National identity and national history have to be constantly in flux, constantly being reviewed, so minorities can see themselves in Britain’s past as well as its future
David Cameron is fast becoming the Dean Moriarty of global politics. Wide-eyed, fervent and eager to please, Cameron gallops across the world stage like a man who wants to say yes to everyone. In Germany a fortnight ago, he echoed Angela Merkel’s Potsdam speech of last year with his very own thumbs up and wailing ‘Yesssss!’. State multiculturalism has ‘failed’, he said.
In his speech in Hamburg, he argued for a ‘muscular liberalism’ in order to combat extremism. It was up to Britons, he said, to do more to protect and promote our national identity. To stop ‘Islamist’ extremism, After years of Labour’s legislative hyperactivity and executive power, Cameron seeks to essentially move the battle against extremism from state security to the national marketplace of ideas.
It was a speech that was poorly-timed. English Defence League protests, like the one held in Luton on the same day as Cameron’s speech, encourage precisely the kind of hate that multiculturalism – when active, positive and effective – can help to prevent. We should be debating how multiculturalism works in Britain – but not at the expense of ill-timed, foolish remarks and gentle nudges to the BNP and EDL. Last week, Nick Griffin called Cameron’s comments a ‘huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream’. What we need not debate, though, is whether multiculturalism is dead. It survives, as it will (and has) for many years, because there are so few policies at stake, so little in the way of practical measures. It is alive and kicking as one of our culture’s most intrinsic and important values.
That is not to say it is not under threat. It is often at its weakest when we see attacks and smears on Britain’s Muslims as fanatical terrorists, or apologists for violence. In a grovelling article in The Observer in May 2007 (cringingly entitled ‘What I learnt from my stay with a Muslim Family’) Cameron wrote: ‘By using the word “Islamist” to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues’ work for them, confirming to many impressionable young Muslim men that to be a “good Muslim”, you have to support their evil campaign.’ The number of times Cameron said the word ‘Islamist’ in his speech in Hamburg last week? Six. So much for inclusive and domineering tolerance. The coalition could begin by tackling ethnic minority groups in poverty, not finger-pointing and Islamophobia. With Cameron, multiculturalism is like a lowest common denominator: the rule of law, property rights, the right to vote. Our democracy is stronger and more dynamic than that. British Muslims are part of the solution rather than the problem.
Moreover, we should be concerned about the government referring to ‘muscular liberalism’, with its tone of colonial servitude. There is something inherently difficult about plastering multiculturalism and liberalism together as contemporaneous and symbiotic concepts. Islam is not, in the ‘Western’ (I use that very lightly) sense of the term, a ‘liberal’ faith. Its ideas on – for example – property, law, representative government and women’s rights do not always sit easily with the ‘Western’ and British traditions of liberalism – but that is not to say that Islam is incompatible with multicultural values. Indeed, followers of the philosophy of Plato are not really liberals either. Nor, importantly are socialists. Are we to say that all non-liberals, under Cameron’s binary definition, are enemies of the state? Are the (sadly decreasing number of) socialists within the Labour Party to be held as prophets of state unrest? Opting Britain in to a ‘muscular liberalism’ may be like nailing jelly to the wall.
Cameron stopped short of his argument’s logical conclusion. We have become too isolated, especially in our cities, with chasms between various communities and faith groups. His logical conclusion would be to slam faith schools as destructive in allowing social and often racial segregation. Yet, Cameron did no such thing – such is the contradiction at the heart of this government. Minority groups must be the ones to integrate, he says, yet there is no plan for how the wider population can aid the integration of these groups. Pointing the finger at minorities and hacking social investment in community projects will only cause greater resentment, especially amongst young people. He wants all new immigrants to learn English, but who will teach them? Further education colleges are having their budgets decimated. ‘Muscular liberalism’ in the Big Society, or social exclusion?
At any rate, it is problematic to talk of ‘liberalism’ as a national backdrop. National values we all hold in common are too diffuse to label a “community”. We all believe in trial by jury? That’s not enough. It is only via shared communities, like local and civic participation, charities and associations, that we can be pro-active with our multiculturalism. Our culture is, for the most part, transient. National identity and national history have to be constantly in flux, constantly being reviewed, so minorities can see themselves in Britain’s past as well as its future.
That future is not bleak. In one example, recent ONS evidence has shown that local authorities often achieve a greater ethnic mix of pupils for schools than school boards themselves, something that will only increase with the government’s Big Society. Indeed, the Equality Act left by the Labour government is the most advanced anywhere in Europe in helping to secure rights and freedoms for our diverse society – this opportunity should not be wasted. Multiculturalism has not failed, but we must allow it grow into something more healthy.