the real value of diversity

connections, winter 2002

What does it mean to live in a multicultural society? Few questions have been posed more sharply by the events of the past year from the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham to the aftermath of the events of September 11.

There have, in recent months, been two broad responses to this question. For some the violence between whites and Asians in the northern mill towns, and the seeming rejection by some British Muslims of the core values of their chosen country, all reveal the failure of the liberal dream of cohesive, tolerant multicultural society. Writing in the Spectator, Enoch Powell's biographer Simon Heffer suggested that Powell's forebodings about the future of Britain have been borne out. Powell's infamous 'rivers of blood' speech, Heffer wrote, 'can, and should, be seen as the first blast of the trumpet against the dangers of multiculturalism'.

Despite Heffer's advocacy, Powell's little Englander attitudes carry little currency these days. The dominant view is that the events of the past year reveal even more clearly the need for a tolerant multiculturalism, in which all people can enjoy their own culture, while respecting those of others.

Both these responses are, I believe, flawed. One embodies a vision of British (or, more usually, English) identity pickled in aspic. It is a notion of identity rooted in John Major's bucolic vision of 'old maids on bicycles and cricketers playing on the village green'. The other response has abandoned the very notion of a common identity or of shared values except at a most minimal level. Britishness is simply the toleration of cultural diversity.

What both sides in the debate fail to recognise is that shared values and common identities can only emerge 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. Shared values cannot, as Heffer believes, be rooted in a mythical past, in an England that does not exist and probably never did. But the wrongness of the Powellite argument does not make the proponents of multiculturalism right. A cohesive notion of citizenship cannot be based simply on the idea that we should respect other people's values. It requires a positive articulation of the values to which we should all aspire.

In December both the home secretary David Blunkett, and a raft of reports on the inner city riots, attempted to address this problem of 'Britishness'. Blunkett suggested that immigrants should be required to speak English and urged ethnic minorities to become 'more British'. The Home Office-sponsored report into the riots, chaired by Ted Cantle, recommended that all immigrants be required to swear an 'oath of allegiance' to Britain. David Ritchie, author of the independent report on the Oldham riots, criticised the 'self-segregation' of ethnic minorities, and the failure of ethnic minority leaders to encourage greater integration.

This castigation of minorities misses the point. The Asian youth who rioted in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford probably spoke better English than the white youth who threw petrol bombs. And the white youth were undoubtedly as alienated from any notion of Britishness as were the Asians. The problem is not that ethnic minorities are alienated from a concept of Britishness but that there is today no source of Britishness from which anyone - black or white - can draw inspiration.

The belief that the problem of race relations in Britain revolves around the question of the 'difference' of ethnic minorities has been at the heart of policy debate throughout the postwar period, and is at the heart of the arguments of both multiculturalists and their critics. The two sides in the multiculturalism debate have very different views of the Britain they wish to see. Both agree, however, that Britain has become a multicultural nation because immigrants (and their children) have demanded that their cultural differences be recognised and be afforded respect. Supporters of multiculturalism urge the state to see such diversity as a public good; opponents use it to make a case against immigration and, in some cases, for repatriation. I want to show, however, that multiculturalism, far from being a response to demands from local communities, was imposed from the top, the product of government policies aimed at diffusing the anger created by racism.

To understand this better, we need to look again at the history of postwar race relations policy in Britain. The arrival of large numbers of black immigrants in the 1950s from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean created conflicting pressures on policy-makers. While they welcomed the influx of new labour, there was at the same time considerable unease about the impact that such immigration may have on traditional concepts of Britishness. As a Colonial Office report of 1955 observed, 'a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken... the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached'.

Even in the fifties, though, it was clear that such a simple notion of Britishness could not be sustained for long. For a start, it was a form of national identity rooted in a Britain and in an Empire that was already crumbling. Moreover, the experience of Nazism and the Holocaust had rendered virtually unusable the kind of racial exclusiveness embodied in this notion of national identity. In any case, by the end of the fifties black immigrants were already a fact of life in British. Despite the continued attempts by politicians from Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher to Norman Tebbit to formulate a racially exclusive concept of Britishness, it was already apparent by the end of the fifties that British identity would have to be reformulated to include the presence in this country of black citizens.

In the 1960s, therefore, policy-makers embarked on a new 'twin track' strategy in response to immigration. On the one hand they imposed increasingly restrictive immigration controls specifically designed to exclude black immigrants. On the other they instituted a framework of legislation aimed at outlawing racial discrimination and at facilitating the integration of black communities into British society.

The twin track strategy helped promoted the idea of Britain as a tolerant, pluralistic nation that was determined to stamp out any trace of discriminatory practice based on racial or ethnic difference. Britain, in the words of Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins, set out to create 'cultural diversity, coupled with equal opportunity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance'. At the same time, though, the linking of immigration and integration implied that social problems arose from the very presence in Britain of culturally-distinct immigrants. As the (liberal) Tory shadow home secretary Reginald Maudling put it in a parliamentary debate in 1968, 'The problem arises quite simply from the arrival in this country of many people of wholly alien cultures, habits and outlooks.' From the beginning, then, the problem of race relations was viewed not as one not so much of racial discrimination, but rather of cultural differences, and of the inability of black immigrants to be sufficiently British.

