New Internationalist

To craft a new society

Issue 422

A rapidly changing world is prompting retreat into tidy and restrictive identities, argues Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Multiculturalism, once an expansive idea, has now hardened into orthodoxy and schism. Time to usher in an era of greater openness.

The new millennium rushes on in a rapidly transforming world. Unexpected forces have been released in Britain and around the globe. They bring fresh challenges for new and old Britons, particularly those who feel an erosion of trust and ease. The geopolitical realities of this century and profound shifts within domestic populations demand fresh thinking and bespoke policies and politics. Reheated responses left over from the last century will no longer work. One key area that requires reassessment is multicultural policies – local and national – implemented by public bodies and private institutions to promote racial harmony and cultural entitlements.

In 1968, Roy Jenkins, the Labour Home Secretary, declared that expecting immigrants to wholly assimilate into a pre-determined ‘Britishness’ when they faced racism and hostility was neither fair nor achievable.

As the academic Ali Rattansi put it: ‘The assimilationist thrust assumed an obvious, definable, homogenous British culture into which the hapless immigrant may be inducted.’ Jenkins believed the state had a responsibility to ensure equality of opportunity for all and to outlaw discrimination, and that immigrant cultures were entitled to respect. Changes would happen given time, but enforced acculturation was against liberty and justice. It may not seem so in retrospect, but at the time, Jenkins’ was extraordinarily enlightened thinking.

He, a member of the establishment, challenged imperial hubris and deeply embedded European cultural superiority. Then, in 1978, Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that immigrants were ‘swamping’ the culture of her beloved, small-minded England. The ‘Iron Lady’ saw diversity as a threat to national unity and well-being.

The Greater London Council under (‘Red’) Ken Livingstone, education authorities, Labour-run councils and the Commission for Racial Equality (despised by the Tories), as well as arts and academic bodies, opposed the  jingoistic and hubristic New Conservatism and sought to keep going some of the Jenkins credo. History, literature, religious practice, family values were contested. British traditionalists grew restive and opposed this challenge to their world order. In spite of the sound and fury between the parties, the country did open up to include various world views and experiences – a good thing.

Hardened arteries

However, in time, the arteries of multiculturalism began to clog up and narrow. ‘Community’ leaders, all male, almost all sexist and of an age, grabbed petty power and set up political and cultural fiefdoms from where they traded with parliamentarians. Those in the enclaves, willingly or otherwise, were cut off from other Britons and the fundamental tenets of modernism. It was an imperial model imported into post-modern times.   

The Satanic Verses furore and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 exposed the first faultlines of this approach and the divisions within British society that had deepened and widened. Even Roy Jenkins questioned his former ideals and policies. White liberals, once pro-immigrant, now felt their deepest held principles and freedoms were being cut down by the ‘barbarians’ within. Some British Muslims had no respect for hard-won artistic and individual rights. Most were powerless, bewildered and lost in the suddenly volatile landscape where they and their faith were demonized by writers, thinkers, politicians and the media.  

The murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence by young white men shocked Britons of all hues. Multicultural education had failed to turn around the hateful attitudes of many young whites and may, arguably, have hardened them. Roger Hewitt, who studied young people in schools in South London, where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, concluded: ‘White pupils, to some extent, seem like cultural ghosts, haunting as mere absences the richly decorated corridors of multicultural societies.’ Their resentment was palpable and dangerous. 

Labour returned to power in 1997 and launched the Lawrence inquiry, which exposed the stubborn persistence of British racism. The nation seemed then to feel collective guilt and shame. It soon passed. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant attitudes were surging again and the new government pandered to them and also to the demands of unwholesome ethnic power-merchants who wanted virtual apartheid. Many Asian families, for example, were still forcing their children into marriage, denying young people any autonomy or rights; and within Caribbean families, absent fathers and delinquency were regarded simply as cultural habits. Manipulative Muslim campaigners withdrew from fellow anti-racists and established the primacy of their religious identity. Once, people of colour coalesced. Now, they splintered and became self-consciously Hindu, Caribbean, African, Muslim, Shi’a Muslim, Kashmiri, Khalistani, Kurdish, Nigerian and so on. They went on to make claims which are not only positive, but negative, at the expense of other groups. This fragmentation carries on. 

