Opinion: Multiculturalism, Britishness & Community Cohesion

In the run up to the next general election, Gordon Brown will undoubtedly use one of his favourite themes: Britishness. He will do this as a smokescreen to disguise his own concerns and insecurities that as a Scot he will not receive sufficient support from Middle England. So he will roll out a pseudo debate that will ensure that those of us who are not from a White Anglo Saxon background, will be forced to prove our Britishness. Similar to the constant call for the majority of moderate, law abiding Muslims to constantly condemn terrorism, and demonstrate how we all embrace and celebrate Christmas.

I think its time we as Liberal Democrats, the party that has enshrined in our constitution our belief that we stand for equality, community, and non-conformity, had a serious debate about what we mean by this and how we are developing our policies and beliefs to respond to this debate.

Britain is a multicultural country: this statement was for decades a cause for celebration. Multiculturalism gained popularity in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on London in July 2005, many commentators, including Trevor Philips, then the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, called for it to be scrapped. We were told that it was a ‘failed experiment.’ Was it compatible to be from another culture and be British? Questions and articles continue to question this, as to how young British people from ethnic minority communities (with the spotlight more recently on people of Muslim background) were not integrating into British society, despite being British born.
Roy Jenkins, when Labour Home Secretary  in 1966 set out in a speech to the National Committee for the Commonwealth Immigrants, his concept of multiculturalism:

‘Integration is perhaps a loose word. I do not regard it as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own characteristics and culture. I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’, which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one would a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced version of the stereotyped Englishness. I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’

This approach removed the coupling of immigration with integration. It acknowledged that many immigrant communities and their families had settled here in the UK, and that this was their permanent home. Previously, there was the theme and expectation that people from migrant communities -not least migrants themselves – were not here to stay, but would be ‘going home.’ As a child I grew up with this as an everyday term of abuse: ‘why don’t you f**k off back to where you came from’

The Jenkins speech introduced the process of integration as a two-way process of interaction. In short that the host, or majority community, had responsibilities, as well as immigrants and ethnic minorities, to work together to achieve integration. The debate seems to have shifted so that the onus is solely on immigrants to integrate.

We acknowledge that one of Britain’s great strengths is its diversity, and yes, its multiculturalism.  This means many different things. Britain is composed from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with already a diverse range of cultures and identities. There is no single British culture.

So we come to the concept of community cohesion, which the government has now embraced while moving away from the multicultural model. Presiding over a country that is now more socially divided than it was 10 years ago, Gordon Brown’s government is applying a sticking plaster through programmes, and initiatives to address conflicts and the lack of cohesion in society.

Community cohesion for me is a common vision, which creates a sense of belonging for all communities, while at the same time valuing our diversity. Its about equal opportunities for all. Two thirds of Britain’s Black and minority ethnic (BME) population live in the 88 most deprived local authority districts, where the acute deprivation impacts far more on these communities. Whilst a third of all children in the UK live in poverty, around 70% of the UK’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani population live in poverty, as do 60% of Black African children. You begin to understand why so many communities, particularly young people, feel like outsiders and disengaged from British society. They then stand accused of not being British, or worse, failing to integrate. Yet society demands both without pausing to reflect on the displacement felt by many Black and Muslim young people. There seems to be little room for compromise – you’re either British or you’re not. Its no wonder that many second generation BME people are choosing to go back a generation and immerse themselves in their grandparents traditions, with some young women adopting the hijab cast aside by their mothers. A generation ago young Afro-Caribbeans did the same, seeking out their own identity, which was distinct from their parents whole- hearted acceptance of Britishness, in the face of the everyday overt racism that went with it.

So we should be up for a serious debate, one that includes the recognition of the significant contribution made by the majority of BME communities, and huge efforts to understand and engage in British civic life, despite encountering racism and social exclusion in many areas of public life.

Efforts to tackle racial discrimination, divisions and shameful inequalities must be at the forefront of our armoury to engender integration and a real sense of belonging.

Integration and community cohesion in multicultural Britain, is a two-way street.

Liberal Democrats must be at the forefront of the campaign for this.

