We’re New Victorians

Prospect Magazine

We’re New Victorians

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There are strong echoes with the 19th century

Over the last few weeks I have had the fascinating task of helping to select 60 people “whose actions have had a significant impact on lives in these islands and/or given the age its character” for a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series. Entitled The New Elizabethans, we had, it seemed, been invited to update the story of “Good Queen Bess.” And initially such parallels appeared plausible enough: a 60-year saga of stability emerging from conflict (post-reformation or post-imperial); of elitist culture turning popular (Shakespeare then, the “classless society” now); and of a revivified economy (driven by globalisation in both cases).

But as we chewed over the choices, a very different era came to mind: not so much new Elizabethans, but neo-Victorians, or at least new late Victorians. If there has been a revival in the last 60 years, it has been of the cosmopolitan London-centric entrepôt of the fin de

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  1. May 25, 2012


    “…though post-1980s Britain has been rather more successful in integrating diverse ethnic groups…”

    There is so much wrong with this that I hardly know where to start. I could point out that the integration of the East European Jews was in fact a huge success story, a model, in fact, of how an immigrant people can adapt and become part of the society they have migrated to.

    I could also point out that, in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras there was a significant debate about what we would now call multiculturalism among the Jewish communities that rather resembled what is happening now among Muslims in Britain, a debate about to what extent original identities should be retained versus the adoption of ‘British’ social and cultural mores. In the end they hammered out their own compromises and did a pretty good job, retaining what they wanted at the family level and fitting into the mainstream society seamlessly–in fact with a great degree of upward mobility.

    I could also point out that this assimilation process took at least half a century in a considerably more static society. So when we look at today’s immigrants, and fret about their conflict of allegiances and apartness from the social mainstream (I am not say these things exist, merely that people worry about them), I am tempted to say a) it’s still early days and b) many of the internal tensions in Muslim communities are repeating the pattern of Jewish communities a century ago. Tensions do not betoken an imminent breakdown of relations with the mainstream society. Nor do they mean that things will inevitably change for the worse. They are simply a stage that immigrant communities go through–the Huguenots had similar problems over how much integration was desirable. Yet certainly in both the Huguenot and the Jewish cases the impact on Britain has surely been almost unequivocally beneficial.

    So has ‘post-1980s Britain has been rather more successful in integrating diverse ethnic groups’? As Zhou En-lai (apocryphally) said ‘it’s too early to tell’–around 2040 we might be able to make a judgment. It certainly is far too early to talk about success already, as if this is something that has been completed, rather than now being negotiated. But what’s that sound I hear? Oh, it’s the mutual backslapping of the liberal left abut how tolerantly multicultural they are, which is bound to lead–in fact has already led–to a more enlightened society than anything by fuddy-duddies in frock coats. I don’t know which is more annoying; the ignorance of historical fact, the naivety about historical process or simply the smugness.

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