Chapter 2 Multiculturalism in the uk: a contested discourse Max Farrar



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Chapter 2
Multiculturalism in the UK:

a contested discourse
Max Farrar

Introduction: what is ‘multiculturalism’?
The standard, descriptive, definition of ‘multicultural’ is that it refers to a society characterised by the presence of many different cultures, where ‘culture’ stands for ethnicity or ‘race’. But the term ‘multiculturalism’ has been associated with a positive value position in relation to the presence in a society of those diverse cultures. Bhikhu Parekh argues that the ‘celebration of diversity’ theme at the heart of contemporary multiculturalist discourse dates back to early Christian theologians (Augustine, in the 4th Century, Aquinas, in 13th Century CE), and that it was promoted by Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill and others in the Enlightenment tradition (Parekh 2000). Multiculturalist discourse emerged in the 1960s in Britain in the context of the introduction of practical policies for the elimination of racial discrimination couched in terms of a philosophy of the social integration of ethnic minorities. ‘Multiculturalism’ as an aspirational concept became commonplace in the 1980s. Multiculturalism, as a political ethos, has come to be seen as, for example: the advocacy of sympathetic recognition by members of the majority ethnic group of the various ‘other’ cultures that compose the society; the promotion of dialogue between these various cultural groups; the implementation of equal rights for minority groups and the outlawing of discrimination against those groups; and some have further argued that there should be active celebration of the differences that emerge as each of the cultures promotes their specific features. But it has always been the subject of intense controversy. When British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011 coined the term ‘state multiculturalism’ in his criticism of the current concept and practice of multiculturalism, he appeared to be focussing on those aspects which had been a feature of state policy, while endorsing the fact that British society is multicultural, and also acknowledging the positive contributions different ethnic groups had made to Britain. Quite what he objected to in state policy – the outlawing of discrimination and the promotion of multiculturalism in schools? – remained unclear, perhaps because he, like most of the critics of multiculturalism, never bothered to define their terms.
Treating multiculturalism in terms of state sponsored policies, Will Kymlicka defines multiculturalist policies as those which
[G]o beyond the protection of basic civil and political rights guaranteed to all individuals in a liberal-democratic state, to also extend some level of public recognition and support for ethnocultural minorities to maintain and express their distinct identities and practices.

(Kymlicka 2007 p. 16)


Reflecting the variety of approaches to the term, Kymlicka added: ‘Others prefer terms like ‘minority rights’, ‘diversity policies’, ‘interculturalism’, ‘cultural rights’ or ‘differentiated citizenship’, adding, importantly, ‘[n]othing important rests on the label’ (Kymlicka 2007 p. 18). In a similar vein, Stuart Hall (2000 p. 209) argued that while the widespread use of the term in academia and in public life ‘has neither stabilized nor clarified its meaning . . . [nevertheless] we have no alternative but to go on using and interrogating it’. Aiming for a more definitive clarification of the term, Tariq Modood provided the following, reflecting both his sociological analysis and his values:
Multiculturalism is where processes of integration are seen both as two-way and as working differently for different groups. In this understanding, each group is distinctive, and thus integration cannot consist of a single template (hence the ‘multi’) . . . ‘culturalism’ . . . refers to the understanding that the groups in question are likely to not just to be marked by newness or phenotype or socio-economic location but by certain forms of group identities. The latter point indeed suggests that a better, though longer, term might be “pluralistic integration”. In the perspective of multiculturalism, the social requirement to treat these group identities with respect leads to a redefinition of the concept of equality.

Modood (2005)


