Cameron’s Attack on Multiculturalism: Deja Vu All Over Again

My heart sank when I heard that David Cameron was to make a speech at a security conference in Munich attacking ‘state multiculturalism’. There have been so many negative speeches and comments made about multiculturalism by prominent politicians and public figures in recent years–including by Cameron himself–that I could not believe he would have anything new to say. Having now read the speech and also Madeleine Bunting’s excellent dissection of its weaknesses, I see that I was correct. But in many ways this speech was far more insidious than the public criticisms of multiculturalism that preceded Cameron’s effort. If it was not a deliberate decision to make the speech in a city famous for Hitler’s rabble-rousing rallies, using language that would have delighted Chancellor Angela Merkel who herself attacked multiculturalism on 16 October last year and on the day the anti-Muslim English Defence League was staging its largest ever demonstration, Cameron and his public relations team are unbelievably naive. No matter what he said, the context in which he said it was worryingly sinister.

Last March, in a piece for Comment is Free, I wrote about attacks on multiculturalism before the General Election. Many of the points remain relevant and therefore can be read as a response to Cameron’s speech, so I reproduce the piece here:

In defence of multiculturalism

Critics are attacking a straw-man version of multiculturalism when they blame it for building a culture of segregation

The rise of the BNP and the likelihood that immigration will figure high on the agenda of many people’s concerns in the forthcoming general election are sure signs that Britain still faces huge challenges in achieving a balance between respect for diversity and a sense of shared national belonging. Back in the 1990s, there was a broad consensus that multiculturalism provided the key to securing that balance. But those days are gone for good. Multiculturalism as a political project has been blamed for promoting segregation and not integration, legitimising moral relativism and inculcating a culture of victimhood that creates expectations of entitlement and special treatment.

But there’s a fundamental problem with this indictment. The culprit is a fantasy, a straw-man multiculturalism. Look at some of the key texts on multiculturalism and you will find quite the opposite of a philosophy of separateness. Far from “putting people into ethnic boxes”,multiculturalism, Professor Bhikhu Parekh claims, is “about intercultural fusion in which a culture borrows bits of others and creatively transforms both itself and them”. It doesn’t call for “policing of borders” but rather “integration which recognises group identities and heritage” (Professor Tariq Modood).

Critics say “scrap multiculturalism”: it has led to Britain “sleepwalking into segregation” (Trevor Phillips); it “has genuinely failed”, “run its course, and it is time to move on” (Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks); it has “become an excuse for justifying separateness” (Gordon Brown); it “has been manipulated to favour a divisive idea – the right to difference” (David Cameron). But look back at the definition of multiculturalism in the1985 Swann report, produced following the race riots of the time – common values, respect for diversity, equality of opportunity, freedom of cultural expression and conscience – and you find, as Professor Sarah Spencer has pointed out, “precisely the balance of objectives that many critics of multiculturalism are calling for. The vision of many of those seeking to replace multiculturalism is very much the vision of its original proponents.”

Criticism of multiculturalism has been particularly strong in certain sectors of Britain’s Jewish community. It’s blamed for the rise in antisemitic incidents in recent years and seen as the means whereby antisemitic jihadists established themselves in western countries. It’s said that Britain’s Jews didn’t need multicultural policies; they managed to integrate through hard work and individual achievement. And yet such critics seem to forget that much of the revival of Jewish life in Britain in the 1990s was made possible by multiculturalism: the phenomenal growth in the Jewish school movement, the revival of Jewish culture, the acceptance of Jewish pluralism and the greater readiness to assert Jewish identity in public.

Putting the record straight on multiculturalism, however, can’t hide the fact that the critique of the concept has become so firmly entrenched that any suggestion of securing support for policies of integration and social cohesion under the heading of multiculturalism is out of the question. But that is not to say that fully formed multicultural policies were ever followed by government. Indeed much of what government has tried to do in this area has been contradictory and counterproductive. It failed to assert common values based on the primacy of human rights. It never effectively tackled racial inequality and its failures have been amplified by the disastrous performance of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In a kind of panic, it backed certain religious and ethnic leaderships with funds, only to pull back when it realised it was encouraging the very tendencies it was seeking to combat. And despite occasional cack-handed stabs at defining Britishness, it failed to provide any thoughtful leadership in developing a national narrative that would reflect the reality of multicultural Britain.

The government always seemed to be hedging its bets. Too frightened of the electoral implications of following bold and principled policies, it appeared to lack self-confidence. And something similar occurred in the Jewish community. When it seemed that external threats to the Jewish population were growing again at the turn of the century, Jewish leaders who were never comfortable with the atmosphere of openness and multiculturalism, and had been marginalised during the 1990s, came to the fore again pursuing a more defensive, ethnocentric, inward-looking agenda, which only aggravated the conditions they were seeking to ameliorate.

I am certainly not arguing that multiculturalism is in any sense perfect. An idea based on intercultural fusion must have a limited shelf-life if the basic premise works. And even back in the late 1990s some of the proponents of multiculturalism were arguing that majority and minority were changing each other and producing “hybridity”. This could lead to a fresh social synthesis that does not lead back to assimilation but forward to some new waystation: “the acceptance of irrevocable mixture as starting point, rather than as a problem”, said Neal Ascherson, quoting Tom Nairn.

But we’re not there yet. And there’s no sign that any mainstream party will offer a vision of Britain in the coming election that sees the positive shaping of a post-multicultural Britishness, which takes hybridity as a given, as vital to achieving the common good. In trashing multiculturalism, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Giving birth to something new, if it ever happens, will be a painful process.

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