British Multiculturalism under the Spotlight

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IN October 2006, Jack Straw, a senior member of the Cabinet instigated a long overdue national debate on the merits of current policies of Multiculturalism. As an MP for a Lancashire constituency with a large number of Muslims, he found that the wearing of veils by Muslim women inhibited integration. Straw's comments were endorsed by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Since then the cudgels have been taken up by Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality and Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, possibly the most multi-cultural city in the world. Phillips argues that Multiculturalism is failing and we need a more assertive policy of integration. Livingstone has sprung to the defence of the status quo. The debate has been widened to faith schools and freedom of speech, but too often it stops short of tackling issues such as forced marriage. Without being melodramatic, it is fair to say that much bigger issues are involved than the wearing of the veil, issues that are for some a matter of life and death.

Multiculturalism describes a situation where many cultural communities live in one country free from any obligation to forgo their cultures of origin. As a policy it has grown into the full acceptance, even celebration, of cultural differences founded on the belief that mutual tolerance will grow and that there are no absolute values. Emerging piecemeal in the early 1970s it is seen at national level in such policies as financial support for faith schools and at local level in separate leisure provision for ethnic minority groups. Barely noticed in swathes of rural Britain, perhaps one of the problems has been the lack of any clear rationale or national debate that might have arisen from a more formal introduction.

We should remember why it started. Faced with widely prevalent racism of the crudest kind in the 1950s and 1960s ('No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish'), local council support for such groups as the Manchester Jamaica Society in recent decades has eased the transition of migrants to their new country. Seen in this light the policy reduces or removes cultural conflict by minimising chances of day-to-day friction. However, the pitfalls are all too apparent. A local cricket club turns away people from an ethnic minority. Disgruntled, they give up the struggle and form their own club. The local authority offers financial support. Hey-presto, no more problems! The safe and easy option, this is in reality not a solution at all, but a sticking plaster.

The second major argument in favour of Multiculturalism is that, in acknowledging and promoting diversity and mutual respect, it requires all of us to act together. The majority host community must also be proactive. The argument goes that where many ethnic groups are brought together knowledge and understanding of different cultures will increase through reciprocated curiosity. Institutional providers--schools, colleges, places of work, the media--have an important facilitating role. Thus a school that includes children from several ethnic groups can go some way to increasing understanding through its curriculum and an assertive response to racism. Some local authorities, such as Old Trafford in Manchester, are models of this approach. Superficially effective and attractive, this approach, which I would describe as the Semi-Integrated Model, at least requires some level of integration and it has been partially successful. If it has a flaw, it is that, in the effort to avoid inter-cultural conflict, its emphasis on total respect of other cultures leads to a lack of willingness to face up to human (and animal) rights abuses, a point to which I will return shortly. The approach to Religious Education, for example, promotes a superficial understanding of what it means to belong to one faith or another. Christmas, for example, a Christian borrowing from the pagans, is identified unambiguously as a Christian festival. The wearing of the veil, not required in the Quran, passes in the classroom as part and parcel of being a Muslim. …