News from Nowhere: A World of Difference
It's sometimes difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy with the complaints of some of the world’s most pampered and privileged people, which is unfortunate, as it hardly helps to promote the seriousness and urgency of the causes they often support.
At the end of last month, the publication of the UK’s 2021 census revealed that, for the first time in the nation’s history, fewer than half the population of the United Kingdom identified as being Christian. The previous national census, conducted in 2011, had shown 59% of people considered themselves to be Christian. This time it was down to 46%.
Other religions gained slightly but the big winner was the category of ‘no religion’, which rose from 25% to 37%. A similar shift would see those without religion in the majority in ten years’ time.
The people of Wales are the most devoutly irreligious of the lot with nearly 47% placing themselves in that category. Their team’s recent performance in the FIFA Men’s World Cup may only have added to their spiritual despair.
Britain has for a long time prided itself on its religious tolerance and its emphasis on the freedoms of worship and belief. After all, we like to remind ourselves that the first Queen Elizabeth welcomed Huguenot asylum-seekers as early as 1562, but, considering that she was as Protestant as them, hers was hardly a gesture of great theological magnanimity.
A century later, Oliver Cromwell’s particular brand of Puritanism proved rather more relaxed on Judaism than on the Quakers, the Catholics, and the more enjoyable aspects of the celebration of Christmas.
Since Cromwell’s days, sectarianism has continued to trouble the provinces of the island of Ireland; and in more recent times, the welcome that the UK has extended to non-Christian (and non-white) refugees has often been grudging, to say the least.
So much for the legacy of the country’s liberal Christian heritage. This historically Christian nation hasn’t always lived up to its holy ideals. Jesus never, after all, advocated the forced deportation of asylum-seekers to Rwanda.
There are some who might say that the dissolution of the country’s Christian hegemony wouldn’t be a bad thing at all and might prompt a secularization that could see the disestablishment of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, and the unraveling of the ties which bind dominant religious forces with the core institutions of politics, parliament, and state. But there are others who’d point out that the modern Christian Church in the UK has often served to support those most in need and to offer a progressive moral counterpoint to prevailing trends in the rather more materialistic, self-serving, and reactionary corners of national politics.
Before he ascended to the throne, the future King Charles had once said he thought that a modern British monarch – traditionally, as head of the Church of England, known as ‘the defender of the faith’ – should instead be considered the defender of all faiths. Today, he might add to that ‘the defender of those with no faith at all’: a defender of the freedoms of all beliefs.
Changes in patterns of religious faith weren’t the only demographic shifts to hit the headlines at the end of last month. The UK’s 2021 census also showed that (although the capital as a whole remains 54% white) a majority of people in ten of London’s thirty-two boroughs no longer identified as white. This was also the case across the city of Birmingham and in the towns of Slough, Leicester, and Luton. In the great northern city of Manchester, a minority claimed white British heritage, but 57% continued to identify as white. Overall, nearly 82% of the UK population considered themselves white.
One suspects that these figures would hardly cause great controversy or consternation for most ordinary British people. In short, this census should hardly incense us. Yet, it evidently scandalized the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Mr. Nigel Farage. In an angry video apparently recorded from his phone and posted from the driving seat of his car, complete with a union flag cushion partially blocking the view through the rear window (an apt enough piece of symbolism), he erroneously claimed that London and Manchester were now ‘minority white cities’.
This is a man who likes to stir up a storm in a teacup, or in his case a tempest in a tankard. We may suppose that this ale-swilling agitator’s outrage tells us rather less about the ethnic make-up and ideological character of the country as a whole than about the motives behind the successful Brexit campaign which he was once famous for fronting, and his continued presence in the British media.
He has all the staying power, and all the charisma, of an unfinished takeaway meal left forgotten and moldering at the back of the fridge. He’s the junk food of British politics, an unlovely odour that lingers through public life. An unnecessary evil with incendiary intent, he acts as a constant reminder as to where we are and how we got here.
Mr. Farage concluded this particular tirade by attacking the Office for National Statistics on the grounds that, for reasons of his own, he believed that they had decided against asking respondents about their nationalities in future census events. (The next of these won’t be scheduled before 2031. It hasn’t yet been confirmed even that it will take place, let alone what its parameters might be.) ‘They want to hide the true figures from you,’ he declared. ‘It’s a scandal!’