This definition is important for various reasons. Firstly, it endorses the group identities of the ethnic groups settling in the UK as well as the identities of the indigenous majority. Secondly, it rejects ‘assimilation’ as an aspiration, proposing a process of integration in which both the settled and the settlers shift their identities as they adjust to each other. Putting this point more normatively, the writer Caryl Phillips has stated: ‘Successful integration does mean that immigrants adapt to the new country, but it also means that the new country adapts to them. It demands that the residents cultivate the capacity – and courage – to change their ideas about who they are’ (Phillips 2011 p. 15). Thirdly, in noting that ethnicity is not a simple issue of phenotype, it suggests that multicultural processes can and should take place for any new group settling in Britain, whatever their skin colour – processes which have been observed even as conflict breaks out over new white-skinned Eastern European citizens from the accession countries. Fourthly it places the issue of equality at the heart of the multicultural process.
Acknowledging this theme of giving due recognition to different identities, Rob Berkeley (2011), Director of the Runnymede Trust, the research institute which has championed multiculturalism since 1968, stated that multiculturalism ‘simply means the existence and recognition of different identities in a shared political space within a framework of human rights’. Berkeley’s emphasis ‘human rights’ perhaps goes further than Kymlicka’s ‘basic rights’. While neither Modood nor Berkeley have settled the argument about the precise meaning of the term, in this chapter their approaches to the definition are broadly endorsed. In the final section, when a new discourse of ‘critical multiculturalism’ will be set out, an effort will be made to improve on their positions, stressing the need for cultural and economic equality to be a component of what will be termed ‘critical multiculturalism’. Tariq Modood’s argument that ‘[c]ontrary to those who think that the time to speak of multiculturalism is over, I think it is most timely and necessary, and that we need more not less’ (Modood 2007 p. 14) will also be supported in this chapter.
What follows is an exposition of some of the contests that have taken place around this term, focussing primarily on the UK. It culminates in the view that while it has mutated since the attack on New York and Washington in 2001 and the rise of Islamophobia, ‘national multiculturalist’ discourse remains in place. In a new formulation of ‘critical multiculturalism’, this provides an important resource for those who seek to overcome the supposed opposition between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’.
Arguing about multiculturalism in the 1960s and 70s
The term was first officially used in 1971 to describe the society Canada saw itself to be. But some of its basic ideas were set out in 1966 in a speech about ‘race relations’ policy in the UK by Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary in the Labour government. Setting out a position that came to be definitive for liberal-progressive opinion, Jenkins advocated the integration, rather than assimilation, of the ‘New Commonwealth’ (i.e. Caribbean, African and South Asian) populations who were beginning to settle in the UK. Significantly, Jenkins defined integration as the nation’s goal, where integration is understood as ‘not a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’ (cited in Rose 1969 p. 25). Key features of multiculturalist discourse are expressed by Jenkins: cultural difference is not to be ‘flattened’, but tolerated; equal opportunity to make social and economic progress is to be offered to new populations as a means towards their integration into the wider society; assimilation (i.e. the submerging of difference, by jettisoning the culture of origin) is rejected. The conflictual play between ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’ was nevertheless to recur throughout the ensuing decades. This approach shaped not only the legislation against racial discrimination through the 1960s and 70s, but also the policies adopted by the Community Relations Commission (CRC), set up by the 1968 Race Relations Act. The monumental Colour and Citizenship report into Britain’s race relations published in 1969 does not appear to use the word ‘multicultural’, but its recommendation that the CRC assists in the refutation of ‘the widespread equation of cultural differences with cultural inferiority’, and its argument that educationalists should stress ‘the extent and value of diversity in Britain’ (Rose 1969 p. 738, italics as in original) is fully in line with the thinking and practice that came to be called ‘multiculturalism’ over the next forty years.
As a normative theory of how a society composed of ethnically diverse populations ought to work, multiculturalist discourse has been a field of fierce dispute since the 1960s. Initial antagonists were the fascists and some Conservative Members of Parliament. While the violent, riotous assaults on West Indians in London in 1958 had clear associations with right wing extremists (including Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and people calling themselves Ku Klux Klan) (Pilkington 1988), the slogan “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour” was endorsed by Peter Griffiths, the successful Conservative party candidate at the 1964 Smethwick by-election (in Birmingham) (Foot 1965 p. 44). Griffiths was quickly defeated at the next election, but Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 indicated that even among respectable sections of society (Powell was at the time a Conservative Party Shadow Cabinet member) there was serious opposition to the ideas put forward by Roy Jenkins and elaborated in Colour and Citizenship. Powell’s inflammatory rhetoric against the alleged dilution of British identity by the settlement of people from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean (about 1.5% of the population in 1971) elicited popular support (for example the London dockers held a demonstration in his name). He had been instantly sacked by the Conservative Party leader, Edward Heath, in a clear indication that the Conservative mainstream would, as time went by, support multiculturalism. Nevertheless, Enoch Powell ‘metaphorically situated (white-) Englishness as the timeless core of Britain’ (Smith 1994 p. 71) and he remains iconic for those who reject multiculturalism. Mrs Thatcher’s ‘swamping’ remarks in 1978, just before she became Prime Minister, recall in more measured terms the thrust of Powell’s argument. She said:
People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture . . . We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened . . . We are not in politics to ignore people’s worries: we are in politics to deal with them.

(Thatcher 1978)


