Social psychologist Dr Theo Alistair fears that the erosion of British national identity in the name of ‘tolerance’ may, paradoxically, ultimately lead to the fragmentation of British society, civil conflict, and intolerance.
By Dr Theo Alistair
Societies arise when individuals share a set of characteristics, values, and goals and start defining themselves as members of a group.
They become united through a collective identity. Preserving this dominant collective identity, which at the same time differentiates this population’s ‘group’ from other groups, gives the population a shared sense of belonging and pride.
The notion of states built on national identity rather than affiliation to a ruling dynasty or a religion comes predominantly from Europe, and has been shown to be a sine qua non for any society to remain prosperous and free.
It has played a decisive role in advancing European societies throughout the ages. For instance, in the current war in Ukraine it is the resilient national identity of Ukrainians which has been stopping the Russian army, first and foremost, with millions of people fighting and making sacrifices because they see themselves as members of a unique group worth defending.
In the UK, it can be argued that a common national identity motivated Britons to make great sacrifices during two world wars, and empowered them to rebuild their country from the ashes thereafter.
Britain’s national identity, however, may be seen by some as being under attack and eroding swiftly.
This could, I fear, have significant ramifications for the UK’s continued unity, peace, and prosperity.
This erosion results from many factors. One of the main causes is the systematic denigration of the British identity through the unfair presentation of British history as a long series of crimes, injustices, and exploitations of other nations.
There is also the rejection of British icons and symbols through the irrational minimisation of the achievements and contribution of the British people in favour of amplifying the successes of other groups and cultures.
A third challenge comes from the propagation of a more extremist form of multiculturalism rhetoric which argues that all cultures are equal with one exception, British culture, which is viewed as being malicious.
This, combined with other policies such as the decolonisation of curricula and the normalisation of illegal immigration, can be seen as deeply problematic.
This is because of what philosopher Karl Popper labelled as the ‘paradox of tolerance’. According to it, if a society is tolerant without limit and, hence, allows intolerant communities to spread hatred and destructive ideas, they will eventually take over and cleanse that society of any tolerance.
The decisive aspect in this line of thinking is the drastic demographic change within the UK resulting from the mass migration of groups that have different religions, cultures, languages, values, and, hence, identity.
The results of the recent census show that several British cities and towns are divided among ethnic and religious lines, and each community is contained within a specific area.
These changes have made the question of immigration and its effect on the cohesion of the British society an uncomfortable yet urgent issue.
We need to consider which, if any, of these groups are, on a collective level, fundamentally intolerant and why.
For, from a social psychology perspective, the influx of intolerant groups could, in the long run, exacerbate the disintegration of the British collective identity, enable the growth of home-grown terrorism, and represent the prelude to civil conflict.
Even so, many are afraid to discuss this issue honestly and openly in public due to concerns over political correctness, cancel culture, and widespread censorship.
This is a worrying sign as societies in which people can’t discuss pressing issues freely won’t be able to deal with them.
Indeed, the erosion in freedom of academic expression is one of the hallmarks of dictatorial and regressing societies, and failed states.
Advocates of uncritical multiculturalism agree that different cultures and beliefs can be compatible with British secular society and its Christian-based values.
Opponents, however, state that these may be incompatible.
Both sides, though, seem to be overlooking an important issue: the need to redefine ‘Britishness’ and apply it. Based on my research, it is clear that collective identity is an end and a means for further ends.
Being part of a group that has specific values, goals, and characteristics is one of our basic needs as humans.
Through the sharing of a common and mutually embraced identity, the potential for extremist ideas to take root and grow within a society are reduced.
But for any identity to remail viable, it needs to represent the true feelings and ideas of the people – not be forced upon them by a detached elite.
It also must be protected by law.
The British government must work to build and uphold the identity of its people – for it is this collective identity that brings harmony and strength to a nation – and revise its policies based on this central principle.
To protect the British identity, our leaders must uphold the laws without any discrimination or biases, negative or positive. British people must be treated as individuals, not groups, and the way to acquire British citizenship must reflect commitment to the country, its heritage, values, and identity. Illegal immigration should be dealt with in accordance with the law that protects the sovereignty of the country and punishes any intrusion.
We need to remember that when the national identity stops being beneficial, it collapses, and tribal identities arise. People become divided based on their religion, ethnicity, or region. This usually leads to conflicts between people who were once one group.
Leaders should have the courage to be critical and honest about the communities that form the nation, and to act positively on that basis.
Only acting as a united nation, with a clear definition and understanding of each member’s adherence to a shared set of mutually respected values, can Britain ensure that it can repel extremism, and that tolerance is not ultimately sacrificed in its own name.