Cllr Meral Ece is the Chair of Ethnic Minority Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Martin Land 4th Jan '08 - 11:50am

    As usual, Meral, your argument is highly selective. You fail to mention that some communities are not having the same problems you identify. British citizens of Chinese and of Indian / Hindi origin are over-achieving in educational terms and are still maintaining their community identites and traditions. They are increasingly moire successful than the average in both busines and the professions. Within those wider groups, some sub-groups are even more successful, such as East African Asians. I have also seen evidence that Black African children are now starting to perform much better than children of West Indian Origin.
    This would suggest that even within a multicultural society – not that we really live in one – performance and success are achievable where a group or individuals choose to work within the framework of that society to achieve success.
    In other words, there is as much evidence to suggest that the solution to the problem lies in their own hands and is not because British Society is MAKING people be deprived, disengaged or feel like outsiders.
    As Liberals it is our role to try to do everything we can to guarantee an even playing field. But people must stop seeing the position of ethnic minorities in British Society solely in terms of ‘it must be the fault of the majority population’ because the evidence suggests the contrary.
    Equally, evidence suggests that the LA areas where BME groups are suffering from deprivation and lack of opportunity is something they share equally with the majority population in those areas.
    Liberals then should seek to aid and encourage people from poorer backgrounds through educational and training opportunities regardless of their origin. Failure to do so is not only failing to address the real problem but also likely to increase resentment among poorer and disadvantaged members of the majority community.

  • Martin: I agree with your last para, but you’ll not be surprised to hear, not much else. My piece says integration and community cohesion is a TWO WAY street, with responsiblities on both the host, and the BME communities. Of course there are examples where some communities are doing better than others, but often those figures hide underachievement and deprivation within those communities (speak to the Chinese Lib Dems) I have set out an overview with the reality on the ground.
    “This would suggest that even within a multicultural society – not that we really live in one”
    You don’t believe we live in a multicultural society?? Well, you need to get out more. Come along to the many schools in London, where over a 100 languages are spoken; go to other inner-city areas- hardly what you could call monocultural society.
    I beieve the whole Britishness argument is designed to cloud the fact that successive governments have failed to build a sense of belonging and address social exclusion for the UK’s diverse population.

  • Martin Land 4th Jan '08 - 12:53pm

    Meral, don’t assume things!

    I’ve taught (last year) in schools where over 100 languages are spoken, in North London, and as a language teacher, so I’m well aware of the situation!

    But equally, I live in a typical Market Town where perhaps 1% of the population is from ethnic minorities. If that! Ask them if they live in a multicultural society.

    No, they are, for better or worse, living in ‘England’ – whatever that means! After all, I’m of immigrant stock too. My family arrived in 1276 and my wife’s in 1563.

    Any reference to ‘a multicultural society’ should remember that outside of 7 or 8 cities, and a similar number of towns, ethnic minorities remain VERY much a minority. Do we have a number of multicultural towns and cities? Yes. Is Britain a multicultural society? I don’t think so!

  • Richard Church 4th Jan '08 - 4:10pm

    I live in a town with an 8% ethnic minority population and I believe I live in a multi-cultural town. I see that multi-culturalism every day. In the way people dress, the shops, the restaurants, the languages etc. The presence of the 8% minority is highly visible in our town, and rightly so. A multicultural society is not dependent on the size of ethnic minorities, but it is a reflection of the confidence of minority cultures to make their mark within a community.

    The current fashion to deny multiculturalism begs the question as to the alternative. Monoculturalism. A monocultural society is one that denies the existence of separate minority cultural expression, whether it exists or not, however small or large it is.

    As Liberals we must resist classifying people and pigeon holing them. Some multi cultural approaches do this by classifying a whole group of people into a cultural group and expecting them to behave in a certain way or be represented by certain self appointed leaders. Even worse, a monocultural approach leads to a definition of Britishness to which we are all supposed to fit’ like it or not.

    Nothing could be more dull than a monocultural society. Any measurement of ‘Britishness’ must embrace cultural difference, not try and pretend it doesn’t exist. We should resist the fashion to rubbish multi-culturalism, a fashion avidly promoted by the likes of the Daily Mail and the Sun with their phoney stories about political correctness.

    Uniquely Liberal Democrats can celebrate and promote cultural diversity and understand the need celebrate individual self expression, and freedom from the constraints on the individual of cultural oppression, within minority or majority cultures. I doubt if Gordon Brown begins to understand that.

  • Richard: Its good to hear from a fellow Lib Dem who understands what I’m on about!
    No. 4: Point about celebrating Xmas is that the majority of communities aready do (we even out up a tree this year!) We don’t need to be lectured into doing it, particularly when there are so many white Brtisih people I know who refuse to ‘celebrate’ Xmas.

  • Martin Land 4th Jan '08 - 6:24pm

    5. No one is arguing with you Richard or you Meral. I would expect any community in any town to see their culture reflected in that Town. But that does not create a multi-cultural society in itself and we should beware the siren call of multi-culturalism, especially in its more absurd forms. Equally, and I speak from deep knowledge and experience, we should not fall into the trap that the French have fallen for of denying the existence of minorities and pretending that all French Citizens are equal just because the constitution says so.

