'what should integration mean in britain today?'

bernard crick debates kenan malik

jcwi bulletin, winter 2004-5

Dear Bernard

Integration is one of those concepts that most people desire, but few can define. It is easier to describe what it's not - neither assimilation nor a society of enclaves, as your own report on Britishness put it - than what it is.

Part of the difficulty is that we focus on the wrong issue. The problem of integration is generally seen as synonymous with the problem of immigration, and of how to manage the diversity that immigrants bring. But the real issue is not the integration of immigrants but the fragmentation of British society.

Historically, postwar immigrants to Britain were concerned less with preserving their cultural differences than with achieving political equality. Only over the past two decades have minority groups sought to define themselves primarily by their differences. Why? Because they have been encouraged to do so by a society that has become wary of the notion of common values, but seeks instead to celebrate cultural distinctiveness. In this process, the very meanings of equality and social justice have been redefined, from the right to be treated the same despite one's cultural and ethnic differences, to the right to be treated differently because of them.

The consequence has been the fragmentation of society, as different communities assert their particular identities and compete with each other for resources and recognition. The old universalising language of equality has been replaced by the new and divisive language of identity.

If we are serious about integration, then, we need to start thinking not so much about immigration or citizenship ceremonies but more about how to challenge the politics of identity and to give new political meaning to the language of civic universalism. After all, there seems little point in having citizenship ceremonies to ease immigrants into the club when no one seems to know what the club stands for in the first place.

With best wishes,

Kenan Malik


Dear Kenan

If we agree that integration is neither assimilation nor a society of separate enclaves, then between those two extremes there is a great range and diversity of types of integration. It might be dangerous or restrictive to try to define the term too closely. My report, The New and the Old, said that, to us, 'integration means not simply mutual respect and tolerance between different groups but continual interaction, engagement and civic participation'. Living in separate enclaves could be disintegrative, if those enclaves do not mix and mingle to some degree.

But I am amazed that you say 'the real issue is not the integration of immigrants but the fragmentation of British society'. What fragmentation? I am an Englishman living in Scotland. Most Scots have a strong sense of Scottishness but also see themselves as British. A sense of double-identity has not been uncommon, even before post-war immigration. Think of the Irish in Britain, and the Jews.

Common values do exist (and human rights legislation actually brings many of them into law), but so do cultural differences. Talk of fragmentation seems to me the scare-talk of a few London tabloids hostile to Scottish devolution, hostile to the Welsh language and hostile to immigrants, often verging on racism.

The New and the Old said very clearly that cultural diversity existed within an overarching sense of Britishness, and of the values and practices of democracy - what you well call 'the language of civic universalism'. But we drew distinctions. 'Britishness', including British patriotism, is a strong and good concept, but it is not the whole culture. Whoever speaks of a British novel, rather than English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh? And in sport FIFA allows the UK uniquely to field four national teams. Disintegrative or just peculiar?

Some real worries certainly; not about disintegration, however, but about apathy and lack of public spirit. But this was nothing to do with moving the idea of justice from equal treatment of individuals to equal treatment of all groups. That seems to me a fearful fantasy, and something I certainly resist. 'Group rights' can be bad for individuals, especially women.

Best wishes

Bernard Crick


Dear Bernard

You misread my intention. I have no desire to defend an essentialised British culture (as spurious a concept as the organic Scottish culture to which you seem attracted). What concerns me is the transformation that has taken place in recent years from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity; that is, from solidarity defined in political terms - as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals - to solidarity defined in terms of ethnicity or culture.

Why is this a problem? Well, look at the case of Bradford. In the late 1970s, anti-racist protest in the city focused around four main issues - racist attacks, immigration controls, police brutality and workplace discrimination. The local council responded to this militancy by launching its multicultural programme, declaring that every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city' had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'. Within five years, the focus of anti-racist struggle had shifted from political to cultural issues, beginning with demands for Muslim schools, separate education for girls, and halal meat - and ending, most explosively, in the confrontation over The Satanic Verses.

Political struggles unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. Since council funding in Bradford was now linked to cultural identity, so different groups began asserting their particular identities ever more fiercely, establishing new divisions and ensuring that multiculturalism segregated the city more effectively than even racism had.

This shift from politically based to culturally based identity has now become a key feature of British political life. This is not tabloid scare-talk. As someone who believes in open borders, my views on immigration would probably be more loathsome to Daily Mail readers than yours would be. But as an anti-racist, I've never bought into the ideology of diversity - the promotion of difference has always been at the heart, not of the anti-racist, but of the racist agenda.

