Sunday 6 February 2011

How the multiculturalism rows crowd out our common ground

Here we go again. Its the popular political media gameshow "Britain debates multiculturalism". This ritualised exchanges of reheated soundbites - a caricature of 'state-sponsored multiculturalism' meets charges about the 'dog whistle' - might as well be designed to obscure all of the common ground over how we might build a common citizenship. Instead, we shout past each other, so we can leave this great 'national debate' just that little bit more polarised and confused than it was before.

It is surprisingly difficult to work out what the substantive disagreements are really about - because little is as it seems in this debate.

Firstly, David Cameron said next to nothing new yesterday. Breathlessly briefed and largely received as one of his most important speeches as Prime Minister, I struggled to spot an original thought that he hasn't been habitually been expressing for more than five years, from equating Islamist ideology with Nazism when running for Tory leader in 2005 or his frequent attacks on state-sponsored multiculturalism. Repeating himself as Prime Minister on the international stage gives it a certain status.

Cameron's core narrative claim - that "muscular liberalism" must now replace decades of a lily-livered refusal to articulate our shared values - does depend upon one very silly founding premise: that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and David Blunkett, John Major and Michael Howard, and presumably Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit too, were rarely or never willing to articulate shared British values. This is patently absurd. (Indeed, Cameron contradicts himself. Back in 2006, he was mocking Gordon Brown for being too strident in his advocacy of Britishness. So it follows from that earlier speech that Cameron will now wish to promote a "muscular" liberalism of, in his own words, "a completely understated nature, with no ostentation or display" if it is not to fail his own test of what is distinctively British).

Does this mythologised caricature of past policy matter? Perhaps not, unless this simplistic analysis is driving policy. If we've simply failed to oppose extremism and promote our values then defeating extremism may require little more than good old common sense of the kind you might find at the Dog and Duck.


Secondly, despite his strident tone in claiming the opposite, Cameron said little contentful that his predecessors in Downing Street hadn't said either.

Tony Blair gave his most extended version of this speech to the Runnymede Trust on "the duty to integrate" (text) in December 2006, as well as on several previous occasions in 2005. Blair's speech was a broader and rather more thoughtful speech than Cameron's, which is very narrowly framed around security and Islamist extremism as demonstrating the need for common values.

Another common point was that the Blair speech was also (again presumably deliberately) aggressively briefed to the newspapers in a way which risked going some way beyond taking the nuances out - winning headlines along the lines of 'share our values or leave'. And the papers duly reported that Blair had "formally declared Britain's multicultural experiment over yesterday", after Trevor Phillips had done the same in 2004. Clearly David Cameron wants to take a turn too at "finally" saying the same thing.


No doubt, this Blair-Cameron-Phillips comparison will prove for some that there is an integrationist (sometimes "neo-conservative", and even "nativist") grip on the major parties. Still, it is worth trying to identify precisely what the substantive disagreements are about. Listen carefully to many of those disagreeing (sometimes cogently) with how Cameron said what he had to say and you may find it hard to anatomise what the disagreement in this heated war of words is about.

My friend Sadiq Khan, Labour's Justice Spokesman, does seem to me to have put his studs in over the top when reacting too much in kind to yesterday's over-hyped headlines. I can see why many Muslims are naturally rather exasperated at injunctions to oppose extremism which seem to proclaim that they have been failing to do so. There is no reason for the Prime Minister to reschedule a speech because extremists are protesting, but I imagine Cameron - who got his tone so right in Derry - would see with hindsight that a clear condemnation of yesterday's English Defence League march would have prevented its organisers being able to hail his words as vindication of their extreme views, which the Prime Minister clearly does not share. Still, Khan's own speech on a positive British Muslim identity to the Fabians again
shows that this argument might often be as much about tone than content too.

Even if we go and listen to those who Downing Street suggests are "part of the problem", we find that they are unwilling to speak up for the straw men which Cameron bravely challenges. The Guardian previewed the speech reporting that "Cameron's aides, aware the speech may prove highly controversial, refused to identify the organisations in his sights, but it is clear one target is the Muslim Council of Britain".

The MCB did have criticisms of the speech and yet were perfectly able to endorse Cameron's central applehood and mother pie tenets about extremism, human rights and British values.

