Last Thursday, generations of Chinese in Soho welcomed the Year of the Rabbit in time-honoured traditional ways. Yet we didn’t hear David Cameron demonise Chinatown as a ‘segregated community’ living ‘apart from the mainstream’. On the contrary, the annual lion dance spectacle has become an essential fixture in London’s calendar, enjoyed by people from many different cultures.
The Oxford dictionary defines multicultural(ism) as “of or relating to or constituting several cultural or ethnic groups within a society”. Note the word “within”. Yet there’s a growing tendency to rubbish multiculturalism, treating it as synonymous with the failed Labour policies referred to in David Cameron’s speech. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
When I first came to the UK in the early 1980s real parmesan cheese was hard to come by. Nowadays you’ll find it in virtually every corner shop, somewhere near the hummus, bagels and microwave naan. A trivial example, certainly, but over the past few decades British eating habits have evolved out of all recognition. ‘Modern British’ cuisine is a product of multiculturalism – and I’ve yet to meet anyone who wants to turn back the gastronomic clock.
When people feel welcome, they integrate. My children learned traditional English nursery rhymes not from me but from an Algerian-born volunteer at our local Sure Start. They played with children of Iraqi, Somali, Russian, and Brazilian parentage, while mums in hijabs swapped toddler war stories with mums in skin tight jeans. Some multicultural mums were friendlier than the native West London Sloanes.
Multiculturalism makes London a dynamic and fascinating place to live as well as a magnet for global talent. There are now so many French children in Hammersmith & Fulham that the Tory Council recently set up a bilingual French/ English primary school… State sponsored multiculturalism, Prime Minister?
Positive examples of thriving multiculturalism on our doorstep never seem to make it into big political speeches. Multiculturalism is invariably portrayed as a problem that needs fixing, rather than an enriching everyday reality – and indeed a competitive economic advantage in a complex, globalised world.
Dealing with hate-filled extremists urgently requires a different approach to that taken by Labour. However, constantly framing wider discussion of multiculturalism against the negative backdrop of Islamist extremism misses the huge contribution that cultural and ethnic pluralism has made to modern British life.
Dinti Batstone is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and former European Parliament candidate in London.