Communities minister Ruth Kelly today launches a Commission on Integration and Cohesion whilst calling for an ‘honest debate’ on multiculturalism. But the government’s whole approach to the issue relies on a mis-use of concepts and history.
Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s comment in 1978, that the British people were worried that ‘this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’, those on the Right of British politics have seen cultural diversity as a threat to national cohesion and security.
But since 9/11, it has been parts of the ‘liberal’ Left that have attacked multiculturalism most forcefully, seeing in it the cause of segregation in Britain. First, it was home secretary David Blunkett who blamed a supposed over-tolerance of cultural diversity for allowing Asians to ‘self-segregate’ in northern towns. Then, it was Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, who said that multiculturalism had encouraged separatism. Today, there is a raft of commentators around New Labour, including Polly Toynbee and David Goodhart, who say that multiculturalism has allowed extremism to fester in British society and that a new emphasis on the integration of minorities is needed.
Seeds of segregation
But the seeds of segregation, in those parts of Britain where it might exist, were not planted by an over-emphasis on diversity but by the interaction of industrial decline with institutional racism. And to misdiagnose the problem as an ‘excess’ of cultural diversity leads inevitably to ‘solutions’ that can do more harm than good.
In Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, for example, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were recruited to work in the textile mills from the 1960s onwards. But soon afterwards, the mills began to be ‘outsourced’ to places where labour was cheaper. Those towns found themselves left on the scrapheap, with the only remaining jobs in the service sector, particularly the local authorities. Evidence suggests that whites were favoured in these jobs; as a result Asians took to working as taxi drivers or running take-aways. At the same time, whites were prioritised for the new estates being built to rehouse those who had lived in the old houses around the mills. Those Asians that did get rehoused were often driven out by racial harassment. And with whites in a rush to flee the ghettoes, property prices were kept low, giving further encouragement to Asians to seek to buy their own cheap homes in these areas.
Segregation in housing led to segregation in schools. And the mechanism of parental choice, introduced at the end of the 1980s, meant that, in schools with catchment areas that ought to have produced mixed intakes, white parents chose to send their children to majority-white schools a little further away. In all schools, rather than genuine education about other people, their histories and their struggles, what you had were hackneyed formulae of steel bands, samosas and saris. After the riots of 2001, when Britain woke up to the fact that a generation had grown up living ‘parallel lives’, this whole history was forgotten and, instead, it was Muslims who were blamed for refusing to mix.
Since 2001, a cacophony of voices has singled out Muslims in the ‘integration’ debate: it is their cultural difference which needs limits placed on it; it is they who must subsume their cultural heritage within ‘Britishness’; it is they who must declare their allegiance to (ill-defined) British values. In so doing, an idea that Muslims are inherently at odds with modern values, into which they need to be forcibly integrated, has been reinforced – exactly the same notion that runs through the ‘war on terror’ as conceived by Blair and Bush. But it is entirely dishonest to pretend this is a demand for ‘integration’, when what is really being called for is assimilation.
Equally, there is a deliberate confusion of the concept of multiculturalism in general, which refers to an acceptance of ethnic pluralism, with the specific ‘multiculturalist’ policies introduced during the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, what were referred to as ‘multiculturalist’ policies were introduced in an attempt to manage and control increasing black anger at British racism. A new class of ethnic representative was encouraged into town halls, to act as a surrogate voice for their own ethnically defined communities. It was a colonial arrangement, which pressed ethnic groups into competing against each other for grants and recognition. Such divisive measures were criticised at the time by anti-racists and it is right that those policies are now condemned more widely (although the colonial model of managing diversity has not been abandoned by New Labour but transposed onto ‘faith communities’). But the baby of multiculturalism should not be thrown out with the policy bath-water of the 1980s.
Of course it is true that society needs a set of core values to unite around. But those values are not specific to Britishness. Rather, they are universal values of human and democratic rights that all communities share. Ironically, it is those values which are most under attack in the ‘war on terror’. Given the government’s record of undermining the core values of human rights – for example, with the internment of terror suspects without trial – it is little wonder that it prefers to look elsewhere for common denominators to bind society. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that the government’s refusal to heed the warnings of the anti-war movement on Iraq has been a huge factor in alienating young Muslims (and non-Muslims) from British institutions and the democratic process. All of which points to the methodology of the ‘war on terror’ as the largest factor in eroding community cohesion today. It is here that the ‘honest debate’ on cohesion must begin.
Arun Kundnani will be chairing a discussion on multiculturalism with Lord Ouseley (author of Community Pride Not Prejudice Bradford report), A. Sivanandan (director, Institute of Race Relations) and Salma Yaqoob, (councillor, Birmingham Sparkbrook) as part of the Racism, Liberty and the War on Terror conference on 16 September 2006.