The End of Multiculturalism: The West Is Finding That There Are Limits to Its Tolerance of Minorities Where Their Beliefs Clash Violently with the Laws and Customs of the Majority. (Features)

By Llyod, John | New Statesman (1996), May 27, 2002 | Go to article overview

The End of Multiculturalism: The West Is Finding That There Are Limits to Its Tolerance of Minorities Where Their Beliefs Clash Violently with the Laws and Customs of the Majority. (Features)


Llyod, John, New Statesman (1996)


Britain has been an actively anti-racist country for almost four decades now. British administrations, which had been fearful of "coloured" immigration because they feared that immigrants would not fit in and that the indigenous population would not allow them to, liberalised fairly rapidly. Since Edward Heath fired Enoch Powell from the shadow cabinet for his "rivers of blood" speech, even Conservative leaders have not tolerated overt expressions of racism in their cabinets or shadow cabinets. That Tory associations (like Labour clubs) will enjoy racist jokes in guilty or defiant privacy must be infuriating to black and brown Britons who wish to vote Conservative. But that is another matter, amenable only to time (if time is liberalising) or the speech police.

The liberal view, which underpinned public policy for many years, was expressed in the late 1960s by Roy Jenkins, then home secretary: "equal opportunities accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance". It depended on a system of core values and on an implicit acceptance of an indigenous British cultural hegemony. Over the past decade or so, however, it has come under sustained attack from multiculturalists or pluralists, who believe that this form of liberalism is at best constricting, at worst racist. A high-water mark in this thinking came in 2000, with the report of the Runnymede Trust's Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by Bhikhu Parekh.

It criticised liberalism for "combining a monocultural public realm with a multicultural private realm" and for being insensitive to cultural diversity when intervening to protect and promote human rights. It did not see human rights as absolute: they must be "qualified" by "the logic of multiculturalism".

The report made a splash, because it was represented as being anti-British. It took issue with the idea of British history as the history of a "unified, conflict-free land". It claimed that Britain was purblind to racism, or actually racist. It seemed to propose civic re-education, arguing that "unless these deep-rooted antagonisms to racial and cultural difference can be defeated in practice as well as symbolically written out of the national story, the idea of a multicultural post-nation remains an empty promise". The commission clearly saw the indigenous white community (with the exception of the Irish and the Jews) as the problem.

This thinking is now in retreat, in part as yet another consequence of 11 September, and the trend has been reinforced by the success in elections elsewhere in Europe of parties that express a popular distaste for mass immigration.

America, with Canada, has been the boldest practitioner of multiculturalism allied to a relatively open immigration policy. But the attack on the World Trade Center has given an immense boost to US patriotism, which has been used to draw the various "something-Americans" closer together. This is most of all true in the military and the public services, where African-Americans are heavily represented. Indeed, the US military is one of the most successful "liberal" models of racial integration in the world.

As the US historian William McNeill observed recently: "Nationalism, and the armed conflict with external enemies that it sustains, might have the effect of diminishing black-white friction in American civil society." President Truman's decision to desegregate the US armed forces -- integrated units eventually fought in the Korean war--preceded the civil rights movement in the Deep South: the closer integration of the Vietnam war produced a generation of African-American officers, including the present secretary of state, Colin Powell.

The war against terrorism is a further aid to this, as it widens the distance between, on the one hand, Americans of all backgrounds and, on the other, the movements and groups with which radical African-Americans had once claimed the kinship of mutual oppression.

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