  • Angus J Huck 4th Jan '08 - 8:46pm

    Like “socialism” and “feminism”, the unfortunate term, “multiculturalism”, can mean anything or nothing.

    The term, as it has been used in recent years by those within the Brititsh Left and the race relations elite who claim to be promoting it, stands for a kind of cultural relativism which sees minority cultures as equivalent to or superior to white British culture, seeks to downgrade or anathematise any sense of white British identity (especially English identity), and holds that all minority cultural practices, however deplorable they may seem to us, have to be shown “respect”.

    Now, don’t be misled by their rhetoric. The British Left doesn’t really “respect” minority cultures. What they see is an opportunity to recruit activists from disaffected groups. At the moment they are trying to curry favour with Islamists. Before that it was West Indians, Irish nationalists, and gays (you should have heard what the Dave Sparts said about gays in private). For the Left, multi-culturalism is entirely cynical, just a tactic to win power.

    Then we have the morally cowardly casuists. Some within this group feel that all you have to do to have racial and religious harmony is be nice to everyone. If only we could invite Osama Bin-Laden round for tea, he would dismantle Al-Qaeda. Others are guilt-ridden about having freedom. A good example of this is the former SDP MP, Dr Jesse Dickson Mabon, who said of Saudi Arabia beheading an adultress: “We are in no position to say our way of doing things is better than theirs,” or words to that effect.

    Relativism of the kinds I describe are, of course, racist. What Dr Mabon, Dave and Deridre Spart et al are saying to people with dark skins is this. Sorry, you can’t have what we have. You are going to have to put up with your lot. For if you demand what we have – freedom, secularism, human rights – you are betraying your race. You are selling out to the wicked West.

    Now, I have a confession to make. As far as I can tell, all my ancestors, going right the way back to the reign of Edward IV, were born in what is now the United Kingdom. And I am not in the least ashamed of it. It would be silly to say I am “proud” of it, but I am proud of what my country has achieved.

    Meral misunderstands Gordon Brown’s motivation totally. Gordon Brown is a Scottish MP. He has seen the way the SNP has tried to promote Scottish identity as something distinct from and superior to English identity, and has sought to blame “the English” for everything that goes wrong in Scotland. Brown sees the break-up of the United Kingdom as a real and deadly danger, and is determined to do what he can to stop it happening. Hence his call to celebrate British identity. It has nothing to do with doing down Moslems, or anyone else, apart from Smart Alec and the SNP.

  • er, I hesitate, but can I throw in an example of multiculturalism that doesn’t get much attention.

    In parts of North Wales two entirely different cultures exist:

    One speaks Welsh, listens to Welsh bands, reads Welsh books, reveres poets etc etc

    The other speaks English, has never heard of the Welsh bands (Bryn Fon? Who’s he?), has some vague awareness of something called an eisteddfod, couldn’t name a Welsh language poet or novelist to save their lives

    This has been going on for decades. Is it right? Is it wrong? Does it work? Can we do anything about it? Does it even matter? Does it tell us anything which could be useful in Leicester, or Ealing or Oldham?

  • Martin Land 5th Jan '08 - 3:42pm

    Here we go again, Linda Jack joins a debate, without properly reading people’s postings.

    Read my posting properly and look at the evidence; plenty of minority communities are enjoying considerable success in our society.

    What I am arguing is that the problems being experienced are as much if not more a phenomenon of class, education and social exclusion than of race or racial prejudice. If not, how do you explain the success in our society of so many minority communities?

    Do we need legislation? It hardly needs debating. We have had legislation for a generation, so according to one’s point of view, it was either necessary and worked or unnecessary and didn’t or somewhere in between.

    Not in a position to comment? How very
    Liberal of you Linda!

    And like Meral, don’t make comments about people until you know the facts. Yes, I currently live in a small market town – not very far from yours I think? – but I’m a Londoner born and breed. I’m very proud of the multi-cultural north London School I taught in last year.

    By the way what have some inane comments about the americans in Iraq got to do with this debate?

  • No.10 – I did say:
    “This means many different things. Britain is composed from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with already a diverse range of cultures and identities. There is no single British culture”. So take your point about Wales!
    Angus, I disagree with what Brown is trying to do. In trying to combat the threat from the SDP, he is banging on about Britishness too much (who can forget British jobs for British people?), and alienating ordinary people with this argument. Instead of unifying, it is a divisive one. Most Scots feel, well like a Scot, the Welsh, and the English. all seem to want to celebrate their own culture and traditions. And whats wrong with this? I am British and Turkish, and proud of it.
    Linda: a good analogy, with the Americans expecting nations they conquer to embrace their American dream.