We welcome Mr Cameron's resolve for institutions, including Muslim organisations, to subscribe to universal human rights. There is no British Muslim organisation that is in receipt of government funding and does not subscribe to universal human rights. The British Muslim community has stood firm against the scourge of extremism and will continue to do so. The MCB itself, though not in receipt of government funding, has consistently spoken in favour of British values that acknowledge universal human rights and pluralism. It has spoken in favour of a stronger and successful British nation. Furthermore, Muslim organisations have time and again demonstrated their commitment to the common good. We have been asked to pass the litmus test and prove our loyalty to this country. It is important that our discourse acknowledges that British Muslims are very much part of this country.

The search for anybody to speak out for the straw men must go on. I am sure that risible attention seeker Anjem Choudhury of the proscribed al-Muhajiroun is doubtless available for media appearances.


Debating "multiculturalism" has been a largely pointless dialogue of the deaf for several years, largely because critics and defenders of multiculturalism are mostly talking about starkly different ideas.

Where multiculturalism means "the idea that we should respect different cultures within Britain to the point of allowing them – indeed encouraging them – to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream", promoting moral relativism, while adopting Sharia Law and abolishing Christmas then it is a Bad Thing, but one which has had few (if any) actual advocates. Where multiculturalism was motivated by a concern for integration, which was Roy Jenkins argument in 1968 when he famously defined integration "not a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance", as Roy Jenkins, then it was widely sees as a Good Thing (though opposed by Powellites who believed integration simply impossible for most immigrants).

I have been on the integrationist post-multiculturalism side of this debate for a decade, in sharing the concern that multiculturalism risks not valuing integration enough. (I published Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's Foreign Policy Centre pamphlet After Multiculturalism right back in 2000, and wrote about the limits of multiculturalism in 2002 long before the term became the subject of a heated and polarised debate. So I was naturally sympathetic to Trevor Phillips' call for us to move beyond multiculturalism in 2004. A traditional multiculturalism seems to me to depend on categories which are too static and narrow for a third and fourth post-war generation, where those of mixed race origins will outnumber any particular minority group. Perhaps most significantly, if the aim was to create an inclusive common citizenship, the biggest problem was that the majority felt this was a debate for minorities, about minorities, and not about all of us together.

But it is surely useful and important to recognise - though Cameron does not - that most thoughtful advocates of multiculturalism have long been making similar points from "within", in continuing to argue that the primary aim of a successful multiculturalism is to strengthen common citizenship. Tariq Modood, the leading academic analyst and advocate of multiculturalism, has long sought to advocate a distinctively British multiculturalism which does this. Modood told Fabian Review back in 2006 that:

"Multiculturalists and the left in general have been too hesitant about embracing our national identity and allying it with progressive politics. The reaffirming of a plural, changing inclusive British identity which can be as emotionally and politically meaningful to British Muslims as the appeal of jihadi sentiments is critical to isolating and defeating extremism. We can not both ask new Britons to integrate and go around saying that being British is, thank goodness, a hollowed-out meaningless project whose time has come to an end. But this is not a minority problem. If too many white people do not feel the power of Britishness, it will only be a legal concept and other identities will prevail"

Rules of engagement

So we could choose to find rather more common ground than this habitual "controversy" implies, if we didn't approach these issues in a way which crowds the middle ground out. One would hope that the speech would clarify some of the real policy choices involved in the policy shift which the speech is designed to advertise. Ratcheting up the rhetoric doesn't necessarily mean policy will follow. The speech does not promise to rescue the 2010 Tory manifesto commitment to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir from the long grass, for example, perhaps sensibly even if Hizb are as objectionable as the BNP (who it wouldn't make much sense to ban either).

Ignore the headlines for the text, and many of the speech's central points are somewhat platitudinous.

So Cameron - like Blair and every other western leader, with the occasional lapse from Silvio Berlusconi places much emphasis on denying the "clash of civilisations" thesis - and distinguish Islam from Islamist extremism. Of course, it is useful to state clearly what is not being said. Who would want to live in some nightmarish parallel universe where a British Prime Minister might say instead: "For me, we must see that it is Islam itself which is the problem. We must stop treating 1.6 million Muslims as our fellow citizens, and realise that they are the enemy within". (Holland's Geert Wilders, who wants the "fascist" Koran banned, and hates Islam "but not Muslims", comes closest to this in democratic politics).

The argument that extremism, not poverty, is the root cause of terrorism is perhaps a little more substantive. Cameron apparently understands that the "soft left" don't realse that ideology matters, and instead habitually attribute Al-Qaeda's existence to poverty (of Saudi Arabia, perhaps). But many people can and do oppose global poverty and political extremism on their own terms. Robin Cook didn't disagree with the argument made by Tony Blair that the broader Labour response to 9/11 should involve action on terrorism, as well as promoting global development and a just Middle East peace). The argument about the importance of non-violent extremism could be significant, though the novelty is again overstated.