These sentences contain refrains that were to re-emerge thirty years later when multiculturalism came under sustained attack. Her main point, that small numbers of minorities might enhance a nation’s culture, but as they grow, they may also threaten and frighten, and that this anxiety must be dealt with in the political process, is a basic trope for those who question multiculturalism. The imagined threat is that ‘they’ will undermine an essential Britishness, which is signified by whiteness.
Multiculturalism becomes mainstream in the 1980s
Paradoxically, since the Thatcher government of the 1980s was widely regarded by its opponents as pandering to the racist sentiments circulating in Britain, the most significant publication on race in that period, sponsored and welcomed by the Conservative government, added considerable weight to the multiculturalist cause. The weighty ‘Swann Report’ had been given terms of reference by Sir Keith Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s right-hand man and Minister of Education. These terms included recognition of ‘the contribution of schools in preparing all pupils for life in a society which is both multi-racial and culturally diverse’ (Swann 1985 p. vii). The report was quite explicit that the educational disadvantage of black children would only be redressed if a new curriculum, new attitudes and new methods of teaching for all the UK’s school students were introduced. The Swann Report comprehensively rejected racism. It proposed that one of the key features of a new educational programme in schools would be what it called ‘the appreciation of diversity’. Swann puts its ambitions rather cautiously, but these are clearly infused with multiculturalist assumptions: ‘a variety of ethnic groups, with their own distinct lifestyle and value systems’ will be living together. ‘It is also possible that there will be some degree of cultural interchange’. This however is some way in the future: ‘A multi-cultural curriculum [will exist when] it is accepted by all sections of society that to draw on a diversity of cultural sources, and to incorporate a world perspective, was proper and unremarkable’ (Swann 1985 p. 324). The tone might be of a somewhat distant dream, but it is a positive vision that was being expressed. The report also included some strong advocacy right now for ‘respect’ for diversity, using a 1982 quote from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of schools on the role of teacher training in promoting ‘respect for and understanding of the cultural heritage which belongs to children growing up in our society: sensitivity to the diversity of cultural background in today’s population’. To emphasise the importance attached to this quote, it was underlined (Swann 1985 p. 560).
While the Swann Report indicated that multicultural thinking had become mainstream, this discourse was challenged from the political left. There was fierce debate in the 1970s and 1980s among people in organisations like the National Association for Multiracial Education (NAME), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the group called All London Teachers Against Racism and Fascism (ALTARF). NAME (originating in 1962 with a group called the Association of Teachers to Pupils from Overseas) concentrated on multicultural education within schools. ‘Anti-racist’ teachers pitted themselves against those, such as NAME members, who were multiculturalists. ALTARF (formed in 1978), mocked NAME’s promotion of ‘saris, samosas and steel bands’ which they said typified multiculturalist practice, arguing instead that teachers must ‘challenge inside and outside the school, the racism, sexism and class structures that divide us’. NAME, and the NUT, actually adopted in the early 1980s an anti-racist line in the face of this critique of multiculturalism (Troyna and Williams 1986 p. 67). As the radical sociologist Phil Cohen wrote in 1988: ‘The multicultural illusion’ assumes that ‘power relations could be magically suspended through the direct exchange of experience, and ideology dissolve into the thin air of face to face communication’ (cited in Hesse 2000 p. 8). Very similar points were to be made twenty years later by the Institute of Race Relations, as we shall see. For a while during the 1980s, at least in the Greater London Council and the leftist metropolitan councils elsewhere, ‘anti-racist’ discourse trumped the multiculturalists.
In retrospect, the difference between the two positions was more ideological than practical. Ideologically, anti-racists took the Marxist position that issues of race must be linked to issues of class, and that the struggle against racial oppression would only be successful if class exploitation and oppression were defeated, and power relations between and among all ethnic groups were equalised. Multiculturalists tended to bracket off those issues, implying that racial injustice could be defeated by better communication between racial groups, based on educational experiences which emphasised understanding of, and respect for the different cultures now present in Britain. In practice, especially in schools, multiculturalists and anti-racists (both a distinct minority) often behaved similarly, and they often marched alongside one another in demonstrations against racism. (One group would chant ‘One Race the Human Race’ while the other would chant ‘One Class the Working Class’.) Today, many who called themselves anti-racists in that period now defend the beleaguered discourse multiculturalism.
Muslims identified as ‘the other’ in the 1990s
Racism was set back, but it was not defeated either by the multiculturalists or the anti-racists, and its contours changed during the 1990s. ‘Paki-bashing’ by white skinheads gained media attention in the 1970s and continued in the 1980s, but Britons of African and Caribbean heritage were the main focus for hostility from the police and the far right in this period. The publication in 1988 of Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses is the point at which media and popular anxiety transferred to British Muslims (Weller 2009). Avtar Brah has argued that reaction to the demonstrations against Rushdie’s novel and the fatwa issued against him exemplified a ‘focus on cultural difference as the primary signifier of a supposedly immutable boundary: a view of the Asian as “alien” par excellence, the ultimate Other’ (Brah 1996 p. 168). For Brah, the ‘Rushdie affair’ demonstrated the irreducible otherness of Asians. But the increasing focus in public debate was upon the allegedly illiberal nature of Islam. Throughout the 1990s, however, critics of multiculturalism shifted the focus from ‘Asians’ to ‘Muslims’. For example, according to the novelist Fay Weldon the Quaran is ‘food for no thought . . . It is not a poem on which society can be safely or sensibly based . . . It gives weapons and strength to the thought police’ (Weldon 1989 pp. 6-7). Concern about Muslims grew in other quarters. In education it came to be recognised that children of Muslim background were achieving lower exam results than children of Hindu or Sikh backgrounds. Young men of Pakistani heritage were increasingly identified as a crime problem (see Chapter 13 of this book). Close observers of international affairs took note of the violent attacks, mainly on American targets, by organisations claiming to be Islamic: Al-Qaeda announced it had attacked hotels in Cairo in 1992; Ramzi Yousef attacked the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993; Al-Qaeda then attacked US Embassies in Dar es-Salam and Nairobi in 1988 and the USS Cole at harbour in Yemen in 2000. The seeds were set for a moral panic on Muslims and Islam.
