Visiting India both as a celebrity and a state guest in the high noon of Empire, the British architect and designer of New Delhi, Sir Edwin Lutyens, made a curious observation that was only partially by way of a complaint. India, he wrote (and I am quoting from memory), tends to make the Englishman into a Tory, of a pre-modern kind.
The sight of a few thousand Britons lording over many millions and being greeted with a mix of flattery and exaggerated deference was enough to generate delusions of grandeur. Lutyens may not have succumbed to it totally, but his architecture certainly reflected the majesty of superiority. Even today, staring at the erstwhile Viceregal Palace from its imposing forecourt, it is difficult to shake off the impression that India remains a grand mission. Presumably, the guests from the Saarc region who attended the swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, last month must have returned with an appropriate sense of awe and veneration.
There was a time when both the architecture and the received wisdom generated a similar reaction about the Mother Country. Veterans of the long sea voyage from Bombay to Southampton will needless tell you of the overwhelming experience of the first sight of the chalky white cliffs of Dover, a state of mind produced by both an exalted ‘idea’ of Empire and the über-patriotic films of Sir Alexander Korda. A subsequent generation (including mine) will tell you of the shock and occasional disgust on touching down at Heathrow and observing the sad faces of the elderly ladies who cleaned the toilets — all ladies from our ‘Poon-jab’.
Indians of a particular class and upbringing had crafted a mental image of the British Isles that emerged as an extension of a people we had learnt to both hate and admire at the same time. Yes, colonialism was undeniably offensive to the individual soul and to national self-respect. But this political distaste for the pith-helmeted sahib and his patronizing ways was nevertheless never at odds with the reverence for the sights, sounds and imagined customs of the Mother Country. For a class of Indians — particularly those with roots in the three Presidencies — Britain was always an imagined country constructed out of a curious blend of boxwallah experience, club life, the public school and George Mikes’ How to be an Alien. This is what bound the West Indian C.L.R. James and Sir V.S. Naipaul to a Nirad Chaudhuri, Jawaharlal Nehru and ‘Tiger’ Pataudi.
If India fuelled the Tory instincts of Lutyens, Britain (or England as many of us still insist on calling it, quite impervious to the sensitivities of Scots) brought to the surface the Hindu partiality for a settled order. We couldn’t entirely identify with all the quirkiness and eccentricities of Britons, but we respected the fact that they were alive to their history, their institutions and their own inimitable sets of values. Enoch Powell, a man who should never have abandoned his true calling as a classics scholar, used to describe the relationship of India and Britain as a “shared hallucination”. I doubt if anyone can better that description.
Maybe it is the departure from a pattern which we hoped would be as enduring as the squat black cabs and the milky, disgustingly sweet and tasteless British cup of tea that triggers disorientation. Next summer, it will be 40 years since I first stepped into Britain and lugged a heavy suitcase from Hatton Cross tube station to a modest student accommodation in Paddington. To say that London has changed from Harold Wilson to David Cameron would be to state the obvious. In those days, London always looked a bit under the weather, what with an inner-city that appeared to be boarded-up and slummy. Today, London is smarter, more gentrified, better dressed and a darn sight more prosperous. The plumbing is infinitely better and some establishments even have air-conditioning for summers that seems to be getting longer and hotter. And more important, London is getting more and more international in character. There was always an over-representation of the New Commonwealth in the 1970s but today’s London seems like a slice of the United Nations.
To the globaliser and the Davos set this is great news. From French tax exiles, Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires, dodgy Pakistanis and sundry others who have invested handsomely for their permanent residence status, London remains at the centre of global finance, just as it was in the days of Empire. Between membership of the European Union, free markets, low inflation and lower interest rates and the all-conquering English language, Britain, it would seem, has successfully reinvented itself for the 21st century. To be tired of London, we can still continue to say, is to be tired of life.
Yet, underneath the surface, all is not well. Actually, things appear to be going horribly wrong. It is not merely that there are as many black veiled women in the square mile between Edgware Road and Oxford Street as there are in Dubai. It is not even that the mobile phone conversations in the red double-deck buses are rarely conducted in a tongue that we would recognize as English. Cosmopolitanism involves not being judgmental of cultural and national differences.
What seems to be happening in the United Kingdom is the exact opposite of what Americans celebrate as their ‘melting pot’. In blunt terms, Britain is experiencing the novelty of social incoherence marching to the tune of economic purposefulness. In a sense, this could be called the ultimate triumph of globalization, when people don’t become similar but try to superimpose variety on top of economic oneness. Alternatively, should we be concerned at the after-effects of allowing free market and economic freedom to be the sole determinant of public policy?
In the end, it depends on who you are talking to. For those who have created small boroughs of Birmingham that are forever Islamic republics and for those who believe that the British State is a fattened milch cow of welfare handouts, this liberalism is great involving lots of benefits and no national obligations, not even the modest one of learning English. But, as a government-funded British Social Attitudes survey found this month, there is deep public anxiety at the damage caused to British culture by unrestricted immigration of one form or another since the mid-1950s. Worse, the study suggested a growing disquiet between public concerns and the refusal of a ‘liberal’ political culture to recognize these as legitimate. In a massive indictment of the huge state investment in the multicultural project, the survey indicated that at least 51 per cent felt that being British also involved having British ancestry.
The implications of this survey are very serious and not merely confined to one set of islands in Europe. It points to the pitfalls of forgetting that what we are can’t always be manufactured or moulded, but are also shaped by history. More important, the survey tells us what some of us knew already: that ripples on the surface caused by the flutter of the deracinated often leave the depths unmoved. If Britain is showing the first signs of a cultural counter-revolution, it should be welcomed as long overdue.