While the question of integration and of cultural differences preoccupied the political elite, it was not a question that particularly troubled black Britons. First generation black immigrants were concerned less about preserving cultural differences than about fighting for political equality. They recognised that at the heart of the fight for political equality was a commonality of values, hopes and aspirations between blacks and whites, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, three big issues dominated the struggle for political equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the fight against racist attacks; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality. These struggles politicised a new generation of black activists and came to an explosive climax in the inner city riots of the late seventies and early eighties. The authorities recognised that unless black communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustration could threaten the stability of British cities. It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism emerged.

Local authorities in inner city areas, led by the Greater London Council, pioneered a new strategy of making black communities feel part of British society by organising consultation with black communities, drawing up equal opportunities policies, establishing race relations units and dispensing millions of pounds in grants to black community organisations. At the heart of the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different. Black people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. In this process, the very meaning of equality was transformed: from possessing the same rights as everyone else to possessing different rights, appropriate to different communities.

The multicultural approach appears to be a sensitive response to the needs of black communities. In fact it is undergrid by the same assumption that has dogged the debate about race relations from the start: the idea that black people are in some way fundamentally different from 'British' people and that the problem of race relations is about how to accommodate these 'differences'.

By the mid-eighties the political struggles that had dominated the fight against racism in the sixties and seventies had became transformed into battles over cultural issues. Political struggles unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. Since state funding was now linked to cultural identity, so different groups began asserting their particular identities ever more fiercely. The shift from the political to the cultural arena helped entrench old divisions and to create new ones.

The city of Bradford provides a very good example of how the institutionalisation of multiculturalism undermined political struggles, entrenched divisions and strengthened conservative elements within every community. In April 1976, 24 people were arrested in pitched battles in the Manningham area of Bradford, as Asian youth confronted a National Front march and fought police protecting it. It was seen as the blooding of a new movement. The following year the Asian Youth Movement was born. The next few years brought further conflict between black youth and the police, culminating in the trial of the Bradford 12 in 1981. Twelve young Asians faced conspiracy charges for making petrol bombs to use against racists. They argued they were acting in self-defence - and won. Faced with this growing militancy, Bradford council drew up GLC-style equal opportunity statements, established race relations units and began funding black organisations. A 12-point race relations plan declared that every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city' had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'.

By the mid-eighties the focus of anti-racist protest in Bradford had shifted from political issues, such as policing and immigration, to religious and cultural issues: a demand for Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over the publication of The Satanic Verses. This process was strengthened by a new relationship between the local council and the local mosques. In 1981, the council helped set up and fund the Bradford Council of Mosques. By siphoning resources through the mosques, the council was able to strengthen the position of conservative religious leaders and to dampen down the more militant voices on the streets. As part of its multicultural brief to allow different communities to express their distinct identities, the council also helped set up two other religious umbrella groups: the Federation for Sikh Organisations and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both created in 1984. The consequence was to create divisions and tensions within and between different Asian communities as each fought for a greater allocation of council funding.

There had always been residential segregation between the black and white communities in Bradford, thanks to a combination of racism, especially in council house allocation, and of a desire among Asians to find protection in numbers. But within Asian areas, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus lived cheek by jowl for much of the postwar period. In the eighties, however, the three communities started dividing. They began increasingly to live in different areas, attend different schools and organise through different institutions. New council-funded community organisations and youth centres were set up according to religious and ethnic affiliations. By the early nineties even the Asian business community was institutionally divided along community lines with the creation in 1987 of the largely Hindu and Sikh Institute of Asian Businesses; of the Hindu Economic Development Forum in 1989; and of the Muslim-dominated Asian Business and Professional Club in 1991. The Asian Youth Movement, the beacon in the 1970s of a united struggle against racism, split up, torn apart by such multicultural tensions.

Multiculturalism was not simply the product of demand from black communities for their cultural differences to be recognised. That demand itself was created through official policy in response to the black militancy of the 1970s and early 1980s. Instead of tackling head-on the problems of racial inequality, social deprivation and political disaffection, the authorities, both national and local, simply encouraged communities to pursue what the Cantle report calls 'parallel lives'.

In places like Bradford, Oldham and Burnley multiculturalism has helped segregate communities far more effectively than racism. Racism certainly created deep divisions in these towns. But it also helped generate political struggles against discrimination, the impact of which was to create bridges across ethnic, racial and cultural divisions. Multiculturalism, on the other had, has not simply entrenched the divisions created by racism, but made cross-cultural interaction more difficult by encouraging people to assert their cultural differences. And in areas where there was both a sharp division between Asian and white communities, and where both communities suffered disproportionately from unemployment and social deprivation, the two groups began to view these problems through the lens of cultural and racial differences, blaming each other for their problems. The inevitable result were the riots into which these towns descended last spring.

The real failure of multiculturalism is its failure to understand what is valuable about cultural diversity. There is nothing good in itself about diversity. It is important because it allows us to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which are better and which worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create more universal values and beliefs. But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that multiculturalism attempts to suppress in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect' - as for example in David Blunkett's attempt to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. The result is not a greater sensitivity to cultural differences but an indifference to other peoples' lives, an indifference that lies at the heart of the 'parallel worlds' inhabited by different communities in towns like Bradford, Burnley and Oldham.

Cultural diversity only makes sense within a framework of common values and beliefs that enable us to treat all people equally. And to create such a framework requires us to be a bit more intolerant and to show a bit less respect.