I recently had an immersion in a very different way of experiencing Britain than I or most native Britons tend to have. It was when I was invited to run a workshop at Morley College recently together with friend and colleague Steve Jackson. The workshop was entitled ‘What Does It Mean to be British?’ and was attended by about 130 students at the college, many of whom were working on improving their spoken English language skills. Most of the students present had come from a wide range of developing countries, and it seemed to me, from what they said, that they had only came to live in Britain in the last few years.
I gave a short talk about some of my ideas about British identity and culture, and we had small group exercises around tables, where the students wrote down together on large shared sheets of paper, about what being British meant to them. Then the students, who were all adults, had an opportunity to speak to the whole group about what was most significant to them. The passionate outpourings of feelings, which were unanimously positive, were moving to listen to, and revolved around a mixture of what they appreciated and valued in their adopted home. The main subjects included: Feeling safe; freedom of speech; having human rights; being accepted by other people; the tolerance of the country; feeling respect and being equal to other people; the health care system and the fact that those with disabilities received help; not having to be afraid of the police; being able to get an education. As one participant wrote:
“I love to be British; I am valued; I get the opportunity for education; I don’t have to worry if I’m ill; I dress how I like; I am protected from abuse, I am safe.”
It gave me a fresh insight into what we have in this country and it was humbling to hear these numerous sincere and joyfully expressed sentiments. And it wasn’t an attitude of consuming; participants also expressed how they wanted to give back to their adopted country. The attitudes were a million miles from the mundane complaints of us jaded native Britons, who take for granted what we have. All the media coverage of immigration and its perceived danger of letting extremists into our midst – these people were more patriotic than the average Brit! I thought to myself how it would be a valuable and balancing act of therapy for all us native Britons to be exposed to a session like this.