'This Is Not the Country It Was When Labour Returned to Power in 1997': What Do We Mean by Multiculturalism? in Britain, It Once Meant Embracing the Diverse Traditions of the Old Empire, but the Wider Migration of Recent Years Has Changed All That. Jason Cowley Explores the Implications and Canvasses the Views of Leading Thinkers

By Cowley, Jason | New Statesman (1996), March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

'This Is Not the Country It Was When Labour Returned to Power in 1997': What Do We Mean by Multiculturalism? in Britain, It Once Meant Embracing the Diverse Traditions of the Old Empire, but the Wider Migration of Recent Years Has Changed All That. Jason Cowley Explores the Implications and Canvasses the Views of Leading Thinkers


Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)


Returning to America after an absence of 20 years, Henry James wrote, in The American Scene (1907), of his unease at the arrival in New York of so many non-English-speaking Jews from Europe. He observed them on the street, in shops and together in their neighbourhoods and ghettos, and feared not only for the future of America but for the English language itself, especially the language of literature. "There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds."

James was disconcerted by what he considered to be these new arrivals' sense of "settled possession", which he found "presumptuous, monstrous", and which contrasted with his own feelings of unsettled possession. He regretted how established Americans would inevitably be forced into a kind of surrendered acceptance of cultural difference. "We must go, in other words, more than half-way to meet them; which is all the difference, for us, between possession and dispossession. This sense of dispossession haunted me."

Following the often lurid debate about immigration and multiculturalism in this country, one sometimes feels that it is not the recent arrivals but the settled peoples of these islands who, like Henry James, feel most dispossessed, as if they are unable to understand, or feel powerless to prevent, what is happening around them.

But what exactly is happening? How rapidly and by how much is Britain really changing? We are ceaselessly told that ours is a multiracial and multicultural society. It is certainly multiracial--and all the better for it--but what does it really mean to speak of a multicultural society? Does a multicultural society mean simply a broad tolerance of difference and respect for minority cultures and traditions? Or does it mean something more assertive--the establishment, for instance, of more religious schools in Britain, of children being increasingly taught in separate religious and racial communities?

Early one Saturday afternoon at the end of February, I was travelling south on the London Underground from Tottenham Hale to King's Cross. Sitting opposite me in the carriage of our Victoria Line train were two women of Middle Eastern appearance. They were wearing the Muslim hijab or veil and speaking very quietly in Arabic, as if embarrassed at being overheard. In the same carriage were three young black women, who, judging from their conversation, were Nigerian. They were speaking "pidgin"--a vibrant, energetic hybrid of English and, I think, Yoruba. Their hair was worn in crisp braids and threaded with intricate wooden beads. Also in the carriage were two men in their twenties, one black and the other white. The white guy, I gathered, was from a Greek-Cypriot family, but his accent was entirely local. He and his friend were both clamorous Cockneys. Beneath their jackets, they were wearing Arsenal shirts.

At the next stop, a young woman, a poor Romanian or Albanian, entered the carriage. She was wearing a headscarf, a ragged shawl and cradled a baby in her arms. She held out her hand and patiently asked each person for money. Each time, she was ignored; at the next stop, she left the train, only to be replaced by a gang of about ten youths, who, I guessed from their dark hair and scruffy swarthiness, were from the southern Balkans. They were loud, they refused to sit down, and they spoke a language I did not recognise.

Watching these boys from the Balkans as they jostled and scrapped, I did not feel threatened or uncomfortable, but I did have a strong sense of how London was being changed by the new multiculturalism and by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from parts of the world that had little or no affiliation to the old empire. What was taking place deep underground on this Saturday afternoon was a characteristically contemporary London scene: boisterous, polyglot, multiethnic, harmonious.

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'This Is Not the Country It Was When Labour Returned to Power in 1997': What Do We Mean by Multiculturalism? in Britain, It Once Meant Embracing the Diverse Traditions of the Old Empire, but the Wider Migration of Recent Years Has Changed All That. Jason Cowley Explores the Implications and Canvasses the Views of Leading Thinkers
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