Multiculturalism, however, remained at the centre of both Conservative and Labour governmental pronouncements. John Major, for the Conservatives, explicitly supported cultural diversity. In 1995 his government submitted to the United Nations a commitment that Britain wanted to ‘enable’ ethnic minorities to ‘maintain their own cultures, traditions, language and values’ (Runnymede Trust 1997 p. 31). The subsequent Labour government declared that it was committed to creating ‘One Nation’ in which ‘racial diversity is celebrated’ (‘Race Equality and Public Services’ (March 2000) cited in Parekh 2002 p. 40). When another of Mrs Thatcher’s right-hand men, Lord Norman Tebbitt, said in 1997: ‘Multiculturalism is a divisive force. One cannot uphold two sets of ethics or be loyal to two nations, any more than a man can have two masters’, he was ‘roundly condemned and just as quickly forgotten’ (Hesse 2000 p. 3). In daily life – despite the racist rump – what Stuart Hall has called ‘unstoppable multiculturalism’ (in McCabe 2007) proceeded apace. The government-endorsed Macpherson report (1999) into the murder by white racists of a young black man named Stephen Lawrence pronounced that ‘institutional racism’ was a reality. It was almost 30 years since the liberal Ann Dummett (1973) had used that term. By the 1980s it had become the watchword of the anti-racist left, even though – perhaps because – Lord Scarman had denied that institutional racism existed in the Metropolitan Police (Scarman 1981). Macpherson’s endorsement made optimists think that a rapprochement between the multiculturalists and the anti-racists had arrived and that the argument for real equality had been won.
There is a paradox in the discussion of multiculturalism during this period. Ethnicity researchers had found evidence of racism throughout public life from the 1960s onwards and were quick to note the ‘othering’ of Muslims from the end of the 1980s. On the other hand, as we have seen, multiculturalist policies and pronouncements became increasingly assertive during the 1980s and 1990s. Sociologists such as Stuart Hall (1989, 1992) and Paul Gilroy (1993), while noting and opposing continued racism, also began from the early 1990s to identify the ‘hybridised’ identities that were becoming apparent in everyday life. They observed that young increasing numbers of white people positively identified with aspects of black popular culture, and that black British people were forging a culture of their own which blended their parents’ traditions with characteristics of the dominant (white British) culture. This was the multicultural process that Hall and others identified as ‘unstoppable’ – rooted in the lived experience of people who had grown up in cities with diverse populations, absorbing an increasingly globalised popular culture whose African sources were publicly acknowledged. These are early examples of the ‘everyday multiculturalism’ that Wise and Velayutham (2009) found so prolific in the 2000s. It cannot be inferred, however, that normative multiculturalism – the nation united in its respect for cultural difference – had been achieved.
Indeed, one important effort to consolidate and clarify multiculturalist discourse provoked major assault on that thinking and practice from both the political left and right. This was a report commissioned by the Runnymede Trust, titled The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, published in October 2000. Known after its chairperson, the British-Indian political philosopher Lord Bhikhu Parekh, the report was welcomed by Jack Straw, then the British Home Secretary, on the morning of its publication. The Daily Mail then pronounced its findings unacceptable, and the government disavowed it by the end of the first day of its publication. His report argued that Britain ‘is both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a multicultural society, and needs to reconcile their sometimes conflicting requirements’ (Parekh 2002 p. ix). Taking a strong view on social and economic equality, on opposition to racism, for equal treatment and respect for diversity, the report also stated that ‘every society needs to be cohesive . . . and must find ways of nurturing diversity while fostering a common sense of belonging and shared identity among its members’ (ibid). Despite the explicit commitment to national belonging, the report was greeted with a barrage of criticism, not only from the conservative press, but also from liberal quarters and from the Marxist Institute of Race Relations (IRR). McLaughlin and Neal (2007) describe this opposition in detail. They explain that a fairly commonplace observation amongst sociologists – that ‘Britishness, as much as Englishness, has systematic, largely unspoken racial connotations’ of whiteness (Parekh 2002 p. 38) – aroused the wrath of conservative commentators. Perhaps more surprisingly, the IRR and its partner CARF (once known as the Coalition Against Racism and Fascism) accused the report of both abandoning the struggle for racial justice and adopting ‘particularly in the section on Britishness . . . the private elitist postmodern gobbledygook beloved of ivory tower intellectuals’ (quoted in McLaughlin and Neal 2007 p. 924) (The Marxists at the IRR had no time for the Hall-Gilroy observations on popular culture and hyrbrid identities, which they allied to, in their view, the equally irrelevant postmodern theory of the 1990s.) Later, Ted Cantle mis-used Parekh as his example of a concept of multiculturalism that ‘actually casts doubt on any meaningful concept of “core values” and perhaps even the more tangible requirements of nationality’ (Cantle 2005 p. 147). McLaughlin and Neal argued that ‘the negative reaction to the Parekh Report in the public sphere signalled a turning away from the “Cool Britannia”, “post-Powell” moment and marked the beginning of the UK’s current multicultural crisis’ (McLaughlin and Neal 2007 p. 925).
After the terrorist strikes by Al-Qaeda in the USA in September 2001, the phenomenon that the Runnymede Trust’s Commission on British Muslims had identified as ‘Islamophobia’ became a growing feature of British popular discourse. As set out by the Commission that produced the report, Islamophobia is characterised by exclusionary practices against Muslims in politics and government, in employment (exclusion from management and responsibility); active discrimination; violence (ranging from verbal abuse to physical assault); and prejudice, manifested in the media and in everyday speech (Runnymede 1997). Tariq Modood, picking up on discussions in academic circles about the changing face of racism in the 1980s and 1990s (initiated by Barker (1981)) has argued that Islamophobia is ‘best described as a form of cultural racism’ (Modood 1997 p. 4)
