Britain’s shame: from multiculturalism to nativism

Britain’s shame: from multiculturalism to nativism


Written by: A. Sivanandan

As every step that Blair takes to ‘cohere’ the nation is at the expense of ethnic minorities, and Muslims in particular, IRR News talked to A. Sivanandan about how he saw the integration debate.

IRR News: The concept of integration is becoming a vexed one across Europe and even in the UK Blair and his government are pointing towards the need to rein in multiculturalism. Why?

A.S: Let’s get the terms right first. Countries in Europe, especially France, and especially since its street rebellions of late 2005, are obsessed now with the ‘integration’ of immigrants, by which they mean assimilation. Integration provides for the co-existence of minority cultures with the majority culture, assimilation requires the absorption of minority cultures into the majority culture. To use ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’ as synonyms, therefore, is not just to misuse language and confuse concepts, but to dissimulate practice. Integration is what they say, assimilation is what they do. And it is vital that we grasp the distinction. For the aim of assimilation is a monocultural, even a monofaith, society; the aim of integration is a multicultural society, a pluralist society. Countries such as France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany are even opposed to ethnic minorities having their own cultural expression – be it of dress (the veil), of language or of values. In France they do not even accept the idea of ‘ethnic minorities’, and the term used for anyone of immigrant descent, even for those born in the country, is still ‘immigrant’. But, ironically enough, France prides itself on being a secular state given to Enlightenment values, where everybody is an equal citizen irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity – which of course is belied by its systemic creation of ethnic ghettos which, in turn, it blames on the minorities and calls it communautarisme, i.e., self-segregation. And from that negative concept, which it equates to Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism, it goes on to critique it as ipso facto splittist and apartheid-like. But, in itself, multiculturalism simply means cultural diversity, and that diversity can either be a good thing, leading to integration, or a bad thing, leading to separatism. It is the socio-economic context and the country’s policies that determine the direction in which multiculturalism develops.

The problem in Britain is that the government has allowed these European preoccupations – which come out of totally different histories and struggles – to contaminate our debate. Assimilation was something that Britain consciously rejected in favour of integration as far back as forty years ago. In (one-time Labour Home Secretary) Roy Jenkins’ classic definition, integration is ‘not a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’.

It is very important to understand the route by which Britain became multicultural and how the Jenkins definition was made flesh. In practice in Britain, the racial discrimination that obtained in employment, housing, social services, etc., did not make for equal opportunity, and mutual tolerance was undermined by a populist media and opportunist politicians for whom anti-immigration polices were a vote-getter. All that was left was cultural diversity. But cultural diversity or cultural expression came not from government edict, but from the joint fight against racial discrimination – on the factory floor and in the community – by Asians, Afro-Caribbeans and whites, thereby creating unity in diversity. It was that unified struggle – across communities, ethnic groups, faiths and locales – that also led to the bringing in of the government’s anti-discrimination legislation in the Race Relations Acts of ’65, ’68 and ’76. And it was that understanding of multiculturalism that, in the early 1970s, encouraged schools to teach children to respect each other’s cultures and religions and celebrate each other’s festivals.

IRR News: Why had you become a critic of multiculturalism by the 1980s?.

A.S: Because by then there had been a qualitative change in the dynamics of multiculturalism. Here we have to distinguish between multiculturalism as an outcome of the struggle for equality emanating from below, and multiculturalism as government policy imposed from above. And as the anti-racist component of struggle ebbed, multiculturalism as policy began to degenerate into what I would term culturalism and/or ethnicism. It became part and parcel of a competitive fight for central and local government favours and moved the struggle from the streets to the town halls. But there was quite a long history to that descent into culturalism and cultural, ethnic enclaves.

First, in the 1970s, you had monies from Urban Aid allocated from town halls to black groups – which undermined their ethos of self-help and self-reliance and blunted the cutting edge of their politics. Then the strike of Asian workers at Grunwick (in 1976/7), and initially supported by Black groups only, was taken over by the trades unions, who, in changing the terms of the strike to meet their own preoccupations, effectively gave it the kiss of death.

That was the final nail in the coffin of militant black industrial protest. Many of the progressive whites who had been part of a common anti-racist fight went off to fight the fascists and the black community itself began to split into its ethnic components. All of which shifted the struggle against racism into a struggle for culture.

Second, the government’s White Paper which preceded the 1976 Race Relations Act signalled the state’s concerns about the disgruntlement of British-born blacks. The street rebellions against police racism in Brixton and elsewhere in 1981 (and 1985) bore out those anxieties. Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the disturbances identified the underlying problem not as institutionalised racism but as individual prejudice and ethnic disadvantage – and he recommended specific programmes to combat ‘ethnic disadvantage’. And from the publication of his report, the orthodoxy grew that the disaffection of Britain’s black communities could be dealt with by funding a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups and projects. Meeting their cultural or ethnic needs would somehow stave off protests about inequality and injustice.

