The UK is a multi cultural society. But the reality has not yet filtered into international perceptions of the UK – partly due to outmoded conceptions of Britishness, partly due to the continuing lack of multi cultural diversity in prominent parts of the British system – such as Parliament and the senior ranks of the Diplomatic Service. And for some that see the UK through the prism of certain historical periods and attitudes, we are identified with the Empire – or even the Crusades.
There are also modern perceptions that the UK uses internationalist rhetoric to mask neo-colonialist, economic or ideological objectives. These have probably been reinforced in some quarters by the war in Iraq, and by the UK's high-profile alliance with the United States.
These perceptions feed into accusations of hypocrisy and double standards, and of paying lip-service to multiculturalism.
The UK has a strong Christian heritage - 72% of British citizens describe themselves as Christian, the Head of State is also Head of the Established Church, and public life contains a significant amount of Christian symbolism. But this can be over-interpreted. In some respects the UK has transformed itself into a largely secular state, with room for all faiths to operate within an open society. As ever, viewpoints depend on individual experience, or prejudice.
The suggestion that the new European constitution should somehow refer to the Christian heritage of Europe has to some extent revealed the multi-faith sensitivities of the UK. The contribution of Christianity to European civilisation cannot be denied – but other religions and traditions have made their own contributions. The UK takes the view that 'Europe' is a geographical and political expression, and that the new Europe should not start by giving many present and future European citizens a sense of exclusion. After all, the very first line of the draft constitution quotes a famous pre-Christian statement of the value of democracy - the rule of the many (the demos) as opposed to the rule of the few. The modern European demos includes Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and many others – and will be even more diverse when it eventually enlarges to include three countries which are part of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (Turkey, Albania and – as an observer - Bosnia).
To what extent has the UK reduced the role of faith as an aspect of national identity – and to what extent is it desirable to do so? What impact does this have on UK relations with the rest of the world, and on faith groups' willingness to identify themselves with the UK's broad foreign policy objectives?
Read about how the FCO is working with faith groups.