The mantra of our time: ‘British values’ good, ‘multiculturalism’ bad

The mantra of our time: ‘British values’ good, ‘multiculturalism’ bad


Written by: Rebecca Wood

Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, hit the headlines the weekend before the Conservative party conference with his statement that multiculturalism had left a ‘terrible’ legacy on the UK. At the same time, he joined with the increasingly vocal constituency which promotes the assertion of ‘British values’ as a salve to the social malaise of our time.

Grieve, who replaced David Davis as shadow home secretary in June this year and had previously been a spokesperson on community cohesion under Iain Duncan Smith, argued in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that multiculturalism had created a ‘vacuum’ into which extremists, such as the BNP (British National Party) and Hizb ut-Tahrir, have stepped.[1]

The ‘vacuum’, the logic of his argument ran, has materialised because ‘multiculturalism’, focused on recognising and celebrating minority ethnic cultures, has failed to similarly recognise and celebrate the culture of Britain’s ‘long-term inhabitants’ (his turn of phrase). Instead, these ‘long-term inhabitants’, who have repeatedly been told that their ‘cultural background isn’t really very important, or [is] flawed’, are left feeling ‘very resistant [to a multicultural society], very fearful and very lacking in self-confidence’. At the same time, ‘second- and third-generation immigrant communities’ are left adrift and alienated, because ‘they don’t know what British values are’.

Into this uncertainty – Grieve’s ‘vacuum’ – step extremist groups. He argues that the likes of the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir are ‘two very similar phenomena of people who are experiencing a form of cultural despair about themselves [and] their identity’. And their response to this ‘cultural despair’? They ‘latch on to confrontational and aggressive variants of their cultural background as being the only way to sort of reassure themselves that they can survive and have an identity’.

No new analysis

What Grieve succeeded in doing was grabbing the headlines with this catchy, crowd-pleasing rhetoric – but it is nothing new. His refrain about the failure of ‘multiculturalism’ and the necessity of an affirmation and restatement of something called ‘British values’, is an oft-repeated, catch-all cure for our times by think-tanks, pundits and politicians across the political spectrum.

But this obsession with a solution located in an affirmation of ‘British values’ and a rejection of ‘multiculturalism’ has within it the seeds of failure. For it singularly fails to address the underlying causes of disaffection, alienation and drift to extremism, whilst locating the hopes of future redemption in cultural revival and reaffirmation.

Thatcher’s ‘culturalism’

Something similar happened some twenty years ago, under a Conservative administration – then it was a cultural solution aimed at addressing an elusive ‘racial disadvantage’, now it’s a cultural solution in the guise of ‘British values’. In the early 1980s, the Thatcher government, as a response to the 1981 ‘riots’, introduced policies which sought to promote culture as a means of combating disaffection within minority ethnic communities.

The misplaced belief was that the unrest of the period, located in deprived, inner-city areas, arose because those people who burnt buildings and fought street battles with the police were deeply ambiguous about their sense of selves. The Conservatives’ answer was to fund local ethnic, religious and cultural projects as a necessary means of combating ‘racial disadvantage’ – an ideology of ‘culturalism’, as Sivanandan has labelled it, rather than genuine ‘multiculturalism’.[2] Or as the Guardian paraphrased Grieve’s ideas: it was ‘inspired by the “understandable” desire to make people feel comfortable’.

The focus on a cultural solution to what was arguably an economic, political and social problem was doomed to failure – it only pretended to solve the problem of racial inequality in British society.

Extremist groups not cut from the same cloth

Grieve’s tacking together of the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir as ‘two very similar phenomena’ springing from a kind of collective ‘cultural despair’ and his flippant resort to ‘Britishness’ as a solution for all should set alarm bells ringing. It is an argument wholly divorced from the reality of the world we live in, devoid of any engagement with larger geo-political issues and the more subtle nuances of local politics.

To pin the blame for the rise of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir on ‘multiculturalism’ is a gross simplification that has no relationship to the complex causes, some of which might be said to lead back to British foreign policy itself and which have been debated extensively elsewhere.[3] To link this distinct and separate anguish and alienation with the rise of the BNP is equally erroneous. It fails to take account of the development of a separate set of localised issues.

On the one hand, it is arguable that the BNP has taken advantage of the political space which has been created by the mainstream parties’ and the media’s willingness to hijack anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric for political gain and market domination. At the same time, the Labour Party, once the party of the working class, seems to have forgotten its traditional voters in its infatuation with Middle England – leaving many adrift and receptive to the politics of the BNP.

A short-term memory

The Guardian article labels Grieve ‘free-thinking’. The irony is that what Grieve said is nothing new. He is merely re-iterating the same rhetoric of British politicians from across the political divide and through the decades. Most recently it has been the incumbent New Labour government which has re-embraced the ‘culturalist’ framework, in the form of ‘community cohesion’ and a reassertion of ‘British values’ (whatever they are). And it is this obsession with ‘British values’ which contains within it not only the implicit, and dangerous, re-embrace of an idea of one hegemonic, monoculture, but is also an overly simplified response to an issue of far greater complexity.

For those who are attracted to extremist ideology have a multitude of reasons. These could be said to include a rage at the indignity of living in a society which seems to perpetually reject and sideline them, not because they don’t ‘feel comfortable’ about themselves nor because they suffer from something Grieve labels as ‘cultural despair’. Trumpeting ‘British values’ might temporarily win some votes and sell some newspapers, but it will do nothing to tackle the underlying, systemic causes of alienation and the drift to extremism.

Related links

Read the IRR’s Briefing paper : In defence of multiculturalism

Read an IRR news story: The death of multiculturalism

[1] Guardian, 27 September 2008, 'Multicultural ideal 'terrible' for UK - Tories'. [2] A. Sivanandan, 12 October 2005, 'It's anti-racism that was failed, not multiculturalism that failed'. [3] See, for example, Arun Kundnani,'Islamism and the roots of liberal rage', in Race & Class, October-December 2008, Volume 50,  Number 2.  

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

0 thoughts on “The mantra of our time: ‘British values’ good, ‘multiculturalism’ bad

  1. I guess that its’ about time that councillors became an “instrument” of the people.As we all know,we of the “hoi polloi”are only an instrument to elect these people to follow their own agenda,”ie so-called gipsys!

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