Finally, this is not a problem that I see being solved by a few citizenship classes. Political problems require political solutions, not bureaucratic ones.

Best wishes,



Dear Kenan

I wonder how far apart we really are in practice? You say that 'political problems require political solutions, not bureaucratic ones'. I agree, but politics, as the great Edmund Burke said, 'is the art of compromise'; and in my In Defence of Politics I added, 'of creative compromise'. Yes, some have developed a rampant ideology of diversity; but others an equally strident divisive ideology of Britishness, as meaning a complete unity of cultural and political spheres. But neither describes society in the United Kingdom as it is, and was even before postwar immigration. That is why I remind you that the Scots and Welsh remain Scots and Welsh wherever they go, but also British. Why not Muslims and Hindus too? I think, philosophically, you commit the fallacy of the excluded middle. And in actual politics life is a perpetual movement of different emphases between our British identity and other identities within that framework of loyalty. I have no sympathy with those who do not give that loyalty.

I understand why David Blunkett and Trevor Phillips prefer to speak of 'diversity' rather than 'multiculturalism'. For there are some who use 'multiculturalism' as a claim to group rights, as if standing outside human rights as such (which pertain to individuals). But most sociologists and historians would simply use it to point to a pluralism of sub-cultures within our state. Britain is not France. Your gibe at any organic notion of a Scottish culture as being spurious makes you sound more Southern English than ever I was! Some conservative Englishmen and London journalists cannot accept that Britishness is a wider concept. Englishness itself has changed in my lifetime, not as a result of the new immigration but as a result of the discrediting of the establishment in the wake of the Second World War, and of the decline of the cult of the gentleman in face of consumer society and the influence of the mass media. The cultures of the immigrants also change.

Social forces modify us all more than law and bureaucracy; but they modify, not remove, real but tolerable differences.




Dear Bernard

Am I being Southern English? Only if it's Southern English to point out that much of what passes for Scottish identity today was actually invented by English administrators in the nineteenth century. It's not just the idea of an organic Scottish culture that is spurious. So are similar claims about Jewish culture, Muslim culture - or, indeed, English culture. The problem of multiculturalism is not simply that it can lead to claims for group rights; it is also that it embodies the idea of society as composed of a small number organic cultures dancing around each other.

This exchange of letters began as a debate about the meaning of integration. My point was, and remains, that the problem of integration is not primarily one of immigration but one of social fragmentation - of the way that the universalising language of equality has been replaced by the divisive language of identity. The question is not one of whether one can be Scots or Muslim and still be British - one clearly can - but whether the concept of common identity still has meaning in an age in which we seem to lack the political vision to do much more than celebrate our differences.

There is too often a confusion between the diversity of peoples and the diversity of values. Multiculturalists argue that the presence in a society of diversity of peoples precludes the possibility of common values. Little Englanders suggest that such values are possible only within an ethnically homogenous society. Both views are products of a society that seems unwilling to forge shared values and common identities through a process of political dialogue and struggle, a process whereby different values are put to the test, and a collective language of citizenship emerges.

Best wishes,



Dear Kenan

You are obviously sensitive to my point that Scottishness within Britishness is an overwhelming illustration of the fact that we have been - and are - a multicultural society without fragmentation. For you make the historically preposterous assertion that 'much of what passes for Scottish identity today was actually invented by English administrators in the nineteenth century'. In fact, ever since the Act of Union in 1707 Scots administered Scots - a classic example of English indirect rule, not cultural assimilation.

But I like your phrase about multiculturalism as 'a small number of organic cultures dancing around each other', only I would accept it gladly - with the obvious caveat that we dance within the tent of a common set of values (mostly universal, as in human rights and democratic concepts), and a common set of overarching institutions (parliamentary government, the crown, the rule of law).

Only a few extremists - and their racist counterparts - think that multiculturalism means separation: group rights as sovereign rights. I am a pluralist. We all have different identities, often expressed in different circumstances. Intermarraige is growing healthily. I simply do not recognise Britain as disintegrating. There are lots of things wrong with the consumer society predominating over old ideas of public service and mutual responsibility. But these are all too solid flesh, alas. No disintegration.

To me variety is the spice of life. And we are secure enough in our Britishness and values not just to tolerate but to enjoy variety. You think I am complacent; perhaps a little. I think you are feeding a press panic; perhaps a little.

We will meet again, I am sure.