Rally round the flag

Rally round the flag


Written by: Arun Kundnani

In calling for ‘integration’, Trevor Phillips has taken Britain a step closer to the assimilation policies sweeping Europe.

Across Europe, hysteria has gripped the political classes. The questions of what to do about desperate immigrants and angry Muslims have coalesced into ‘the integration debate’. In France, the official answer is forced assimilation, symbolised by the ban on the hijab in state schools and public buildings. In the Netherlands, a mass expulsion of 26,000 asylum seekers has been approved, while Rotterdam Council has told Muslims that mosques must be built in a more westernised style. In Denmark, immigrants have been told they cannot marry a foreign national under the age of 23 and, even then, must pay a deposit of £3,000 for the privilege. Across the continent, multiculturalism is out and ‘integration’ is in.

Now the ‘integration debate’ has come to Britain. And the head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), Trevor Phillips, has positioned himself as the leading advocate of ‘integration’ in the UK, using the front page of Saturday’s Times to promote his views. With the press raving about Muslims burning the Union Jack and the perceived failure to control Britain’s borders, Trevor Phillips argued for a re-assertion of Britishness. Multiculturalism, he said, should be killed off. It encourages separatism and is out of date. Instead British culture – its tolerance, eccentricity, democracy and urban energy – must be honoured and the emphasis put on how immigrants can be integrated into this culture. Young Muslims, he said, must be told they are British ‘again and again and again’ until they feel they are accepted. He concedes, though, that ‘people should be allowed to be a bit different’.

A few years ago, such arguments would only have been heard from the ranks of the far Right. Today, they have crossed over into the liberal Left. It was only two months back that Phillips himself denounced similar arguments, advanced by David Goodhart, as ‘genteel xenophobia’. Now Phillips, too, seems to be worried about a lack of ‘shared values’ and an excess of diversity. And, of course, Phillips’ new position chimes with New Labour’s ‘citizenship tests’ and ‘community cohesion’ agenda, which share the same starting point.

Cultural freedom

As a political ideal, multiculturalism means tolerance of cultural diversity within the rule of law – an essential aspect of a civil society. In Britain, that sense of cultural laissez-faire emerged from the long conflicts that moulded Britishness out of the multiple identities of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh; Catholic and Protestant; working class and bourgeois. The way those conflicts were resolved was by forging a thin concept of British nationality, in which cultural freedom was paramount. The anti-racist struggle deepened that sense of tolerance by breaking the bounds of colour set by colonialism and slavery.

But anti-racism was not primarily a fight for cultural tolerance. It was only in the 1980s that, as A. Sivanandan put it, the fight against racism was turned into the fight for culture. It was then that the ideal of multiculturalism was translated into a set of specific policies which tried to shift the debate away from racial justice per se and onto cultural identity – where the state was happier to grant concessions. In the process, Black communities came to be redefined in ethnicised terms and policies were aimed at sustaining each ‘ethnic’ identity in its cultural specifics, setting in train the ‘separateness’ which now causes commentators such anxiety. Though anti-racism got lost up this culturalist garden path, at least there was the consolation that recognition of diversity was official policy.


Now, rather than address the specific failures of multiculturalist policies, the ‘integration debate’ threatens to throw out acceptance of diversity altogether. Integration was best defined in 1966 by Roy Jenkins as: ‘equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’. Tolerance in this sense means that, beyond the rule of law and basic social norms, you cannot force people into a straitjacket of national values. Cultural integration has to be an ongoing, two-way process with neither side starting from a position of superiority. But the current ‘integration debate’ starts from the assumption that certain groups of people – Third World immigrants and Muslims – ought to become more British. This is not really about integration but assimilation.

The focus of the ‘integration debate’ is on conserving British identity in the face of outside threats to its cohesion, rather than thinking of Britishness as something that changes its meaning, not only because of immigration, but as part of a natural process of cultural change and conflict. We have lost Shakespeare, Phillips tells us, suggesting this is somehow connected to immigration. The tendency is to exaggerate both the extent to which Britishness can be distilled into a set of core values and the extent to which immigrants are undermining those values. Britishness cannot be fixed and codified without doing an injustice to the inevitable ebb and flow of national identity and its different meanings in different parts of society. To imagine that one can, is to confuse national belonging with citizenship: the former is a matter of individual freedom, the latter is to do with political rights and responsibilities.

Racism ignored

This obsession with preserving a caricature of British identity necessarily obscures the racism and cultural supremacism that remains a part of it. Thus, it is Muslim separatism that needs to be tackled rather than British racism and the ‘problem’ is with the culture of particular groups rather than the racism of society. The solution, then, is to make those groups more British rather than society less racist – an odd view for the head of the CRE.

That this discourse is littered with elitist language (he tells us we are ‘allowed to be a bit different’) and rides roughshod over different categories (British-born Muslims are conflated with new immigrants from eastern Europe) is not accidental. From the imperious viewpoint of New Labour nationalism, having a separate culture is just an obstinate refusal to accept the superior values of Blair’s Britain.

The irony is that in embracing the ‘integration debate’, Trevor Phillips has abandoned one of the better traditions of Britain – its ideal of multiculturalism – in favour of one of the continent’s worst – its ideal of assimilation.

Related links

Guardian – Polly Toynbee – Why Trevor is right

Guardian – Reply to Polly Toynbee from the Director of the Institute of Race Relations

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

One thought on “Rally round the flag

  1. Multiculturalism may not be perfect in that it might be used as a way of avoiding the delivery of full equality and eradicating all racism, but it is superior to what Polly Toynbee and the like are advocating which is a toxic nationalist form of integration which conflates different issues like immigration, terrorism and the rights of existing citizens.

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