Fall of the Tower of Babel, by Cornelis Anthonisz (1547).

Fall of the Tower of Babel, by Cornelis Anthonisz (1547)

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.

For now, the courts have rejected this line of argument: though, by coincidence, the case took place the same week that the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that adopting part of Islamic sharia as the law of the land “seemed unavoidable” and that people in a multicultural society like Britain should be able to choose the legal jurisdiction under which they lived. In contradistinction to such views, it was encouraging to see in the jury a man from a different minority group, one traditionally hostile to that of the accused. The right to challenge jurors without giving a reason, which in the past would have removed this man, has been curtailed in recent years because of a juror shortage. This is just as well, since the right undermines the jury system’s whole justification: that ordinary men, of whatever background, can suspend their prejudices and judge their peers by the evidence alone.

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.

Apart from any such reticence that intellectuals have managed to inculcate in me, I admit to an ambivalence about the unprecedented diversity of British society. True, one feels a certain exhilaration seeing people of so many different origins going about their business in apparent peace. You find Indian shops specializing in Polish provisions. Young women in Somali costume speak English with broad regional accents. Popular music of many regions of the world—all of it much less horrible than its British or American equivalent—emerges from shops selling exotic produce. The peaceful mixture is a reassurance that our society is indeed open, flexible, and tolerant. And whatever other effects that the influx of people from every corner of the world may have had, it has dramatically improved the quality of food available in Britain.

Further, much in my family history weighs against any too-sweeping denunciation of immigration. I am the child and grandchild of refugees who met with precisely the same kind of anti-immigration arguments current today, and it would be unseemly for me now to deny others the immense advantages that I have enjoyed. In any case, it is clearly possible and even common for immigrants and their descendants to become deeply attached to the culture and institutions of the country that has preserved them from a terrible fate.

When I survey my own social circle, moreover, I discover an astonishing variety of origins (though doubtless Americans would not find it surprising). Recently, my wife and I received an invitation to a lunch party. I have already mentioned my own provenance. My wife’s paternal grandparents were Greeks from Smyrna, fortunate to have found refuge in France when the entire Greek population of the city was either killed or had to leave because of the war between Greece and Turkey in 1920. Our host was a Sikh doctor who had been on duty in a Delhi hospital when Indira Gandhi’s body was brought in after her Sikh bodyguard assassinated her; the doctor had to flee for his life from a Sikh-killing mob. His wife was a Greek Cypriot who as a child had fled the Turkish invasion of the island, during which her parents lost everything before coming to England. Thus all of us, either directly or through close relatives, knew the horrors to which too exclusive a national or religious identity might lead. And none of us had any doubts about the evils of dehumanizing those who do not share one’s national, cultural, or religious identity.

But we did not conclude that it was best, then, to have no national, religious, or cultural identity at all. The institutions that allow one to live in peace, freedom, and security require loyalty (not necessarily of a blind variety); and loyalty in turn requires a sense of identification. In a world in which sovereignty must exist, some kind of identification with that sovereignty is also necessary: too rigid a national identity has its dangers, but so does too loose a one. The first results in aggression toward and denigration of others; the second in society’s disintegration from within, which can then provoke authoritarian attempts at repair.

Love of country has never implied for me an unawareness of its shortcomings or a hatred of other nations. I have lived happily abroad much of my life and have seen virtues in every country in which I have lived, some absent from my own. I feel vastly more at ease with cultivated foreigners than with many of the natives of the land of my birth. Those foreigners usually have a much better appreciation of all that is best in British culture than many natives now have. If you want to hear beautiful spoken English these days, seek out educated Indians or Africans.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.