Those listening to any "shared values" speech will wait for that brave taboo-breaking moment when the speaker expresses the belief that cultural sensitivity should not prevent us speaking out on fundamental values - for example, Cameron was able to condemn forced marriage, rejecting the idea that cultural sensitivity should mean he can not oppose the kidnapping of young girls. Quite right too. This strikes me as the type of brave taboo-breaking which almost always meets with unanimous approval.

The substantive policy content of the Cameron speech is around shifting the emphasis for government funding and engagement. Cameron echoes the views of Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears when it comes to funding or supporting groups which have a questionable commitment to equal rights, or which aren't promoting integration. David Cameron sets out some questions which he would like to ask. They all seem pretty sensible, though this isn't the same as having a policy.

Cameron himself goes quite strongly into "heir to Harman" mode, as he laudably makes our British tradition of equal rights for gay people (since at least 2005) a fundamental part of our common values. I am strongly in favour of gay rights, and recognise that David Cameron has brought his party on an important journey here. It may be curious to set a foundational test of public legitimacy which the Conservative Party of 1988 or 2001 would plausibly fail.

More seriously, governments may often legitimately engage with religious conservatives. David Cameron will certainly want to defend the £10 million which his government contributed to the visit of the Pope. Working backwards from that, the Catholic Church's views of homosexuality must fall within the boundaries of acceptability of being in favour of gay rights, which might make a meaningful boundary slightly tricky to define. (Shiraz Maher of Policy Exchange did produce criteria for 'choosing our friends wisely' which most people would broadly sympathise with, and yet which would seem to rule the Catholic Church out of bounds).

The high-profile counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam quickly yesterday proclaimed Cameron's speech as a major advance for its own arguments. But not all of their advice on how to apply it will be taken. In 2009, Quilliam argued that the British Foreign Secretary should refuse to meet the Israeli Foreign Minister, so as not to fall into "double standards" on the extremism test.

There is a broad consensus that the UK government was right to engage Sinn Fein (and so the IRA) to seek a political settlement in Northern Ireland, though a small and vocal minority on the right continue to disagree. Cameron showed a very sure touch on Northern Ireland over the Bloody Sunday inquire. He won't, of course, be applying his new criteria in full to the province.

Previous efforts to produce hard and fast "who not to engage" criteria have run into similar trouble. That doesn't mean governments have got engagement right - one of the major problems of 'Prevent' has been in creating a grievance politics from those arguing against Muslim groups getting too much attention (and money) - Promoting Virulent Envy as some nickname the programme - even if not everybody finds the attention useful. It is to be hoped that the thinking about the policy choices goes a bit deeper than the rhetorical sallies of the Prime Minister's speech.


Anonymous said...

The Muslim Council "has consistently spoken in favour of British values" - like wearing the Burka, you mean?

What politically-correct nonsense.

Newmania said...

The British Muslim Council has used the threat of a bombing campaign as a lever to influence British foreign Policy.How much worse could they be ?
David Cameron has not dragged the Conservative Party into a recognition of gay rights. The Conservative Party has always contained rather more gays than the sometimes rather brutal left.
Sections opf its support have grown used to the idea. The same cannot be said of Labour`s.

I am unaware of any Jewish plots to slaughter innocent Western and British people so I cannot see any what -about-ery as regards Israel.

The Brown "Britain" campaign was designed to paper over the very obvious Scottish problem and focus affections on what is now a mostly legal fact.Britain.
The more ethinic and dangerous terms was , of course England . You wilfully misrepresent this phase.

Yopu have picked on every Policy ( what policy) except the one which matters . New Labour andf its fellow travelling ethnic malcontents have sought to swamop the English character of England by sheer weight of numbers . Sir Anthony Neather let the cat out of the bag and it is the numbers that are the key. This "Policy" has been hugely unpopular above all with Labour supporters as was recognised by DSavid Millioband and New Labour after the election( but alas for a brief period only)

While you omit the gross government involvement you also fail top decribe the grss roots anti English anti National movement so strong at schools Libraries and everywhere where the Black History Month is imposed and any opposition called racism

A disengenuous article that bears the mark of someone who has been too ,long away from ordinary life and ordinary people