It was the immediate antecedent of Al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on the USA – the violent urban protests in the Northern cities of Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds in the spring and summer of 2001 – that propelled intense focus on Muslims in Britain. The response to this violence initially led to the New Labour government’s programme of ‘community cohesion’ which provided some resources in cities for inter-cultural exchange (Farrar 2009). But the Cantle Report (2001), which provided a thin justification for this programme, had the negative effect of portraying British Muslims as leading ‘parallel lives’ to those of their white counterparts, and suggested that they actively engaged in ‘self-segregation’. The door was now wide open for a full-scale assault on multiculturalism. From the centre left, the writer Neil Ascherson (2004) described multiculturalism as ‘literally conservative’ because it reinforced ethnic identities. Also from the left, Kenan Malik (2009) denounced multiculturalism for legitimating the sedimentation of Islamic identities ever since the Rushdie affair. In the spirit of New Labour, Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, interviewed by the Times newspaper in 2004 said of multiculturalism: ‘The word is not useful any more’. Asked if it should be ‘killed off’, he replied: ‘Yes, let’s do that’. Completely departing from all that has been said in the past four decades about the virtues of multiculturalism as a platform for integration, but in line with the Cantle report, Phillips continued: ‘Multiculturalism suggests separateness’ (cited in Pitcher 2009 p. 164). Following this up in 2005, he claimed that British society was ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. ‘In his speech, Mr Phillips argues that the nation is becoming more divided by race and religion, with young people being brought up in enclaves’. He again blamed multiculturalism (Casciani 2005). From the centre right, another influential writer, Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips (2006) blamed multiculturalism for the emergence of supporters of Al-Qaeda in the UK. It is deeply ironic that, on the day of the London bombings, Britain’s capital city had won the right to host the 2012 Olympic games, apparently because the jury had been so impressed by the presence of 30 inner-city London school students, representing the huge ethnic diversity of the city, a feature highlighted in the British bid. ‘It was the ordinary, everyday, lived multiculturalism of contemporary London, its cosmopolitan openness, that was seen to have swayed [International Olympic Committee] voting members’ (Carrington 2010 p. 139). Britain was baffled to find that the Al-Qaeda supporters who committed the atrocities in July 2005 were born and bred in Britain.
The critique of multiculturalism then went into overdrive. Along with forensic examination of Islam and Muslims in Britain went a series of speeches from senior figures in the Labour government that emphasised integration, the promulgation of Britain’s core values (often invoked, never satisfactorily defined), and the need actively to promote a British identity. As the British National Party gained votes in working class neighbourhoods, Labour Minister Margaret Hodge asserted that the white working class in her London constituency was aggrieved at being left out while resources went to immigrants and asylum seekers (Hodge 2006). Academic support for this line of argument arrived in a book about London’s East End (Dench, Gavron and Young 2006). Policy initiatives requiring immigrants to learn English, to pass a citizenship test if they want to acquire a British passport, and the introduction of a citizenship curriculum in schools, all spoke to the anxiety that Powell and Thatcher had expressed years before.
Multicultural nationalism’ in the 2000s
Ben Pitcher (2009) analysed these developments in fascinating detail. He developed the concept of ‘multicultural nationalism’ to explain the link between the simultaneous ‘celebration of diversity’ and the promotion of what the Labour government intended to be a relatively homogenous British identity. It is this positive attitude towards the vast majority of British Muslims that distinguishes the Labour position from that of the right-wing critics of multiculturalism. Blair and Brown, leading the Labour governments, were not so concerned about the dilution of British identity but by the fear that significant numbers of British Muslims were actively and violently hostile to Britain. Pitcher showed that the Blair/Brown Labour governments in particular developed a form of multiculturalism that is able to embrace diverse cultures within a framework of British nationalism. The so-called ‘war on terror’ – particularly after the London bombings in 2005 – was promulgated in the context of a concerted effort to divide Muslims ‘within’ this supposed national identity from those ‘without’. The process of forging allegiance to Britishness had been made much more difficult by the recognition that even amongst those ‘within’ – the vast majority of law-abiding British Muslims whom the Labour government explicitly valued and promoted – there were those who subscribed to ‘foreign’ forces and ideologies. Support by law-abiding British Muslims for these ‘foreign’ forces was, surveys showed, fuelled by the British government’s support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (a fact that Prime Minister Blair consistently denied). One positive effect of Blair’s ‘national multiculturalist’ rhetoric was to defeat the British National Party’s effort to gain support from Islamophobic reactions to the attacks on London. But another effect was to restrict debate about British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, widely known to be one of the reasons why the Islamists launched their attack (Pitcher 2009 p. 142).
Instead of developing a theory of racism, and anti-racist policies, multicultural nationalism has also attempted to reincorporate the aggrieved white working class by reframing community cohesion. Pitcher (2009 p. 95) cites Peter Mandelson, then Member of Parliament for Hartlepool, writing in 2003 that we ‘need to articulate a vision of multiculturalism that speaks to the fears of all communities, including the white working class in industrial heartlands’. Pitcher then points out that David Blunkett simultaneously championed the views of his alienated white working class constituents, while, as Home Secretary, resolutely opposed discrimination and racial hatred, and promoted ‘better understanding within and between communities’ (Pitcher 2009 p. 94). In light of interventions like this Pitcher concludes:
Despite a recent appetite for obituary writing, pronouncements of the death of multiculturalism are premature . . . what is being subjected to criticism is the rhetorical status of the term ‘multiculturalism’ within that discourse . . . The purpose of this rejection [of ‘multiculturalism’] is to symbolise and benefit from popular anxiety about ‘separateness’, not to indicate a substantial change in policy and practice.

