The other day I was having an après-tennis beer with a local French player who had just thrashed me in a tournament.
He named a town not far from us that, according to him, has a thriving English community. The chap was bemused when I told him that I don’t seek out English communities in France – just as I don’t seek out French communities in England.
When in France, I want to be among the French, speaking my bad French; when in London, I want to be among the English, speaking nothing but the local tongue. Unfortunately, however, the second ambition is becoming much harder to satisfy.
I wasn’t born in England, but apparently those who were feel the same way, which is why Boris Johnson said at a recent hustings that: “I want everybody who comes here and makes their lives here to be and to feel British, that’s the most important thing, and to learn English.”
Mr Johnson went on to lament that: “Too often there are parts of our country, and parts of London still and other cities as well, where English is not spoken by some people as their first language.”
Replace ‘some’ with ‘most’, and you’d get close to picturing the Babel one hears on the 22 Bus, going from my home at Parsons Green to Oxford Circus.
Actually, Babel was one of the first punishments visited by God upon mankind to “…confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” If so, I feel suitably punished.
Going through an election process, Mr Johnson has to limit himself to truisms, stating nothing but the blindingly obvious not to offend anybody.
Alas, by now he should have realised that yesterday’s truisms are today’s highly controversial statements. One would think there’s nothing controversial about the notion that people making a life in a country should speak its language. But one would think wrong.
Jane Dodds, Welsh LibDem, was aghast: “Here in Wales, we know that not speaking English as your first language is no barrier to having a thriving community.”
And SNP MP Angus MacNeil tweeted: “Boris is just moronic and clueless. Same arrogance of centuries past that did down native Celtic languages for the Germanic import.” If Mr MacNeil wishes to prove that English isn’t his first language, this statement will suffice.
Other people from the Celtic fringe have also accused Mr Johnson of a whole raft of sins, ranging from cultural imperialism to downright racism, this though to my untrained eye the Celts appear racially similar to the English.
Now, by the latest count only some 5,000 Welshmen speak Welsh, only some 57,000 Scotsmen speak Gaelic, and I doubt that most of them speak it as their first language. Mr Johnson probably had different numbers in mind when he bemoaned the attrition suffered by English in its native habitat.
For example, Home Secretary Sajid Javid estimates that 770,000 people living in England speak no English at all, and he didn’t mean the Welsh and the Scots. Add to those linguistic underachievers millions of those who can only just about get by in English, and suddenly those Welsh and Gaelic holdouts look numerically trivial – much as I may regret the demise of their ancient languages.
Mr Johnson put his finger on a dire problem, at the heart of which lies the very definition of a nation. The dictionary defines it as “a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological makeup manifested in a common culture”.
One might take issue with some parts of that definition. For example, the American nation is formed by people of various ethnicities; a Raj Englishman born and bred in India still belonged to the English nation; the psychological makeup of a Neapolitan may be different from that of a Milanese.
But one indisputable adhesive of a nation is a common culture and especially a common language. Wherever this adhesive is absent, separatist trouble beckons.
For example, bilingual Canada struggles to form a single nation out of her Anglophone and Francophone groups, while Belgian Walloons and Flemings are at daggers drawn. Switzerland is perhaps unique in her ability to unite her French, German and Italian cantons into a single nation, but then she’s unique in so many respects that one may safely dismiss Switzerland from any generalisations.
Mr Johnson demand that all British residents, and especially her nationals, speak English may thus be paraphrased to say that destroying Britain as a predominantly (or better still, exclusively) English-speaking nation is tantamount to destroying Britain as a nation.
Of course, this being an election season, even such a basic statement can’t be uttered without a concomitant claim of allegiance to multi-culti rectitude.
Thus Mr Johnson, feeling mandatory pangs of guilt produced by a version of Stockholm syndrome, had to add that: “What we want is a modern British culture in which we value each other, in which we respect each other and in which we – I think tolerate is too feeble a word – love each other in a Christian spirit, or a non-Christian spirit, whatever.”
This reminds me of Vladimir Solovyev’s (d. 1900) brilliant putdown of the precursor of today’s ‘culture’: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.”
Having got into my good books, Mr Johnson then rode his disclaimer right out of them. For respecting, tolerating or even loving one another in a Christian spirit or otherwise have nothing to do with making sure that all Britons share the same language and culture.
It’s an unrelated argument here designed to signal virtue rather than to elucidate a point. I would have made a different statement:
It’s not only tolerable but actively desirable that as many Britons as possible are multilingual people of the world comfortable with many different cultures – provided that our own culture and language remain universal and dominant.
If this proviso is no longer met, we must do all we can to make sure it is, for otherwise Britain qua Britain will cease to exist within a few generations.
Yes, that’s what I would have said. But then I’m not standing for any political office.