No country in Europe could be more proud of its multicultural experiment than Britain. But, in the wake of 7 July, or rather because Blair refuses to accept that the war in Iraq could have played a part in breeding home-grown suicide bombers, multiculturalism has become the whipping boy.
And the more he divaricates from his complicity in that war, the more he has to find other causes to blame 7/7 on, and the more he erodes our democratic rights and civil liberties. It is ironical that, in the attempt to force democracy on Iraq, we have let Iraq force un-democracy on us.
In addition to his draconian proposals on tackling terrorism, Mr Blair has thrown into question the future of multiculturalism in Britain via his Commission on Integration. But Multiculturalism did not create separatism or ethnic enclaves. Culturalism did. The confusion arises from the inability of government and commentators alike to distinguish between the multicultural society as fact and multiculturalism as policy.
Culturalism, or ethnicism, as policy was Thatcher’s and Scarman’s answer to the racism that in 1981 had ignited the major cities of Britain. Lord Scarman in his investigations into the Brixton riots denied point blank the existence of institutional racism, and located the cause of the riots in ‘racial disadvantage’, the cure for which was pouring money into ethnic projects and strengthening ethnic cultures. But as the Institute of Race Relations pointed out at the time, the fight against racism cannot be reduced to a fight for culture. Nor does it require the state to give people their cultures; they already have them, however attenuated these cultures may be by racism. Nor does learning about other peoples’ cultures make the racists less racist. Besides, the racism that needs to be contested is not personal prejudice (which has no authority behind it) but institutionalised racism, the racism woven, over centuries of colonialism and slavery, into the structures of society and into the instruments and institutions of government, local and central. And that is why Macpherson, in his landmark report on racism, passed over the myth of cultural compensation as the antidote to racism and established institutionalised racism instead as the problem that needed to be tackled. Alas, this proposal had hardly become policy before it was virtually killed off by the tabloids and the Right.
Multicultural Britain did not come out of the much-vaunted British traditions of fair play, equality and social justice. Rather, it was created out of decades of struggles against racism by black communities – struggles for equal pay and against discrimination on the shop floor, struggles to make the police protect communities from racial attack, struggles for children not to be streamed or bussed out of schools, struggles to include other histories in educational curricula. And because most Black and Asian people who came to Britain after the second world war had citizenship, unlike their counterparts in other European countries, they had the security from which to mount militant fights for racial justice.
When integration was first defined, by Roy Jenkins in 1966, it was ‘not as a flattening process of assimilation’ but as ‘equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’. And by and large there was agreement among politicians on integration and multiculturalism – until, that is, Margaret Thatcher’s pre-Premier statement in 1978 in which she bemoaned the fact that some people thought Britain might be rather swamped by people of a different culture. But with the urban ‘riots’ of ’81 and ’85, she gave up her intentions of reining in multiculturalism – try as the right-wing journalists and ideologues and think tanks around her might to deride loony leftism, cultural relativism, political correctness and anti-racism.
Today, some twenty years later, with a section of the tabloid press still upholding its dire warnings over multiculturalism, it is a Labour government which is about to turn back the clock and ride roughshod over those many hard-won anti-racist victories which established the UK as an exemplar to the rest of Europe on integration. But Britain is now showing all the signs of reducing its policies to those of the lowest common denominator in Europe. Core values, enforced language classes, citizenship classes will all shift the UK towards the standard European model of monoculturalism. Already decades behind the UK in terms of race relations policy, Continental European countries have, under pressure from extremist electoral anti-immigrant parties, abandoned whatever tentative steps they had taken towards a more inclusive pluralist approach. And across the Continent, commissions similar to that proposed by Blair have led to policies of forced assimilation, with the debate on multiculturalism carried out in terms that stigmatise and humiliate ethnic minorities and hold them collectively responsible for the few. With Blair shifting the idiom of debate towards the European model, the danger is a return to assimilationist policies long since discredited in the UK.
We cannot let this government – which has itself parodied anti-racism in its own culturalist policies – now undermine the fundamentals of the diverse society that has been created in this country from below, as it were, and despite government. Integration, Britain has shown, however spasmodically, comes from the removal of racist barriers not from the promotion of culturalism, on the one hand, or of nativism, on the other.