When, last month, David Cameron made his speech in Munich that was critical of ‘state multiculturalism’ on the same day that the EDL were marching in Luton I was upset. Not only because I shared the feeling with many others that the timing and the nature of that speech was something of an added insult to a community struggling with a very difficult set of circumstances, but also because the speech itself was so wrongheaded and unintelligent.
I wrote my critique of that speech here in this post; ‘Cameron is wrong: multiculturalism has worked’.
What I didn’t say at the time was that I was also a little upset at the lack of a real response to Cameron’s speech from the Liberal Democrats. I wished for a strong refutation of the ‘multiculturalism has failed’ argument from a liberal perspective from a senior member of the party.
Well yesterday my wish was granted. And in a big way!
In a speech yesterday Nick Clegg gave a defence of multiculturalism and set out the principles of a strongly liberal approach to tackling extremism. Unlike David Cameron’s Munich speech, it was intelligent, well constructed and demonstrated a proper understanding of the issues. It was also politically very clever.
Plus, not only did the Deputy Prime Minister come to Luton to make it, the speech was delivered in the Chaul End Community Centre in my ward!
You can read Nick Clegg’s speech here: ‘An Open, Confident Society: The Application of Muscular Liberalism in a Multicultural Society‘
It was obviously felt by the party leadership to be inappropriate to immediately respond to Cameron’s speech, but I am glad that there was recognition that a Liberal Democrat response was needed. And yesterday’s speech was clearly Clegg’s response to Cameron’s views on multiculturalism.
Coalition government and Cabinet collective responsibility imposes constraints on how you do these things. So Clegg made great efforts to say that he agreed with Cameron. He, sadly, even felt it necessary to adopt that awful phrase ‘muscular liberalism’. Before going on to set out arguments that, by implication, exposed several ways in which Cameron had got things wrong. I felt that Clegg was often saying in the speech “I agree with David, and this is what he really meant”. A clever technique of disagreeing while appearing to agree.
I was also pleased to note that many of the points that Clegg made, accidently I’m sure, echoed some of the things that I wrote were wrong with Cameron’s argument.
I wrote that at “the heart of the stupidity of [Cameron’s] 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”. So I was pleased when Nick said;
“But it is also crucially important to maintain a clear distinction between initiatives aimed at combating extremism and those focused on the broader task of community cohesion.”
While Cameron had dangerously bundled these two things up together, Clegg demonstrated a clear understanding of the difference. As a result his arguments were far more coherent and much better grounded in reality.
More subtle was the distinction between the different approaches that the two speeches take towards the whole “muscular liberalism” thing. When David Cameron used the phrase he seemed to be concerned with ideas of British identity and the imposition of a set of “shared values” on groups within society. When Nick Clegg used the phrase he, in a typically liberal manner, emphasised the importance of engaging in argument and debate.
“Liberalism is not a passive, inert approach to politics. It requires engagement, assertion. Muscular liberals flex their muscles in open argument. There is nothing relativist about liberalism.
If we are truly confident about the strength of our liberal values we should be confident about their ability to defeat the inferior arguments of our opponents.”
This shows a real instinctive difference between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. They say; “we insist that you agree with this”. We say; “we will persuade you to agree with this”.
Critical to the speech was the difference in approach to multiculturalism.
Previously, I had quoted the words of Sunder Katwala who made the point that the debate over multiculturalism has in recent years become something of a dialogue of the deaf “largely because critics and defenders of multiculturalism are mostly talking about starkly different ideas.” Nick Clegg echoed this in the speech;
“We have to be clear what we mean here. Where multiculturalism is held to mean more segregation, other communities leading parallel lives, it is clearly wrong. For me, multiculturalism has to seen as a process by which people respect and communicate with each other, rather than build walls between each other. Welcoming diversity but resisting division: that’s the kind of multiculturalism of an open, confident society.”
In short this enabled Clegg to in effect say; when David Cameron uses a stupid definition of multiculturalism that makes it a bad thing then, of course, I agree with him – but as sensible liberals we know that, using the proper definition, multiculturalism is a good thing.
One of the more troubling aspects of Cameron’s Munich speech was its exclusive concentration on Muslim extremism. It was this that generated a lot of the angry reaction. Not least in Luton where at the time we were dealing with extremism of a non-Muslim, indeed overtly anti-Muslim, kind. I am glad to say that Clegg did not make that mistake. Indeed he went out of his way to stress the importance of tackling extremism of all kinds. He also had the insight that, as we have seen in Luton, different forms of extremism can feed and develop off each other.
“There are nationalistic or racist extremists, like the members of the English Defence League, or the BNP. There are black extremists like the Nation of Islam. There are Muslim extremists like the members of Islam 4 UK. Very often these groups have a symbiotic relationship with each other, maintained by the media: extremist Muslim groups giving birth to extremist white hate groups, and vice versa.
My point is this. We need a perfect symmetry in our response to crime and violent extremism. Bigots are bigots, whatever the colour of their skin. Criminals are criminals, whatever their political beliefs. Terrorists are terrorists, whatever their religion.
This means that those of us who want to live in a liberal society must confront hateful views and practices regardless of who expresses them. The Government is committed to tackling hate crimes against any group – gay people, Jews, women, black people or Muslims.”
Finally, I was really pleased and very grateful that Nick also went out of his way to highlight the good work that Luton is doing on these issues. While choosing Luton as his venue puts the spotlight again on the town he was keen to help put the other positive side of the story of “Luton and extremism”.
“I hope today to draw attention to a different Luton; Luton as the home of some of the most vibrant campaigns against racism, extremism and Islamophobia.
In particular I would like to thank the members of the Luton Commission on Community Cohesion, which is a superb example of the way in which a community can work together. The town has remained true to its original vision of ‘sticking together’, working across age, religious and ethnic boundaries to promote a tolerant, strong, vibrant community. That is why I think Luton is the perfect place to set out my vision for an open, confident Britain.”
The symbolism of choosing Luton and the recognition by, at least some parts of, the most senior levels of national government of the challenges the town is facing and the work that is being done to meet them that this implies should not be underestimated.
As you can tell, not only was I delighted to be able to welcome Nick to the part of Luton I represent, I was really pleased with the substance and the political message of the speech as well.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.