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Why is the BBC promoting ethnonationalism?
Why is the BBC going around implying that Muslims and Chinese people are “not really British”?
Written by Noah Carl.
“The very first Britons were black” and “every single British person comes from a migrant”. What’s more, “Britain has been a mostly white country for a lot less time than it has been a mostly black country”. These are some of the claims made in a new children’s book entitled ‘Brilliant Black British History’. (The book, incidentally, is published by Bloomsbury – which cancelled Nigel Biggar’s meticulous work on the British Empire because of concerns about “public feeling”.)
You might be tempted to dismiss such claims as the eccentric writings of a single, black-British author with no real influence. Yet the book is already a number one best seller – having received plaudits from numerous black public figures, as well as the Guardian newspaper.
But it doesn’t stop there. The very same claims are being peddled by an organisation no less influential than the BBC. A 2021 children’s video titled 'Been Here From the Start' – which recently went viral on social media – portrays a black actor dressed as a caveman singing lines such as, “for 10,000 British years some Brits have looked like me.”
And in fact, this isn’t even the first BBC video showcasing ancient Britain as a land inhabited by black people. An educational cartoon titled ‘Life in Iron Age Britain’, which forms part of the 2016 ‘Story of Britain’ series, features a blacksmith of unmistakably black appearance. Another video from the same series portrays one of the nobles present at the signing of Magna Carta as a black man.
The idea that Stone Age Britons were black comes from a widely-misunderstood DNA analysis of Cheddar Man (a skeleton dating to 7,000 BC) which concluded that he may have had dark skin. As historian Tom Rowsell points out, even if Cheddar Man did have dark skin, he was not related in any way to the people we refer to as “black” – namely Sub-Saharan Africans. For example, Tamils have dark skin but we don’t call them “black” because they’re not from Sub-Saharan Africa.
As for the black Iron Age blacksmiths and black Medieval barons, the BBC appears to have simply invented them. A search for any historical basis for these depictions, however tenuous, yielded no results.
Why is Britain’s national broadcaster misrepresenting history to imply that black people have been in the country for thousands of years, forging weapons for Iron Age tribes and negotiating the signing of Magna Carta?
The reason is obvious. If black people have “been here from the start”, then Britain must have always been a diverse, multicultural “nation of immigrants”. And any suggestion that black people “aren’t really British” must be wrong.
From the BBC’s perspective, there are two problems with this kind of argument. The first is that it puts the question of whether Britain ought to be diverse and multicultural at the mercy of historical facts. As we’ve just seen, there’s no evidence that the inhabitants of Britain 10,000 years ago were black (even though they may have had dark skin).
And in any case, contemporary white Britons share little DNA with Cheddar Man for the awkward reason that Cheddar Man’s people, the Western Hunter Gatherers, were almost entirely replaced by Early European Farmers around 4,000 BC. And these Early European Farmers were then almost entirely replaced by the Beaker People around 2,000 BC. Which means that the British descend from people who conquered the people who conquered the inhabitants of Britain 10,000 years ago.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, there were no major migration flows into Britain for about a thousand years. And all the groups that had come in the preceding millennium were closely related to the people already living there. Indeed, there is very little structure (genetic differentiation) in today’s white British population. People from different parts of the country are about 100 times more closely related than Europeans are to Africans.
If Britain having always been diverse and multicultural would count as a point in favour of those things, the fact that it actually hasn’t surely counts as a point against them. When you insist that Britain is a “nation of immigrants” (with the implication that immigration is good) and then it turns out the opposite is true, what are people meant to infer? The BBC would be better off sticking to the line that diversity and multiculturalism are good for their own sake.
The second problem with the argument the BBC wants to make is that it proves too much. Evidence suggests that black people first came to Britain in the Roman period (although they were few in number and didn’t leave a genetic footprint). You may or may not consider that early enough to say they’ve “been here from the start”. Yet what’s clearly true is that other groups didn’t come to Britain until much later – far too late to say they’ve been here from the start.
There are almost four million Muslim Britons today, but they didn’t settle in the country until the sixteenth century. Likewise, there are about half a million Chinese Britons, but the first one didn’t arrive until 1685. So even if black people have “been here from the start”, Muslims and Chinese people clearly haven’t.
The BBC apparently considers it very significant that black people have (in their view) “been here from the start”. Otherwise they wouldn’t have made multiple videos showcasing Roman and Medieval Britain as places where black people lived. They want you to know that there’s nothing historically unusual about the presence of black people in Britain. Okay, suppose that’s true. What happens when we apply the same logic to Muslims or Chinese people? We’re forced to conclude that their presence in Britain is historically unusual.
The idea that it matters whether a group has been somewhere from the start lies at the core of ethnonationalism. The difference between ethnonationalists and the BBC is that the former dispute that black people have been in Britain from the start. But both agree that a group’s having been in Britain from the start is very significant.
If someone made a video titled ‘Been Here From the Start’ featuring a white actor, it would surely be considered some sort of “dog whistle” for the far-right. Why? Well, the implication would be that since other groups have not been here from the start, they have less basis for saying they are “really British”. Why is the BBC going around implying that Muslims and Chinese people are “not really British”? They’d be better off sticking to the line that it doesn’t matter when a group first came to Britain.
The BBC obviously don’t believe that Muslims and Chinese people are “not really British”. Nor did they ever intend to imply it. The point is that they’re so wrapped-up in “anti-racist” activism, they didn’t bother to think through the implications of their messaging. Depicting Stone Age cavemen, Iron Age blacksmiths and Medieval barons as black is not merely laughably wrong; it undermines the BBC’s own purported values.
Maybe they should go back to regular, activism-free programming?
Noah Carl is an Editor at Aporia Magazine.
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