The UK’s Office for National Statistics swiftly responded that his claims were ‘simply not true’. Those who recall Mr. Farage’s torrent of spurious assertions during the lengthy progress of his crusade to remove the United Kingdom from the European Union may not be surprised by this latest revelation. (No, EU membership never cost the UK £350 million a week, 70% of British laws weren’t made in Brussels, they weren’t going to mess with the shapes of our bananas or the contents of our sausages, and eighty-five million Turkish people weren’t about to earn the right to settle in your backyard.)
Nigel Farage claims ideological kinship and personal friendship with that notorious Lord of Lies, President Donald Trump. He has also formerly allied himself in his Euroscepticism with that other great pretender, the Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson MP.
Multiculturalism may not be the panacea for all our problems, but it’s surely better than the petty prejudices, xenophobia, and isolationism offered by those who’d seek to mislead millions to promote their own ideological agendas, materials interests, and their ascents to influence and power.
British history hasn’t always represented the brightest beacon of freedom and tolerance, but if there’s one thing that our gloriously mongrel nation might do best, then it’s to learn from our past mistakes. Some might of course suppose that one of those mistakes was to listen to certain sanctimonious charlatans in the first place.
As one may imagine, Mr. Farage is no great fan of the current British Prime Minister, the first person of color to hold that office. The pompous purple provocateur has supposed that Rishi Sunak is unable to appeal to traditional working-class voters and has called him a ‘total and utter fraud’.
If Nigel Farage is horrified by the fact that the ethnic minority populations of London and Manchester have increased in recent decades, one wonders how he felt in October about the residential population of Number Ten Downing Street becoming one hundred per cent Hindu. One could imagine the smug pseudo-libertarian choking on his pint of honest British beer at the merest thought of it. One might even be amused at the idea of him spluttering and dribbling his bitter and his bile. But let’s not laugh at his moral discomfort. It wouldn’t, after all, be the Christian thing to do.
The day after the publication of the census results, the singer Craig David, accepting a lifetime achievement award, spoke of his father’s experience of racism when he first came to the UK, and the actor James McAvoy denounced the racist encounters his castmates had recently endured when their touring stage production arrived in his native Glasgow.
That same day, the nation was truly scandalized when it emerged that one of the late Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting – and godmother to the heir to the throne – had repeatedly challenged a black British woman’s right to assert that she was British, during a formal reception at Buckingham Palace.
Yet the easily outraged Nigel Farage uttered no expressions of horror at this instance of casual racism, a show of lazy prejudice emerging not from those working-class heartlands which he claims share his values, but at the height of established wealth and power. Instead, he has suggested that on this occasion the guest of the royals had been ‘looking for trouble’.
Mr. Farage isn’t an elderly aristocrat, but he seems just as out of touch with the public mood. Other right-wing rent-a-quote ‘gammontators’ have even suggested that by wearing African clothes and having an African-sounding name, the palace guest should have expected to have her nationality questioned as if her heritage precludes her Britishness.
By contrast, the Palace had immediately denounced the comments and the eighty-three-year-old lady-in-waiting quit her role. The Windsors were already bracing themselves for the fallout from Meghan and Harry’s new Netflix show – so this latest PR car crash would have been about as welcome as Prince Andrew at a meeting of #MeToo activists.
The first three episodes of Harry & Meghan hit our screens last Thursday. Less a documentary than an extended PR video, the series hasn’t so far launched the bombshells that the media were anticipating. Its self-indulgence was strangely anodyne: one BBC royal correspondent described it as the couple’s ‘love letter to themselves’. Although the Duchess of Sussex spoke of her childhood experiences of racist abuse, and the Duke referred to the ‘race element’ in the press coverage of their relationship, the opening episodes avoided inflicting the killer blow upon the House of Windsor that one might have expected those minor revelations had been designed to introduce.
In March 2021, Meghan had told Oprah Winfrey about ‘concerns’ voiced within the royal family, during her pregnancy, as to ‘how dark’ their first child’s skin would turn out to be. Netflix viewers may be forgiven for feeling that their streaming subscription fees would have entitled them to hear from the lips of the glamorous couple the identity of the racist royal who’d been worried about the color of their firstborn, but, perhaps wisely, given the recent losses of the two eldest members of that family, the pair chose not to name and shame the miscreant. (Suffice it to say that the public’s prime suspect had always been a particularly plainspoken yet peculiarly popular prince.)
It's sometimes difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy with the complaints of some of the world’s most pampered and privileged people, which is unfortunate, as it hardly helps to promote the seriousness and urgency of the causes they often support. A lucrative TV panegyric may not be the most convincing platform from which to air one’s grievances. Perhaps then that’s why we need the likes of Nigel Farage: because their crude, cruel, grating voices repeatedly remind us who we really don’t want to be.