How We Rub along Together: When My Father Arrived in England in the Sixties, He Was Welcomed with Dog Mess through His Letter Box and Enoch Powell on the TV, Writes Mehdi Hasan. We've Come a Long Way since Then-So Why Do Politicians Claim That Multiculturalism Has Failed?

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My father arrived in this country from India in January 1965, with a second-hand London A-Z stuffed in his jacket pocket and [pounds sterling]3 in his wallet. A child of empire, he was born in Hyderabad in 1938 and came to Britain to study and work. His first few days in London were absorbed in news of Winston Churchill's death on 24 January; he was one of the more than 320,000 people who filed past the catafalque in Westminster Hall during the three days that the former prime minister's body lay in state.

It was not long before my father became a proud British citizen of Indian origin; he has since had two British children and a British grandchild. He arrived, however, in a country struggling to accommodate and integrate its burgeoning immigrant communities. Racial and cultural discrimination was rife; bedsits and hostels prominently displayed signs saying: "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish." My father had dog mess posted through his letter box.

The previous year, Peter Griffiths had been elected to parliament as Tory MP for Smethwick with the support of the infamous slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour". Three years later, Enoch Powell delivered his "Rivers of Blood" speech in Birmingham.

But in May 1966, 16 months after my father's arrival, the then home secretary, Roy Jenkins, gave perhaps the most significant speech of all on the subject of integration to the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants in London. Jenkins defined integration not as "a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance". It was a turning point for relations between majority and minority communities.

Britain has come a long way from the nativist and assimilationist 1960s, from Enoch Powell and racist hoteliers. Opinion polls suggest this is a nation at relative ease with its racial, religious and cultural diversity in all walks of life.

Yet, in recent months, multiculturalism has come under sustained assault from our political and media elite prompted by a headline-grabbing intervention by the Prime Minister.

"Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream," Cameron said at a security conference in Munich on 5 February. "We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values ... Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism." But his deputy, Nick Clegg, took a different view in a speech in Luton on 3 March, in which he praised multiculturalism as "a means by which we can communicate with each other, seek to reach understanding of each other, share a similar set of values".

Over the past decade, public figures have queued up to deliver the last rites for multiculturalism, the condemnation cutting across party and ideological lines. In 2005 Trevor Phillips, then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (and now of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), warned that multicultural Britain was "sleepwalking to segregation". His analysis was shared by the Archbishop of York--Ugandan-born John Sentamu--and the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, among others.

In January 2007, before he became prime minister, Gordon Brown similarly claimed that multiculturalism had "become an excuse for justifying separateness". He preferred to talk of "Britishness" and a "stronger sense of patriotic purpose".

One thing links these criticisms: they lack a settled and accepted definition of "multiculturalism". "The doctrine of state multiculturalism" has a certain ring to it, but what does it mean? The Prime Minister did not bother to elaborate. In truth, over the years, Cameron, Blair, Brown, Phillips and the rest have constructed a mythical version of multiculturalism--a "cardboard cut-out", to use Clegg's phrase--and held it responsible for a raft of sins, from segregation and separateness to extremism and terrorism. …