(Pitcher 2009 p. 165, italics as in original)


A speech in 2011 by David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister showed no significant departure from Labour’s ‘multicultural nationalism’. Much of Cameron’s rhetoric was in line with the critique of multiculturalism outlined above. He said it had fostered segregation. He endorsed (without acknowledgement) the argument put forward by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for a reinvigorated and unified sense of Britishness. He said:
Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values . . . instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.

(Cameron 2011)


Cameron fleshed out vague references to Britain’s core values in previous speeches by Labour Party leaders:
I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more [than passively tolerate law-abiding difference]; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things. 

(Cameron 2011)


These values are espoused by most multiculturalists, but there might well be dispute over the ways in which they are enforced. There was a clear indication from Cameron that those who openly deny these values (even without advocating violence) are to become pariahs; multiculturalists would oppose that. Arguing that ‘non-violent’ Islamists have provided the forums which nourished Al-Qaeda supporters in Britain, Cameron said the values underpinning their organisations must be closely scrutinised. If they failed to adhere to these core values, dialogue with them (as practised under Labour) would cease. After Cameron’s speech, the coalition government’s re-working of Labour’s Prevent policy – part of its internal ‘war on terror’ – put these remarks into practice. Muslim organisations that do not subscribe to these ‘British’ values, even if they eschew violence, cannot be engaged with by government-supported agencies (Home Office 2011). This ‘muscular liberalism’ certainly signifies a shift from the ‘celebration of diversity’ trope within multiculturalist discourse, but Cameron’s stress on freedom of speech, of worship and equal rights, within the context of ‘shared national identity’ puts him firmly within the Blair/Brown position.
While a modified version of multiculturalism – asserting a positive stance towards minority cultures that commit to ‘Britishness’ – remains hegemonic in governmental discourse, and while ‘everyday multiculturalism’ is the dominant trajectory in public life, a 2011 survey showed that a significant proportion of the British population are unconvinced by these developments. On behalf of the Searchlight Educational Trust (SET) in 2010, the research company Populus interviewed 5,054 people on their views on race and ethnicity in England. It provided empirical proof that multiculturalism remains a highly contested field. In its report, SET divided the nation into six English ‘tribes’:


  • ‘Confident Multiculturalists’: highly educated, confident, happy with their lives, this group tended to vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green. They constituted eight per cent of the British population.

  • ‘Mainstream Liberals’: mainly educated to degree level, optimistic, self-motivated and saw immigration as a benefit to the country. Similar to the previous group, but slightly less enthusiastic about multiculturalism than the ‘confident multiculturalists, they constituted 16% of the population.

  • ‘Identity Ambivalents’ included 28% of the population. They were less optimistic, less financially secure and more likely to be working class than the first two groups. They included Muslims and other black and minority group members. Currently 37% of Labour’s vote comes from this group, but many do not vote at all.

  • ‘Cultural Integrationists’ (elsewhere in the report they are referred to as ‘culturally concerned’) composed 24% of the population. They tended to be professionals and managers, older and better off than the other groups, and were concerned about the impact of immigration on national identity, worrying that ‘immigrants’ were failing to integrate. 42% of the Conservative party’s support comes from this group.

