Multiculturalism, Mr. Cameron, is about more than British muscle

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.


There is no such thing as Britain

(This is a piece for a forthcoming issue of Cub, the Queen Mary Students’ Union magazine.)

Here’s a challenge: define ‘Britain’. Outside of legal or geographical distinctions, what makes us un-French? Culturally, politically, socially, psychologically, sexually – even hypothetically – there is nothing that can be defined as ‘British’. If you design a new technology, or write a book, that product is British because of the legal factors working upon it. Likewise, we are British if we are born in the United Kingdom or any of the little island bits we pinched years ago, but this is pretty much just good admin sense. What does it mean to be ‘British’? What does ‘Britishness’ even mean? In short: absolutely nothing. And we should fight it.

There is no such thing as ‘Britishness’. If our ideas, art, music and politics are ‘unique’, what is ‘British’ about them? The location they were created in? Fine. But is geography all you define yourself by? British territory is just land secured by blood many years ago. If creations are defined by the attitudes that shaped them, what makes those attitudes British or American? And so on and on and on.

The notion of the state is wholly constructed and arose out of a need for international legitimacy and protection for capitalist expansion across the world. Merchants needed state protection and military backing to trample all over the New World for profit and the idea of nationality began to dominate political discussion in the early modern period. Since then, we’ve been happy to claim x or y as British without ever engaging with the true problem: the nation is a hollow construct that has no meaning. 

As a helpful way of dividing groups of people across the world, the state works. But sovereignty for each state merely divides vast swathes of people off from others purely on the luck of where they were born. Are French and German values really that different to our own? The distinctions at work are determined by us. We don’t identify as strongly with the town or street we were raised in, yet we supposedly feel a connection to sixty million other people we will never meet. And why stop at the nation? We don’t particularly define ourselves as ‘European’. Go, northern hemisphere! If the nation is just the right size for us to feel both community and autonomy, it says a great deal about what we think of those two concepts. That we are comfortable to separate ourselves from other humans via redundant expressions of ownership is problematic in that it enables, at the very least, needless rivalry between other members of our species and, at worst, open war. A world without nations and national boundaries would not see fighting between its countries for economic gain or nationalistic hate. Dewy-eyed it may be, but a federal constitution of international governance would limit the pain of globalisation, of economic crises and of trade rivalries. International rule would suffer no tyrants who abuse human rights or who reap war on other regions. Pooling our resources, sharing our ideas and values, our money, politics, systems, culture, languages, freedoms and aspirations could end poverty, could counter environmental disaster and have genuine world peace. ‘Britishness’ and bullshit ideas of nationality only stop us from achieving equality and happiness.

Hate… Banter

(This is a piece for a forthcoming issue of Cub, the Queen Mary Students’ Union magazine. The other half is an article in favour of ‘banter’.)

Nobody hates banter. That’s ridiculous. Likewise, nobody hates taking the piss with friends, making jokes, bla bla. But ‘banter’ is like a wipeaway word for spectacular arseholery – as long as it’s good banter, nobody gets hurt. If it’s just a joke, you can justify the objectionable scat you fling. Right? 

A few weeks ago, the BBC had to apologise to the Mexican ambassador for jokes made on Top Gear about Mexicans being ‘lazy, feckless and flatulent’. If you’re the kind of fetid blood clot who watches Top Gear and, while pounding your knuckles into your chest in delight, you gurgle excitedly at national stereotypes, then you probably think that James May absolving blame on air by saying ‘people shouldn’t take what we say seriously’ is happy days. The BBC apologised to Mexico by claiming it was all a bloomin’ great joke. ‘Our own comedians make jokes about the British being terrible cooks and terrible romantics, and we in turn make jokes about the Italians being disorganised and overdramatic, the French being arrogant and the Germans being overorganised,’ the BBC said. The Mexicans don’t understand. In Britain, we make jokes about other countries. Holland, you are a bunch of c*nts. And don’t get us started on the Albanians. (Actually, they’re all car-stealing mafia stooges, apparently. Thanks, Hammond.)

Whatever the BBC ‘represents’ aside, it is remarkable that they gaily stepped forward to define to Mexico and the world what British humour is. It’s banter. It’s xenophobia. It’s offensive cliches. It’s flat-out racism. It’s homophobia, sexism and tactless, macho baiting and foul insults. And they were silly to complain. IT’S JUST A JOKE. Top Gear is just about twenty-first-century man cutting loose, freeing himself from the shackles of that nasty PC racket, from feminists and Muslims, from health and safety inspectors, from Harriet Harman and from basic fucking decency. a ‘Banter’ cannot be loosely defined as taking the piss – or everything is OK and everyone is due a whack. Society determines what and who we can take the piss out of, but the boundaries are unclear – and ‘banter’ cares not for who it ridicules. Ethnic minorities, homosexuals, the disabled: no. (‘Booooooo!’, yells Clarkson.) Fatties, gingers, the lanky, the poor, the rich, the ugly, the poorly-dressed: yes. Have a right good go, mate. Before the PC brigade get you. Before a basic attempt at common courtesy and respect thwarts your erectile ambition to be an unparalleled dick.