How to describe the British

BBC Breakfast this morning was doing a special programme from the British Museum, talking about the changing face of Britain. They had commissioned a survey that amongst other things highlighted that a large group of people thought that the UK was changing too quickly and also that another group of people thought that people coming in were undermining British tradition with new cultures. The BBC are asking people to vote for the word that best describes the British, a difficult decision based on the choice, and I thought I’d write my reasoning.

This has dropped into a general pot of related thoughts drawn from a number of sources. Firstly, I’ve been reading some of the blog entries on a planned move to Canada that our friends Carla and Garry are pondering. Their three blogs are linked from our page if you’d like to read further, but to summarise as a result of Garry having fared significantly worse than many in the current IT downturn, plus a general malaise with life in the UK, they are looking to move to Canada (back to Canada in the case of Carla). We’re also due to go down to Somerset at the weekend to meet up with Sheila, Beth’s step-Grandmother. She moved to Canada in her sixties to marry Beth’s Grandfather, them having met after he came to England following the death of Beth’s Grandmother. Prior to moving to Canada, she had lived all her life in Somerset, however with Beth’s Grandfather now having died she often talks like many ex-pats in that she regards England as home, but on her annual visits finds that the England she regards as home is no longer there. Both are seeing that Britain has become worse than it once was.

However, it has struck me that this is a general issue with emigrating, whereas living within a country change is a gradual process, when you emigrate, your impression of life in the country you’ve left stays as a snapshot of what it was like when you left. However much you try to maintain links, and keep up with news, invariably by not being immersed in the culture you loose track. Looking at some of the ex-pat forums, there are a significant number of people who end up flip-flopping between countries. They emigrate to another country, with high expectations of a better life (witness some of the people on Get a New Life on BBC, who in some cases haven’t even visited the places they go), and for one reason or another become disillusioned with their new life, and find themselves thinking that the life they left behind was better. However when they return, they then remember all the things that made them want to leave in the first place!

Being pragmatic, I really don’t think that there is a perfect place to live. The UK has its problems, but so does everywhere else, just not necessarily the same problems. In the same way on a personal level, some of the problems and issues facing you in one country may be solved by a move abroad, but equally some of those may follow you to the new country, and the ones that you get rid of may be replaced by a whole new set. (To quote a song that we were discussing with the youth group last night “I believe the grass is no more greener on the other side�) The choice as to which country we lived in when Beth and myself got together was relatively straightforward, not quite as random as one of the transatlantic couples in NY-LON, the current Channel 4 drama where they tossed a coin but pretty clear. Looking at the options, to stand a good chance of getting an IT job in Canada, it looked likely that we would have to live away from Alberta, whereas in the UK, my family live in the South-East, with many of the high technology companies close by. In Canada, the standard level of annual leave offered to employees is two to three weeks, whereas the three employers I have worked for in the UK have offered four or five weeks. If we lived in Canada we would probably have to take a plane or a long drive to see Beth’s family, and the same to see mine, and realistically we’d have three weeks to do that. In the UK, my family is close by, and we have five weeks to go visit Canada, which gives us a good amount of time to go to Canada, and still have time left over for a holiday. In addition, the last time we were in Canada, an official survey of the employment prospects of immigrants was published, which for me made pretty discouraging reading, and further backed up our decision. Firstly, thanks to the points system, the average immigrant was usually better educated than the average Canadian. However, immigrants found it harder to get a job than Canadian natives. Then when they did get a job, the chances would be high that the immigrant would be overqualified for the job, plus that a Canadian doing the same job would usually be paid more. For a country that still has an active immigration policy, trying to encourage highly educated immigrants it seemed a pretty bad piece of publicity. Whilst as a visitor, life in Canada appears cheap by comparison to the UK, once we were into the Canadian economy, and with me as a potential main breadwinner when we had children, it looks more than likely that my earning potential would be less than it would be in the UK. International surveys show that Canadians have a really good standard of living, and that it is the best place in the world to live, but is that just for native Canadians?

This leads me back to where I started, and BBC Breakfast and the changing face of the UK. As I said earlier, I think every country changes over time. In the case of the UK the current perceived state of society has been variously blamed on liberal sixties parents, Thatcherite attitudes from the eighties, the decline in Church attendance and so on. The British also seem to have a perceived attitude of how “things were better during the war�, or “things were better in the fifties�. I watched some of Michael Moore’s oscar winning film Bowling For Columbine again at the weekend, and one segment says that one of the reasons for the high levels of gun ownership in the US is due to fear, and then goes on to say that the fear is largely generated by the media – in one sequence Michael walks down a street in South Central LA, which if you believe the media, is a virtual war zone, but in reality is generally peaceful and safe. In the UK as well much of the media repeatedly tells us that the UK has a crime problem, and yet the figures show that crime is low. The media tells us that there is a problem with too many immigrants overrunning the country, and yet at the same time there are as many people leaving the UK, and many British are choosing not to have children causing a burgeoning problem with an ageing, shrinking population. During the hot summer last year we worried about global warming, and this year we complained about the rain. With the increasing media hours to fill that means all these things get a lot of attention, and register a lot more in the public consciousness.

I think on the basis of the above, the word that most closely matches the impression I’m giving of the British at the moment is pessimistic, that we as a country and a media choose to highlight negative aspects of life in the UK, which in turn generates more negative feelings. Having said I don’t think it matches with my opinion of the UK, which is somewhat more positive. So that now leaves me with another problem, am I answering what my attitude to the UK or what I think is the attitude of everybody else?

2 thoughts on “How to describe the British”

  1. Thanks for mentioning us in your post 🙂 The points you raised, Richard, are very valid. It wasn’t until I moved from Canada that I appreciated my home country more but believe me, we aren’t moving back with a case of ‘grass-is-greener syndrome. there are days where we totally wobble and think the UK isn’t as bad after all. But I guess you guys are lucky in the fact that you have a family and friends and a wonderful church family; we have tried like crazy and just didn’t feel we fit in. We’re both scratching our heads and going ‘WTH?’ For us the crucial factor was lifestyle. We don’t like the ‘you are what you own’ mentality in the UK, the fast pace. We’re willing to work in a shop for 10 bucks an hour if it means we’re happier. I think the UK has lots going for it but the native Brits I meet in the course of my work etc all say ‘the UK sucks and why the heck are you here, get back to Canada’. I think it’s feeling comfortable and REALISTIC about wherever you end up, but feeling comfortable and best where you’re able to fit in at the end of the day. The good thing about these emigration shows and the thing that BBC news is doing is to make people think, which is good.

    Gosh, this comment is almost as long as your post! 🙂 I should really get some housework done instead of reading blogs!

  2. Im so glad ive found this blog. My family and i have just started to think about moving to Canada from the UK and im sure we will find this site invaluable over time.

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