  • ‘Latent Hostiles’, 10% of the population, were more likely to be older, not educated at university and working class (though 23% of them were from the economic groups classed A or B). They were pessimistic about their future and believed that ‘immigrants’ had undermined British culture and reduced their economic prospects. 29% of BNP support came from this group.

  • ‘Active Enmity’ was expressed by 13% of the population. Although 15% of this group are classed A or B and 20% at C1, the majority is unskilled or unemployed. They are the most disengaged from mainstream politics, and the most hostile to all ethnicities and religions other than their own. Many believe that using violence to stand up for their rights is acceptable. 56% of BNP support came from this group.i

(Lowles and Painter 2011)
Thus only 24% of the English population can be described as committed multiculturalists, while another 23% are explicitly opposed to multiculturalism. This might seem to cast doubt on the claim, endorsed in this chapter, that ‘everyday multiculturalism’ is the dominant force in Britain, and is thus ‘unstoppable’. But the argument here is simply that multiculturalism is the direction of travel for Britain; it is largely endorsed by younger generations; it is backed – with the modifications indicated above – by politicians of all major parties; and nationally agreed legislation makes racial discrimination illegal. That it is actively and latently opposed by a quarter of the English population reinforces this chapter’s argument that multiculturalism is the subject of perpetual dispute.
The middle ground identified in this survey will probably move in both directions. In his Foreword to the report, John Cruddas, Member of Parliament for the east London constituency of Dagenham and Rainham, argued that the ‘Identity Ambivalents’ group ‘poses the very real threat of a new potent political constituency built around an assertive English nationalism. This is not the politics of the BNP [British National Party], but of a reframed English identity politics that includes various ethnic groupings’ (Lowles and Painter 2011). Whether or not such a new party or movement emerges, this research makes it clear that social and political conflict over the issues of ‘race’ and national identity will continue for the foreseeable future. While much of the overt conflict will focus on the Muslims in Britain – or more specifically, perhaps, England – the wider issue of perceived threats to ‘Britishness’ posed by refugees and workers from the new members of the European Union will remain the subject of contestation. The task for progressives in academia and public life is to persuade the middle ground to support multiculturalism and to allay the fears of those hostile to this discourse.
Critical multiculturalism
In this concluding section a modified version of multiculturalism is set out which is designed to assist in this task. The production of multicultural nationalism will not satisfy those of us who aim for a fully global cosmopolitanism which embraces the post-colonial status of the UK, welcomes strangers, erodes fears of ‘the other’, enjoys hybridisation and promotes dialogic encounter even with those whose differences are pronounced (for example exclusionary fundamentalists of any religion, or ‘ethnic absolutists’ (Gilroy 1993) of any colour). As the Parekh Report made clear, this type of cosmopolitanism is quite compatible with the gradual and tolerant formation of a shared national identity for the British. One aspect of that national identity is a robust type of democracy that is comfortable with non-violent dissent from its (always disputed) core values. Neither the ‘liberal multiculturalism’ of the 1960s and 70s nor the ‘national multiculturalism’ of the 2000s provides sufficient critical leverage on the complexities of ‘race’, ethnicity and racism in Britain today. Liberal multiculturalism has its strengths, but it fails to comprehend the structural underpinnings of racialized difference, and thus is unable to promote policies that address the economic inequality that is inextricably connected to the construction of ethnic hierarchies. It also fails to argue forcibly for the removal of differences in power and status between the settled whites and the others (of all colours, and the new whites). National multiculturalism actually reinforces ethnic hierarchies by implying that its postulated British values and culture are superior to those of ‘others’ (particularly but not exclusively Muslims). By asserting a strong form of Britishness, based exclusively on modern Western political precepts, ‘muscular liberalism’ allows the argument for assimilation to reappear. The danger of reversing the liberal position on integration set out by Roy Jenkins in 1966 (see above) is enhanced as the demand grows for ethnic difference to be subsumed into an imagined homogeneity. At worst, it concedes too much ground to nationalism.
In place of these two positions, ‘critical multiculturalism’ promotes a discourse derived Hall’s statement that multiculturalism needs to be developed in such a way that it incorporates both equality and difference, advocating ‘a deepening, expansion and radicalisation of the democratic practices in our social life; and the unrelenting contestation of every form of racialized and ethnicized exclusionary closure’ (Hall 2000 p. 237).ii Thus critical multiculturalism would include the following components (drawing on points made above):


  1. support for Parekh’s version of Britain as a ‘community of communities’, where difference is respected;

  2. support for Modood’s notion of ‘two-way integration’, where the identities of all ethnic groups (including those that are white-skinned) undergo processes of change as the overarching national community emerges;

  3. recognition that these two features entail a negotiation of diversity, rather than the uncritical celebration of diversity advocated by some liberal multiculturalists.iii Critical multiculturalists, for instance, would support homosexual rights, reject any type of coercion of women, and promote the sexual and geographical mixing of ethnic groups. But they would oppose the coalition government’s refusal in 2011 even to talk to political Islamists. Instead, they would promote dialogue and debate on all points of difference between and among all ethnic groups;

