Has Multiculturalism in Britain Retreated?

By Uberoi, Varun; Modood, Tariq | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Has Multiculturalism in Britain Retreated?


Uberoi, Varun, Modood, Tariq, Soundings


If properly understood, multiculturalism continues to flourish in Britain.

Scholars who are critical and supportive of multiculturalism note how it is in 'retreat' or in question in different countries as leading politicians are rejecting it.1 Britain is often cited as a place in which this retreat or questioning occurs.2 Certainly British politicians and commentators criticise multiculturalism, but it is often unclear what precisely is being criticised.3 Even when critics say that what they are discussing is 'state multiculturalism', nothing is said about what this is, or how it differs from 'multiculturalism', and neither is self-explanatory.4 We therefore begin by specifying three inter-related ways in which multiculturalism can be understood, before going on to show why it is questionable to claim that leading British politicians are distancing themselves from any of them. We then identify the superficial nature of what it is that these leading politicians are actually rejecting, and the benefit, even for critics, of adopting our understandings of multiculturalism.

Understandings of multiculturalism

Like equality, justice, fairness and class, multiculturalism can be conceived of in different ways, but we focus on three inter-related understandings of it.5 First, multiculturalism is often said to denote a culturally diverse citizenry, or what may be called a 'multicultural society'. The latter seems inescapable as cultural diversity is in-eliminable 'without an unacceptable level of coercion', and perhaps not even then as regional or class based cultural differences would remain even if those based on immigration were removed.6 But a state can react to a culturally diverse citizenry in different ways. It could try to remain neutral between cultural groups and not favour any of them. But this is difficult, as the language, norms and sensibilities used to regulate the collective affairs of its citizens have to come from somewhere and are usually the cultural traits of at least one group. Instead a state could try to assimilate cultural minorities by aiming to make them as indistinguishable from the cultural majority as possible. If assimilation is voluntary, or as a state aim it is restricted to obviously morally repugnant practices, it is usually uncontroversial. But if it goes further it infringes individual freedom, and creates or reinforces a hierarchy among citizens by encouraging some to conform to others even though each is meant to be equal. For such reasons, Canada, Britain and Australia abandoned policies of assimilation in the 1960s; formal and informal policies of multiculturalism then followed; and thus a second way to understand multiculturalism emerged.7

A policy of multiculturalism usually aims to reduce fear of cultural difference, as well as the inequality, exclusion and disadvantage that are often experienced by cultural minorities in subtle yet significant ways. For example, when the state uses the language, norms and sensibilities of the cultural majority in its political institutions, or establishes only their religion in them or teaches only their history in schools, cultural minorities are excluded and treated unequally, despite being citizens who are entitled to equal treatment. Similarly, if public services are offered only in the lingua franca, citizens who are less proficient with the language - like recent immigrants or older cultural minorities - are disadvantaged, as these services are more difficult for them to use than they are for other citizens. Multicultural education in schools and promoting race equality are thus used to reduce fear of cultural difference, while anti-discrimination laws, legal exemptions for minority religious practices, providing public services in different languages and other measures are used to reduce the inequality, exclusion and disadvantage that cultural minorities suffer. Different combinations of such measures have been called a policy of multiculturalism in different countries, but if fear of cultural difference reduces, along with the inequality, exclusion and disadvantage cultural minorities incur, the nation will change, and it is unclear what it will become or how to sustain a political commitment to such change. …

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