Last Saturday wasn’t a particularly pleasant day for me for more than one reason. At the same time as I was witnessing how the people of Luton had been excluded from their own town centre by the EDL, David Cameron was making a speech in Munich that was reported as declaring that “multiculturalism had failed”.
At the time I felt, as did a number of other people I spoke to, that by making this speech on the same day as the EDL rally, and with no words of condemnation of the EDL’s extremism, Cameron had insulted Luton, Britain’s Muslim community, and all those who want a tolerant society free from discrimination. I was really quite angry about it. At that moment it would have been easy to agree with Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, who accused the PM of “writing propaganda for the EDL“.
Later I calmed down and had a chance to actually read the speech.
Afterwards, my strongest reaction to what Cameron had said was “is that it?”. For all the fuss that it had caused, for all the tabloid headlines, the speech itself was a very flimsy affair indeed.
On this issue I found myself agreeing with several commentators on the left, in particular these posts by Sunny Hundal and Sunder Katwala, who pointed out that the speech contained nothing new, nothing that hadn’t been said before and better by others, and that it was empty in that it would lead to nothing except a few favourable headlines in the Daily Mail and the like.
On reflection, the real problem I have with speech is not the playing to the tabloids, the carelessness of the timing, or the lack of anything new or meaningful in it, it is how it demonstrates a worryingly high level of prime ministerial ignorance.
It is useful to be reminded that one of the key differences between Liberals and Conservatives, as J. S. Mill would readily have pointed out, is that Tories tend to be more stupid.
At the heart of the stupidity of the speech is that it seeks to confuse the complex bundle of issues that is extremism, radicalisation, and home grown terrorist activity with the more general issue of community cohesion.
I am not saying that these two things are completely isolated from each other. But any public policy response to these issues that we want to succeed should be careful to distinguish between the two.
I don’t think we as nation have found the right response to the issue of extremism and domestic terrorism. We have a long way to go to truly understand what is going on and face up to the consequences. But if the Prime Minister genuinely believes that the answer to the horrible fact that some young British men are motivated to become suicide bombers and the like is to seek to impose on them some government defined sense of British identity then he really ought to get out more.
Oh, and I don’t really understand what he means by “muscular liberalism” unless he is suggesting that I should get myself down the gym?
But the evidence, if not the saloon bar rhetoric, suggests that we have got most of the answers right on how to achieve good community cohesion.
As Lib Dem peer Meral Hussein-Ece points out, even if we just focus on British Muslims, we find a majority who are well integrated and with a strong British identity.
“A survey last year of the first-ever study of Islamic interfaith relations across the world, carried out by Gallup and the Coexist Foundation, challenged the view that the country’s 2.4 million Muslims are largely intolerant of the British way of life. British Muslims were found to identify more strongly with the UK than the rest of the population, and have a much higher regard for the country’s institutions. 77% said they strongly identified with UK.
Furthermore it found that on average 78 per cent of Muslims identify themselves as British, compared with 49 per cent who consider themselves French and 23 per cent who feel German. Muslims also outscored the general public for their belief in courts, honest elections, financial institutions and the media.”
Now I wouldn’t want to gloss over the challenges and problems that many communities face. Some of which are very difficult indeed. But where there are problems the answers are to be found in building on a decades old legacy of implementing multiculturalism successfully.
But a key point here is that it is about building on the legacy multiculturalism.
A little research in writing this post has refreshed my knowledge. Faced with the challenge of immigration, Britain in public policy terms, from the 1960’s onwards, rejected the idea of assimilation (the concept of the ‘melting pot’) in favour of integration. The approach was to be, in Roy Jenkins’ classic definition, “not a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.
It was from the need to put this idea into practice that the concept of multiculturalism developed. Obviously, creating the tolerant, diverse, multicultural society we are today was a struggle. The battles fought under the banner of multiculturalism against discrimination and to gain public acceptance of equality were tough ones. Although there are still several battles to be fought, I think it would be fair to say that to a large extent the war has been won. If on occasions multiculturalism lost its way, and political correctness went mad, then that is a small price to pay, for example, to make racism socially unacceptable.
I found Sunder Katwala’s post really useful in putting Cameron’s speech into perspective. He points out that; “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.”
He also reminded me that Trevor Phillips, then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and now chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, called for us to move beyond multiculturalism in Britain back in 2004. That most of the prominent defenders of multiculturalism have for a while now been on “the integrationist post-multiculturalism side of this debate”.
Those who work on issues of community cohesion, policy and practice, have already written the critique of multiculturalism. While defending and celebrating its historical successes, they have recognised its failures, acknowledged the need for a clearer focus on integration, and are busy developing new forms of practice. Cameron may have thought he was being cutting edge in Munich but, by being seemingly unaware of how the debate has already moved on, just looked out of touch. That boat has already sailed.
Luton is actually a good example of this. Again I make the point, we shouldn’t confuse the extremism of the EDL and those islamist groups that hit the headlines with the genuinely cohesive community that is Luton. And we are busy developing our own integrationist post-multiculturalism approach to tackling the real problems we have with community cohesion.
I have been meaning for sometime to blog about the recently published report of the Luton Commission on Community Cohesion. I will hope to sit down and have another read of it next week. But to me it looks a very good piece of work and a million miles from the caricature of politically correct right-on multiculturalism that Cameron was, presumably, trying to exploit on Saturday.
One of the great contradictions in that speech is that for many people, myself included, our successful legacy of multiculturalism, if defined properly, is a fundamental part of what it means to be British.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.