  4. adoption of a strong position on full legal rights for all ethnic minorities, and strict implementation of equal treatment regardless of ethnicity (as outlined by Kymlicka and Berkeley above) – relentlessly opposing, therefore, discrimination in any form;

  5. explicitly linking these integration processes to the discourse on radical democracy. Every ethnic group needs to be fully and meaningfully engaged in the civic life of the nation, which requires effective political power to be transferred from the centre to the localities;

  6. recognition that economic discrimination is as important as cultural discrimination in the generation of disadvantage; thus critical multiculturalism advocates economic equality as well as legal and cultural equality.

Critical multiculturalism provides the discursive framework in which ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ cease to be posed as opposites, and Muslims take their rightful place as equal citizens alongside all others in whatever place they choose to settle. Just as importantly its emphasis on economic equality supports the demands for work, improved wages and occupational security by those lower-income people (of any colour) who feel threatened by new migrants, as well as for the new and settled minorities of whatever colour. Finally, critical multiculturalism has a vision of a new type of Britishness in which each ethnic group absorbs features from each other, recognises what it has in common, and is confident in its ability to negotiate its differences without rancour or violence.


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i Anders Brevik (aka Andrew Berwick) bombed the government quarter in Oslo and killed 77 young supporters of the Norwegian Labour Party on 22nd July 2011. In the manifesto he simultaneously released he provided pseudo-intellectual support for those who actively oppose multiculturalism with statements such as this: ‘Multiculturalism (cultural Marxism/political correctness) . . . is the root cause of the ongoing Islamisation of Europe which has resulted in the ongoing Islamic colonisation of Europe through demographic warfare (facilitated by our own leaders)’. Source ‘A European Declaration of Independence’ by Andrew Berwick, London, 2011, available at http://www.kevinislaughter.com/wp-content/uploads/2083+-+A+European+Declaration+of+Independence.pdf Accessed 01/08/2011. The idea that multiculturalism is a Marxist plot to flood nations with immigrants is a common trope in the far right. But this is no longer as extreme a view as it might appear. A variation on this argument has appeared in the allegation by Melanie Phillips, based on an article by a former speech-writer for Tony Blair, that Labour’s immigration policy in the early 2000s was ‘a politically motivated attempt by ministers to transform the fundamental make-up and identity of this country. It was done to destroy the right of the British people to live in a society defined by a common history, religion, law, language and traditions. It was done to destroy for ever what it means to be culturally British and to put another 'multicultural' identity in its place’ (Daily Mail 28/10/2009). Available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1222977/MELANIE-PHILLIPS-The-outrageous-truth-slips-Labour-cynically-plotted-transform-entire-make-Britain-telling-us.html#ixzz1To29yyBh Accessed 01/08/2011

ii As this book was going to press, Ali Rattansi kindly sent me a proof copy of his important new book on multiculturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011). As an early critic of what is called here ‘liberal multiculturalism’, Rattansi concludes by advocating that the concept of ‘interculturalism’ in the following terms: ‘Use of the notion of interculturalism acts, instead, to undercut this essentialist tendency [in multiculturalism] – it cannot by itself completely prevent it – by building in a conception of connectedness, interaction, and interweaving between the beliefs, practices, and lifestyles of different (not separate) ethnic groups as part of national cultures that are in constant flux’ (Rattansi 2011 p. 153). He continues: ‘There is now an urgent need for a transformation of the vocabulary of multiculturalism into that of ‘interculturalism’, with a corresponding shift to underpinning premises which highlight the deep historical interconnectedness of cultures and an understanding of how conceptions of tolerance, liberty, rationality, and so forth are shared across ‘civilizations’, and in particular how non-Western cultures have made a vital contribution to the development of these ideas and their appropriate institutions. Modernity is not a uniquely Western phenomenon, but a shared Eurasian achievement’ (p. 159). Elsewhere I have also suggested that interculturalism (a concept originated the work of Franco Bianchini and the Comedia group) might replace multiculturalism (Farrar 2008). The conclusion of this chapter is sharpened by Rattansi’s argument here. ‘Critical multiculturalism’ is preferred for tactical, political reasons: as a refusal to concede any ground either to ‘muscular liberalism’ or to ‘national multiculturalism’; to reclaim multiculturalism for the progressive forces of cultural dialogue and social and economic equality

iii In October 2011 a national convention was held in London to ‘Celebrate Diversity, Defend Multiculturalism, Oppose Islamophobia and Racism’. Its title neatly encapsulated the rapprochement between liberal multiculturalism’s ‘celebration of diversity’ and the left’s anti-racism. United in defence of multiculturalism, both factions fail to see that ‘diversity’ is not always to be celebrated. Critical multiculturalists will respect the right of Muslims to hold to any of their beliefs (within the law), but will argue hard with homophobic Muslims, for instance.


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