The multiculturalism debate

I’ve written this post in response to a couple of comments on my earlier blog on multiculturalism. There were two main criticisms of it. The first was contesting that David Cameron had been pandering to far-right groups. I’ve responded to those claims in the comments, and I don’t intend to address them here.

Instead, I’ll mainly concentrate on the point that Roger made:

I don’t believe Cameron was pandering to far right groups but seeking to reassure the enormous silent majority of people like myself who believe that ‘multi-culturalism’ (i.e. the celebration and encouraged recognition of racial or social difference) has indeed been a terrible failure.

I was concious even after writing the blog that I hadn’t really grappled with the concept of multiculturalism in any detail. I want to therefore put that right with this blog.

The problem with trying to answer whether multiculturalism has failed is that it’s hard to define multiculturalism, and even harder to work out how it can be judged successful or not. There’s a few different definitions of multiculturalism here. My favourite is from Ruth Lea, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, who said:

There is another way to define multiculturalism which I would call diversity where people have their own cultural beliefs and they happily coexist – but there is a common thread of Britishness or whatever you want to call it to hold society together.

And that is clearly what I would support because you do accept that people have different cultures and you accept them.

It a positive acceptance not a negative tolerance.

That’s what I imagine multiculturalism to be. I imagine lots of different cultures – Afro-Carribbean, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever – underneath an umbrella term of “Britishness”. I imagine, then, that I could be at odds with Roger on this point, but I wouldn’t want to speak for him on this.

It’s difficult to know what an alternative to this sort of approach would be. As Bob Piper cutely pointed out after Angela Merkel’s speech on multiculturalism:

Merkel says multiculturalism has failed in Germany. Surely she knows the last time they tried monoculturalism it was hardly a major success.

For there have always been different cultures. There is the distinction between popular and elite culture, for instance, which was written about by Richard Hoggart.

This split existed even in the Middle Ages. Take the veneration of a thirteenth-century dog St Guinefort by local peasants, which was a popular cult amongst the laity, even if it was frowned on by the established church. The distinction between different sorts of culture have always been around.

Anyway, back to the present. As pointed out above, multiculturalism could be judged to have succeeded if different cultures united around a common thread. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the different elite and popular cultures had a shared Christian culture. Now, the common theme would appear to be patriotism – a celebration of Britishness (or Englishness) and a feeling of national pride. As Sunder Katwala points out in this excellent article on the successes and failures of multiculturalism, this is something that Britain seems to have got right.

Katwala quotes comments made by Spurs footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto to make his point:

Assou-Ekotto is beginning to look ahead to the World Cup finals with Cameroon. Although he was born in France and has a French mother, there has never been any issue over his allegiance. Like many young people in France born to an immigrant parent or parents, he feels that “the country does not want us to be part of this new France. So we identify ourselves more with our roots.

“Me playing for Cameroon was a natural and normal thing. I have no feeling for the France national team; it just doesn’t exist. When people ask of my generation in France, ‘Where are you from?’, they will reply Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon or wherever. But what has amazed me in England is that when I ask the same question of people like Lennon and Defoe, they’ll say: ‘I’m English.’ That’s one of the things that I love about life here.”

It’s quite clear that multiculturalism has succeeded more in Britain than in either France or Germany, where both their leaders have, like Cameron, declared it to have “failed” in their countries. As Sunder Katwala points out, despite maintaining a strong national identity by having “the Tricolore fluttering from every town hall”, and banning burkas, French society does not seem particularly integrated. Moreover:

[T]he truth is that France’s particularly strident anti-multiculturalism has run so deep that it makes a definitive social comparison difficult. It would famously offend against the Republican philosophy of integration to even collect the information which would be necessary to inform any serious study of the successes and fallures of how integrated (or not) France actually is.

Germany has done a woeful job of integrating its Turkish minority into its society, with over half of German Turks saying they feel unwelcome in the country, and some German-born Turks do not even have full voting rights. Judged by Germany’s standard, the integration of ethnic minorities into Britain has been a rip-roaring success.

The fact is that certain sections of the British media usually ignore any stories about the success of multiculturalism, whilst playing up any examples of a lack of integration amongst minorities. Take two events that happened last November, around the time of Remembrance Day:

Firstly:

About 35 Islamic protesters, dressed in dark clothes and with many masking their faces, carried banners and chanted slogans such as “British soldiers: terrorists”.

They gathered near Hyde Park in London before burning a model of a poppy on the stroke of 11am then marching along Exhibition Road and along an underpass, past the Victoria and Albert and Natural History Museums.

And also:

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association across England has been rallied together to join in fundraising for the Poppy Appeal on behalf of The Royal British Legion in recognition of the valuable role British Armed Forces played during the World Wars.

AMYA collected a total of £20,963.02 for the Royal British Legion over the period of 13 hours, which is a phenomenal achievement. Due to the impressive collections, the Royal British Legion has now asked us to assist in their regional collections also in Midlands, North West and Scotland.

Two very different stories about Muslim groups and their activities to commemorate British soldiers. Now, guess which one the tabloids focussed on?

Of course, it was the first one.

The point here is not that all Muslims raise money for charity, nor that they all burn poppies.

Rather, the question worth asking is why does the media focus on the poppy-burners? Partly because it’s a more interesting and sensationalist story. Another factor seems to be that it the media is falling for the publicity stunts that Muslims against Crusades do.

It’s also possible, however, that there is an agenda at play here. For months, if not years, some of our tabloid newspapers have been focussing on negative stories about a small group of Muslim extremists, which is having serious repercussions on how the British public perceives Muslims and Islam. The Star and the Express, owned by someone not known for having well-thought out views on cultural difference, have been putting forward the myth that an Islamisation of Britain is happening, and that we are being “taken over” by foreigners:

With all this, is it any wonder that 98% of Daily Star readers think that Britain is turning into a Muslim state? See this and this, also.

