the traditional cultures of Britain. I use the plural because even before the migrations of the Twentieth Century, these islands were always home to more than one, for all that Victorian paternalism might have tried to pretend otherwise.
I have always felt a tension in my own life between the progressive, modernist, internationalist outlook that this blog generally advocates, and my culturally more conservative side. Many of the good things I discuss here are in a cultural sense quite conservative. For example, I see no good reason to mess with traditional cuisines, when the original dishes are fine in their own right, and have stood the test of time. They did that for a reason – and more often than not, those who tamper with them rarely come up with anything as good as a finely-produced original. This applies to other cultural expressions from literacy to dress, too: fusion normally fails.
The same issue crops up in my musical tastes. In particular, the apparently conservative world of traditional music in which I’m active hardly sits well with internationalised modernist tastes. I find that conscious attempts to modernise the tradition are rarely as good as the original. Many traditional musicians these days are writing their own tunes, supposedly in the traditional idiom – but more often than not, they are little more than clever but instantly forgettable riffs, with none of the structure and character of ‘real’ traditional tunes. They derive from the blandness of pop music which is those people’s default cultural reference, rather than the inherited instincts of the traditional proper.
But the more I think about this, the less of a real conflict I see. The main point about tradition is not that it is old-fashioned, so much as timeless – and therefore there is no reason why it should not be as relevant in the present as any in past era.
While it is undoubtedly true that tradition changes over time, it tends to do so by a process of accretional, almost imperceptible evolution, rather than the attempts of radical individuals to turn things on their head. It is probably these characteristics, the perceived continuity and familiarity that give traditional things the comfort that appeals to many. (Maybe there is a lesson here for those who would push European integration too fast…) The problem is, it gets confused with a kind of stubborn, stuck-in-the-mud-ness that refuses ever to move forward. The Scots have the concept of the ‘carrying stream’: the cultural river that flows out of the past, through the present and into the future, linking the then, the now and the next into a continuum of shared identity.
Here is where the wider significance of this becomes apparent: I make a distinction between folk music (which I tend not to like) and traditional music (which I often do). This may seem to be splitting hairs – but the latter is a timeless musical form, whereas the former is a confection, an imagined past that was reconstructed from the 1960s onwards, to replace true traditions that had been allowed (or forced) to die out. One is deeply authentic, and the other is just an arcane form of popular commercial music. This is the difference between ‘real’ culture and a manufactured facsimile.
When it comes to “getting our country back”, it is not as simple as it sounds: for all that the British claim to love tradition, much of what they actually like is not, in my books, traditional at all: it, too was manufactured. We see new-build houses being described as traditional, when they are actually a facsimile collision of Victorian, Edwardian and even later references. In developer-speak, the brash little villas of the 1930s are now “traditional”. No they are not: traditional houses were not industrially constructed of mass-produced red brick and pebbledash for a start, let alone steel girders. Even if we go back further, much of what is perceived as English tradition was in fact the product of upper class Victorian imaginations. Many of our so-called traditions date no further back than that, even if they were in some ways romanticised re-interpretations of medieval times. Real traditions were not for the most part bourgeois, and were often crueller than the fey character of much modern ‘folk’ music . Proper traditional music is complex, sometimes dark and even raucous, far from the twee modern perception.
Here is the root of the English identity crisis: by sanitising and then annihilating true English traditions, bourgeois Victorians and their successors arguably severed the connection between the ordinary people of this country and their real identity. They imposed a ‘respectable’ replacement which required conformism rather than active participation, and which lost its emotional connection to the people and their terroir. Once that root had been cut, English culture lost its ability to stand up to outside influences. This is perhaps one of the reasons why, in the 20th Century, American culture made such inroads (obviously, the shared language was another). It perhaps explains why modern English culture has had to cast around so widely for other influences to give it some substance: it has lost all of its own. It may explain why a certain sort of English person is so in love with the cultures of the continent: it is a distinctiveness they perceive they lack themselves.
And it may also explain why, even in very recent times, the English in particular have struggled with the multiculturalism bought by both immigration and membership of the European Union. When one’s own culture is weak to the point of invisibility, the arrival of other, strong cultures might seem like more of a threat than it would otherwise be.
I am not by any means defending monoculturalism; I love the experience of other cultures. But I love their distinctiveness as well as their interface. Cultural exchange is fine, but finest of all if done on equal terms. And part of the English problem is perhaps that much of the population has no genuine ownership of, or even perception of, its own cultural identity. What is perceived as being English is largely imposed upper class mores of which they have little real possession; what most actually have instead is anonymous, transatlantic commercial pap.
I think it is no coincidence that those parts of Britain that are most pro-European are those with the strongest cultural identities of their own. In the case of our big cities, that is because multiculturalism already is the culture, while in Scotland and Ireland the culture is now so resurgent, that the perceived threat from in-comers is perhaps lessened. (It is also worth noting, however, that this situation was not achieved without a struggle to be free of the same bourgeois English impositions.)
And it is also no coincidence that these are British cultures that I identify most strongly with, even though I have no roots in those areas. They offer me a form of Britishness that is frankly more distinctive, dynamic and vibrant than my own invisible English one. It’s worth noting that Scottish and Irish music is hugely popular right across the continent, and further.
So I’m really not sure about the gent who wanted to “get his (multicultural) nation back”. I sympathise with his feelings – but I also believe that the whole experience would have been happier and less confrontational had the ordinary identity of these islands, and England in particular, not been diluted almost to the point of extinction in the first place.
The current prime minister described citizens of the world as being citizens of nowhere. The reason that she is wrong is that for many of them, internationalised modernity is quite capable of co-existing with a traditional identity that anchors their outward-looking present in a secure historical and geographical sense of self. What she missed about Europeanisation, as do Brexiters generally, is that it is not about the abolition of distinct cultural identities so much as their meeting, as equals, to celebrate their distinctiveness and their commonalities.
It is only people who have no secure identity of their own to begin with, who will feel threatened by this.