  • passing tory 5th Jan '08 - 7:13pm

    A nice piece, Meral. Although I disagree with much if it, this is an area that is important to people at a very fundamental level (i.e. it touches on who they are) but is a potential minefield for politicians, not least because it touches on these very base instincts.

    I recall reading the study I imagine Martin is citing which looked at the performance of ethnic minorities drew the conclusion that the underperformace in certain well-documented groups (e.g. West Indian males) could not be pinned on discrimination by the majority group. I think it is very worrying if you close your eyes to this possibility.

    But the real question is, given that people will increasingly be moving countries, what sort of expectations should should both host and immigrant ethnic groups have.

    I do not pretend to have definitive answers. However, there are some important factors that are often ignored.

    The first is that humans are hard coded at a very fundamental level to distinguish between “us” and “them”. We deny this fact at our peril.

    The second is that the (rather old-fashioned) concept of allegiance is underestimated. The diasporic nations are good case studies here, in particular the difficulties the Jews have had trying to reconcile integrating (in the sense of settling long-term) into non-Jewish countries while maintaining their cultural identity. In fact, rather ironically, I can’t help feeling that muslims in the UK today struggle with many of the same problems that Jews have struggled with over the ages.

    Finally, the point has been made elsewhere (I think by Katie Melua on This Week) that the fact that Britain (or to be more precise, England) is somewhat apologetic about putting forward its own culture actually makes life very difficult for immigrants that wish to integrate. There is no simple target.

    I will declare an interest here. I live in a community that is >99% non-Brit (not in the UK). It is very strange celebrating Christmas when all the shops were open and no-one else was off work. However, there is a clearly defined host culture (and a pride in that culture and a willingness to show others) that makes it quite easy to know how to behave without standing out too much. And I certainly wouldn’t begrudge my host culture their high days and holidays, or, in deference to me, expect them to call it anything other than what they have always called it.

    In the UK, it may well be that over time holidays will change their meaning and a subtly different mainstream culture will develop that is some some of the immigrant components. But in the shorter term I don’t think there is harm in stating a strong host culture and emphasising mutual respect. Have Christmas, call it Christmas and not Xmas or Winter Holiday and then accept that not everyone will observe this festival in a religious sense. I think it then makes it easier to recognise the needs of other cultures to celebrate their own significant rites.

  • In any half-decent democracy, you’re going to have cross-cultural marriages, creating cross-cultural kids. If you want to perpetuate a multicultural society indefinitely, you’re going to have find a way to stop this happening, since even a low level of cross-cultural marriages will be enough, long-term, to blur the ‘communities’ out of existence.

  • Passing Tory 5th Jan '08 - 8:32pm

    Indeed, Anax.

    Although in fact there are two extremes. The first is that cross-cultural kids form their own, individual indentity, selected from the cultures around them, and the second is that they choose just one of the cultures around them. In reality I suspect reality lies somewhere between these extremes, but closer to the latter. So what me might expect to see is that individuals will tend to take on a culture as a packge, but with elements of their own interpretation / other cultures and this may well mean that slowly the consituent cultures within the community change.

    This seems to be a far better approach than denying any of the individual cultures and aiming for some blend directly.

  • Passing Tory
    It’s more complex than that.Skin colour for example,you can’t choose a community if that community will reject you.I remember a young black man,born and brought up in the UK, being constantly told things were different in “his country”,ie somewhere in Africa.
    Religion is another important factor.Those who are Christian can more easily choose to be part of the mainstream.
    In the past in different parts of the world there were distinct groups of Eurasians but to give one example,Hong Kong, kids of mixed race who grow up there now mostly consider themselves to be Chinese.

  • Brian Parkinson 10th Mar '08 - 12:32pm

    I would point out two issues:
    1) Integration is a two way process, a little like communication, and we are all responsible for it.
    2)You quote percentage figures of Black and Minority Ethnic children living in poverty categorized by ethnicity. Whilst not disagreeing with the figures I disagree with the emphasis. The majority of migrants into any country will tend to supplement the working class workforce, for a variety of reasons. (See Prof N Harris writing for UNESCO). As a result they will tend to live in working class areas. These are often deprived. It does not matter what colour or ethnicity the inhabitants are. It is important to reduce the economic gap between the better off in our society and the poorer members of it. Not to do so is morally bankrupt and also endangers all our securities and futures. It is however dangerous to look at this as a racial issue. As soon as we label people we separate them from others thus causing antagonism, friction, resentment and finally violence.
    We need to treat people as individuals, whilst recognising that they will be different from ourselves. It is only in this manner that we can progress to a fair and integrated society.

    Brian Parkinson

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