So I’d argue a main problem is one of perception. However, another problem is that it’s jolly difficult to have a sensible debate on multiculturalism, because the debate gets closed down very quickly, on both sides.

The first person to come out and say that multiculturalism had failed in Britain was Trevor Phillips in 2004, and he wrote that, for instance:

That is why I disagree with those who say that integration and Britishness are irrelevant to the struggle against racism. There can be no true integration without true equality. But the reverse is also true. The equality of the ghetto is no equality at all.

The responses to Phillips’ continuing critique of multiculturalism as “separateness” are bemusing, to say the least. On the one hand, Ken Livingstone, when he was Mayor of London, said that Phillips was so right-wing that “soon he’ll be joining the BNP”. In contrast, a charming video (with equally charming comments underneath) from a user called “BNPxTRUTH” calls him a “Marxist Thug”. Judging from the comments, that’s one of the nicest things that’s been said about him.

However, there is obviously a common ground with myself, Roger and Trevor Phillips. One cannot indeed just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it. There has to be a common thread that binds us all together. We cannot just say that to be British is simply to be “different”, as then your identity has an identity-shaped hole.

Furthermore, a “ghettoisation” of Britain has been happening, especially in areas outside London, and is something that is entrenched by faith schools.

Yet this is hardly something being said by a “silent majority”. How can it be said that the majority is silent, when you can have articles talking of the “war on the English” in Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers? In 2005 David Davis, then Shadow Home Secretary, called for the scrapping out an “outdated” policy of multiculturalism. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said that multiculturalism had “failed the English”. Another prominent bishop talked of the “newfangled and insecurely founded doctrine of multiculturalism”. This is hardly a deafening silence, rather, it is a deafening clamour.

It’s becoming obvious that a nuanced debate on the successes and failings of multiculturalism, and working out how we proceed, is therefore difficult, but necessary. That’s why it’s even worse that Cameron’s speech didn’t take into account any of multiculturalism’s successes and instead stated that it has failed. By doing this he has played into the hands – willingly or not – of far-right groups by simply stating that multiculturalism had failed, and ignoring its successes.

It isn’t just Cameron who is guilty of this. In an interview last week, attorney-general Dominic Grieve had this to say:

the English Defence League’s anger at what it regards as “appeasement to Islammist [sic – this was quoted from teh Grauniad after all] extremism is something politicians may ignore at their peril”.

Which makes the EDL sound like a group quietly expressing valid views on the nicities of radical Islam, when in fact it’s run by people who think that “the sooner we start killing Muslims, the better”.

I think the time has come to move on from multiculturalism. That doesn’t mean that we should accept it’s failed completely – in many ways it has worked.

As noted above, the integration of ethnic minorities into a British national identity has been largely successful. As Medhi Hasan said on Question Time, his father emigrated to Britain in the 1960s, and lived mainly in a state of poverty. That his son could be on one of Britain’s leading political television programmes and define himself as “British” said a lot about the success of multiculturalism.

 Also, as Sunder Katwala notes:

[The] history of Britain is largely the history of successful integration. Perhaps that’s why we don’t notice it. But just about every one of the institutions of which we tend to be proud has been the product of immigration and integration – not just the NHS, but also the Ashes-winning cricket team, and the Army, and even the German-Greek infusions to the Monarchy. Though the headlines will always stress the flashpoints over the complex, everyday story of how we live together, our history should give us confidence that integration is possible.

We became a much less racist society. As John Redwood generously noted in response to David Cameron’s speech, the political left in Britain did a good deal to delegitimise racism (though this important broad social change was not the achievement of the political left alone).

However, even he says he is open to the need to move away from multiculturalism. However, if we do move from multiculturalism, what do we move towards?

We have to find some shared values and shared institutions. These institutions will include vague, fluffy values like tolerance, as well as other (slightly) more tangible concepts such as our democratic framework and the rule of law, which I think are aspects people both on the left and right can get behind.

As a social democrat, I’d also say that we need a certain level of equality, so people do genuinely feel like “we are all in this together”. Equality generally leads to a certain level of trust, so that people can pay their taxes and not feel cheated by “free-riders”. Tony Judt in Ill Fares the Land (what do you mean, you haven’t bought this brilliant book yet?) argued:

If we raise taxes or put up a bond to pay for a school in our home district, the chances are that other people (and other peoples’ children) will be the chief beneficiaries. The same applies to public investment in light rail systems, long-term educational and research projects, medical science, social security contributions and any other collective expenditure whose pay off may lie years away. So why do we go to the trouble of putting up the money? Because others have put up money in the past and, usually without giving the matter too much thought, we see ourselves as part of a civic community transcending generations. (pp64-5)

People are more likely to have the trust to do this if they have a lot in common with each other. This is why we cannot just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it but need some sort of shared common thread binding together the people in a community.

I daresay all of this is sounds like a rather woolly conclusion. But I have news for you: life isn’t simple. Multiculturalism wasn’t a complete success or a complete failure: there were good things and bad things to it. Our job in the years ahead is to keep the good things and toss away the bad things, and remember why they were bad. I’m sure some will disagree that it’s social democracy that can provide the common framework that Britain, as a society, needs to become more prosperous. And that’s also good – I don’t expect you to agree on everything.

However, a nuanced, reasoned debate on the merits of multiculturalism and where we go from here needs to be had. Judging from Cameron’s speech, we ain’t gonna get one any time soon.

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One Response to The multiculturalism debate

  1. Pingback: Medhi Hasan: If I was Ed Miliband… « Paperback Rioter

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