State-funded faith schools proliferated and were the symbol of the divisive politics of identity encouraged by the state. Various Britons rejected human commonalities, saw only difference, wanted only separate development and special treatment. Things were falling apart and the nation would not hold.

Only connect

Unquestionably multiculturalism – once a progressive ideology – was making this disintegration worse. It was failing to connect. It was a continuation of the colonial divide-and-rule strategy and had started to fester in closed-off ghettoes. White racism and ‘ethnic’ self exclusion created dislocation and psychotic fury among many third-generation Muslims. 

Then came 9/11 and the attacks in Metropolitan London, the world’s favourite city. Fear, suspicion and xenophobia walked the streets. Multiculturalism and extreme Islam were blamed. Racism was banished from the national discourse. Old Fifties Britishness was resuscitated and pushed punitively on to all those perceived as aliens. It didn’t work, but nor does the multicultural sop.

Society urgently needs to imagine a different Britain, where multiple identities and obligations were a condition of life but where there were overarching, binding ties, shared principles and sovereignty of human rights values. All Britons have to grow a new sense of themselves as active participants in this collective enterprise.  

Societies, nations and communities need to take stock periodically to assess whether existing cultural and political edifices are keeping up with the people and the evolving habitat. Nothing is forever. The most progressive ideas which are right and appropriate at one historical moment can, in time, decay or become retrograde.

The multicultural model has reached that point in 21st century Britain. It does not inspire the young and cannot embrace our most important social developments. It blocks the imagination needed to comprehend and respond to the changes described above. We do not yet have the optimistic and integrated society we all hoped for, in spite of 30 years of multicultural theory and practice.  

To make matters worse, the devolution of power to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments has led to white British tribalism. Increasing numbers of Scots, Welsh and English are opting out of Britishness, just as Britons of colour are being ordered to become properly British. Our national identity is in a state of flux and is causing endless anxieties. Key thinkers on the right and left now argue that both the national identity and the welfare state are threatened by ‘too much diversity’. Reactionary politics are fashionable.    

The uncertainties produced by globalization are creating new insecurities across the planet. People are feeling a loss of control and self-determination; fear grows of cultural annihilation and greater global devastation and inequalities. In many cases the reaction has been a greater (and more idealized) identification with old histories and smaller, neater identities.

Opening the spaces

Fundamentalist secular liberalism (based entirely on individual rights and freedoms) seriously underestimates the need for individuals to belong and believe. The state has a duty to ensure people are not denied the right to worship and congregate, and to make their own life choices within the law and societal norms. However, it has a greater duty to foster links and understanding between citizens. For complex societies to cohere, social spaces must strive for integration and cross-fertilization of ideas which can be interrogated by others. This has serious implications. There can be no room for an established religion, nor any state-funded denominational schools. Arts funding should encourage work that is expansive, inclusive, experimental and dynamic rather than going largely to ‘establishment’ art and then ‘ethnic art’.

In schools, colleges and universities, black and white children must be taught their connected yet diverse heritage. Equality, and only equality, can ensure such an exchange. Both need to go beyond their historical identities while remaining connected to them. Muslim children need to see themselves as Europeans but they cannot do that if Europe defines itself as Christian and erases the presence of Islam through many centuries. The complex histories of empire and slavery (including the culpability of non-white people) should be a central part of the history syllabus. This kind of curriculum would foster integration and real dialogue.

Citizenship education is another tool which will prove to be groundbreaking, although ‘multiculturalists’ are concerned that race is not given enough space and is submerged by other more broad-based ideas. These are misguided concerns. Nurturing values, participation and an open-minded approach to knowledge is what young people need. Their world has for too long been deliberately restricted by the powerful and (ironically) the powerless.

The future belongs to people who can embrace cosmopolitanism and ‘Europeanism’, who successfully negotiate local, ethnic, religious and regional identities and, when necessary, transcend them. Multiculturalism, as once promulgated in Britain, holds them in chains, holds them back from that future.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has written extensively about race, immigration and cultural politics. She is a regular columnist for The Independent.
www.alibhai-brown.com

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