I was critical from that point on about the speciousness of the kinds of policies which emanated from Scarman. They set different communities against one another in a bid for funds; they helped just a handful of individuals to find upward mobility on the basis of culturalised, nationalist programmes; they began to entrench a dangerous ethnicised patronage in local politics; they debased anti-racist struggle and confused those, including decent white people, who wished to combat racial injustice.

Incidentally, the IRR had already pointed out before Scarman reported, in its evidence to the Rampton Commission on ‘the educational needs and attainments of children from all ethnic minority groups’, that an ethnic or cultural approach to educational needs evaded the fundamental reason for underachievement – racism. We also explained that multicultural or multiethnic education was not enough. ‘Just to learn about other peoples’ cultures, is not to learn about the racism of one’s own. To learn about the racism of one’s own culture, on the other hand, is to approach other cultures objectively.’ (See ‘Anti-racist not multicultural education’ in Race & Class, Vol. XXII, no 1, Summer 1980).

Essentially, what we had realised at the point of making that statement was that multiculturalism meant cultures influencing one another, interacting. But if cultures exclude each other through a hierarchy of racial discrimination, multiculturalism becomes regressive. Conversely, it is only in combating racism that multiculturalism becomes progressive. The fight for multiculturalism and the fight against racism go hand-in-hand: anti-racism is the element that makes multiculturalism dynamic and progressive. It was a common struggle against racism in the workplace and the community that politicised multiculturalism and led to integration. When anti-racism was taken out of the equation, as it was by the beginning of the 1980s, all that was left was culturalism, ethnicism and its outcrop: cultural and ethnic enclaves with their own cultural and ethnic politics.

Cultural politics (as opposed to political culture) was already beginning to taint left thinking – attracting, in particular, young black people in universities and removing them from the anti-racist struggle. And the feminist movement was now into identity politics and ‘the personal is the political’. Who you were (female, black, disabled, gay, single mother, etc.) was itself a political statement, not what you did. Racism, accordingly, was removed from its institutional context and made personal – and official racism came to be defined as prejudice + power i.e. personal prejudice + the power of office. All of which undermined the anti-racist struggle and gave a fillip to culturalism. (See Jenny Bourne, ‘Racism, Postmodernism and the Flight from Class’ in Postmodernism in Educational Theory, ed. Dave Hill et al, Tufnell Press, 1999)

IRR News: But recently you have written in defence of multiculturalism. Why?

A.S: We cannot fight today’s battles on an understanding of yesterday’s realities.

There’s a new ballgame here – with the 2001 riots in Britain and 7/7, the government has been thrashing about for answers as to how to handle its ethnic minorities. First, with the riots, it blamed the self-separatism of Asian communities for the disaffection between Asians and whites – never acknowledging that successive governments’ policies of culturalism, combined with their neglect of the inner cities, had created the enclaves which had turned Asians against whites and vice versa. Thus, the government’s thinking this time was not on the lines of ‘ethnic disadvantage’, as Scarman had it, but of (too much) ethnic advantage, too much ‘multiculturalism’, not enough integration/assimilation or the much more euphemistic term ‘community cohesion’. And now, after 7/7, despite the discovery that the suicide bombers were home-grown and wholly British, the thinking in the UK is to embrace the backward and undoubtedly Islamophobic discourse that is issuing from mainland Europe. Cultural pluralism has gone too far, it threatens our values and our very national safety. A line has to be drawn on difference. Ethnic minorities have now, in the domestic context of the War on Terror, to effectively subsume their cultural heritage to Britishness.

Going against the grain of its own history (for Britain did create a multicultural society, uniquely; the other countries of Europe never did), the UK has taken a leaf out of Europe’s monoculturist book and descended into nativism – conflating multiculturalism with culturalism/ethnicism, assimilation with integration and extolling British values to the exclusion of all others.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

2 thoughts on “Britain’s shame: from multiculturalism to nativism

  1. During a recent visit to Amsterdam I was interested to see that the first exhibition I saw when entering the Historical Museum was of Muslim headscarves. A bank of computer terminals enabled visitors to watch video interviews of women explaining why they wore the scarves they did, how they chose them, etc. This is not to deny the racism that is rife in the Netherlands but to show that there is also something more positive going on there as well. As to the French Enlightenment, let’s not get too excited about the equality it called for. It’s not unlike the American Declaration of Independence which considered all men equal. Women and Africans were not included. There were Enlightened French who considered women inferior to men; European women were said to be closer to Africans because they had more prognathic jaws. The Enlightenment definitely had its racist and sexist dark side.

  2. Undemocratically imposed multi-culturism is the single greatest tragedy to happen to England since the end of the 2nd World War. There are now far, far too many alien ethnics in our country. Most of these people have no common bond of language, culture or history with our own. Why they were let in such numbers has still to be explained.

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