Multiculturalism Reloaded?

By Waite, Mike | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Multiculturalism Reloaded?


Waite, Mike, Soundings


Ted Cantle, Interculturalism: the new era of cohesion and diversity, Palgrave Macmillan 2012

Ted Cantle's achievement was to shape national policy on race relations during the years of New Labour government. He developed and applied the concept of 'community cohesion' through his overview report on the causes of the riots and disturbances in particular northern towns back in 2001; but the approaches which flowed from his analysis were quickly accepted as having widespread relevance. Councils across the country developed 'cohesion' work, using government grants to run specific projects, and 'mainstreaming' the approach into their general practice.

Why did this policy framework become established so rapidly? Firstly, it was based on concrete analysis of significant trends and problems. Cantle identified how different 'communities' live 'parallel lives'. He was alert to how social suspicions and distances had developed, but had not been acknowledged or addressed. Secondly, Cantle addressed a wider debate on 'multiculturalism'. In place since the late 1960s - though never uncontested - this policy framework was under severe pressure by the beginning of the twenty-first century, because of a series of connected social trends that served to undermine its coherence and credibility.

These developments included entrenched patterns of residential segregation in some areas; destabilising 'churn' in others; anxiety and resentment over resource allocation and access to provision such as housing and education; greater than anticipated migration from the formerly communist countries of the European Union, and the significant impact this had on local tax-funded services; and the way growing economic pressures opened up political space for sectional, identitybased and nationalist movements, including those drawing on persistent popular opposition to 'Europe'. Some argued that multiculturalism's recognition of racial and cultural communities, and its support for diverse lifestyles, had encouraged division and led to social fragmentation. The superficial celebration of 'steel bands and samosas' had been liberal blindness to real problems. Other 'opponents' of multiculturalism, ironically, chose this moment to assert a multiculturalist claim. Mixing playfulness, bullish confidence and subaltern pleading, nationalist politicians argued that 'all they wanted' was for the same rights to be afforded to 'the indigenous majority' as 'others' now enjoyed. Amongst all this, 'cohesion' stood against fragmentation. Whilst 'celebrating' difference, it supported projects to bolster what 'we all have in common' in a community, a city, a country.

Nobody ever said that achieving settlements between diversity and commonality would be easy, especially around contested issues and real disputes, including over the appropriate allowances that people should be afforded around identity-based 'needs' and 'rights'. And so the third strength of the cohesion agenda was flexibility: the way it could 'triangulate', and achieve policy 'balances' on successive concerns - including the far right's emergence; the questions raised by the July 2005 London transport bombings; and many local issues that generated identity based claims for 'fairness'.

As this suggests, 'cohesion' mapped out a field within which matters were handled, rather than providing prescriptive answers. And the field proved unstable. Campaigners for racial equality saw their agenda being undermined: surely their calls for 'positive action' and 'complaints' about discrimination pulled against the new emphasis on what 'we' all had in common? And after 7/7, some saw the Home Office's 'Prevent' strategy as 'targeting' Muslim youth. What government presented as a positive initiative was taken as adding to problems of stereotyping and panic, thereby alienating those 'reasonable' community members on whose support the programme's success depended.

Unstable policies need pushing in one direction or another, and the Coalition's approach, with far less project money available, has been to name 'integration' as the desirable social goal. …

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