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Whatever happened to multiculturalism?

To many, multiculturalism, not just as demography or social description of a town or city but as a political idea, suffered a body blow in 2001. In the shock of 9/11 and the analysis following riots in Leeds, Oldham and...


To many, multiculturalism, not just as demography or social description of a town or city but as a political idea, suffered a body blow in 2001. In the shock of 9/11 and the analysis following riots in Leeds, Oldham and Bradford that in some northern English towns the white and Pakistani working classes were living parallel lives, many forecast its days were numbered. If these blows were not fatal, multiculturalism was, it is believed, surely killed off by the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 and the terrorism and anti-terrorism measures that have followed. This view is far too simplistic.

Multiculturalism is the idea that equality in the context of difference cannot be achieved by individual rights or equality understood as sameness, and has to be extended to include the positive inclusion of marginalised groups marked by race and their own sense of ethnocultural identity. The latter is reinforced by exclusion but may also matter to many individuals as a form of belonging. Multiculturalism therefore grows out an initial commitment to racial equality, the elimination of white discrimination against non-whites, – of the kind that Labour government outlawed in the 1960s and 1970s – into a perspective that allows minorities to publicly oppose negative images of themselves in favour of positive self-definition and institutional accommodation. The 1980s saw this transition, spearheaded by black pride movements but in the main as vehicles for South Asian minority group claims. One of the most significant pivots in this transition was The Satanic Verses affair of 1988-89, which launched a Muslim identity mobilisation which ultimately grew to overshadow other multiculturalist and anti-racist politics. It is significant to note multiculturalism in Britain has had this conflictual and bottom-up character, unlike in say Canada or Australia, where the federal government has been the key initiator.

Labour and Multiculturalism

Nevertheless, anti-racism and multiculturalism requires governmental support and commitment. The first New Labour term (1997–2001) has probably been the most multiculturalist national government in Britain – or indeed Europe. It abolished the primary purpose rule in relation immigration. It introduced Muslim and other faith schools on the same basis as Christian and Jewish schools. Muslims (in particular, the Muslim Council of Britain at the national level) were brought into governance on the same basis as other identity and interest groups. The Macpherson report was published, initiating a high-profile discussion of institutional racism and requiring an appropriate programme of action from the London Metropolitan Police and other state bodies. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 strengthened the previous equality legislation, especially in relation to the duty of public bodies to actively promote racial equality. It selectively targeted disadvantaged groups such as Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and African-Caribbeans in relation to education and employment policies, while recognising that other minorities such as the Chinese and Indians were not disadvantaged relative to whites in these policy areas – it moved a white/non-white divide lacking in nuance. Holocaust Day was instituted in 2005. Religion was added to the census in 2001, acknowledging the multi-religious makeup of modern Britain.

What makes this package of measures ‘multiculturalist’ is that they are directed in different ways to addressing the inequalities that (primarily, non-white) minorities experience, without limiting such a conception to that of black-white racial equality alone. It goes beyond that colour dualism in recognising a related ethnoreligious pluralism, and extending anti-discrimination beyond colour to include ethnicity and religion, to meeting specific disadvantages suffered by self-identifiable groups, supporting such groups to be active civil society players and to bringing them into governance. Contrary to the glib ‘death of multiculturalism’ view this agenda continued, to some extent, in the second and third New Labour governments as well, primarily in the extension of religious equality in law, culminating in the Equality Act 2010 which put religion on a par with all other equality strands and therefore made it part of the strongest anti-discrimination legislation in Europe. Wanting to bring organised Muslims into forms of community co-governance was another strand of continuity, even though such partnerships were prone to breakdown and mutual recrimination.

Multiculturalism and Common Citizenship

Yet, after 2001, and especially after the bombings of 2005, there were significant departures from the earlier multiculturalism too. It is, however, not accurate to understand those developments as the end of multiculturalism. They mark a ‘rebalancing’ of multiculturalism so as to give due emphasis to commonality as well as respect for difference. At a local level this consisted of a new discourse and accompanying programmes of community cohesion, which were premised on the multiculturalist idea of plural communities but designed to cultivate interaction and cooperation, both at the micro level of individual lives and everyday experience and at the level of towns, cities and local government.

At a macro level, this consisted of emphasising national citizenship. Not in an anti-multiculturalist way as in France but as a way of bringing the plurality into a better relationship with its parts. Hence the definitions of Britishness offered during this period, for example, in the Crick report. While they referred to the English language, to the history of the emergence of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, to values such as liberty and fairness, they also stressed that modern Britain was a multinational, multicultural society and there were many ways of being British and these were changing. As ethnic minorities became more woven into the life of the country they were redefining what it meant to be British.

Hence the idea that an emphasis on citizenship or Britishness was a substitute for multiculturalism is quite misleading. Indeed, it is often overlooked that the theorists of multiculturalism have regarded citizenship as a foundational concept, and explicitly developed multiculturalism as a mode of integration, albeit a difference-respecting integration, rather than assimilation or individualistic integration. Moreover, they have tended to emphasise not just minority identities per se but also the inclusion of minority identities within the national identity. This is also how the Canadian and Australian governments have understood multiculturalism and continue to do so (if the Australian government under Howard gave up on that idea it has been revived subsequently). If we look at what multiculturalists have argued (as opposed to the caricatures presented by their critics), this has been the dominant interpretation in Britain too.

Take the report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (2000), better known as the Parekh report after its chair, the Labour peer Bhikhu Parekh. It made national identity and ‘retelling the national story’ central to its understanding of equality, diversity and cohesion. This involved a critical engagement with top-down and simplistic ideas of national identity, but also argued that a shared national identity, no less than the elimination of racism, was important in giving all citizens a sense of belonging. It argued that citizenship, and especially the acquisition of citizenship through naturalisation, was – in contrast to countries like the USA and Canada – undervalued in Britain and it was the first public document to advocate the idea of citizenship ceremonies.

Also evident from the Parekh report is multiculturalism’s focus on socio-economic inequalities and the way they can particularly affect some or all non-white groups. Here Britain does not have the record of countries like Canada, Australia and the US in enabling immigrant communities to be upwardly mobile, but its record is much better than that of other EU countries, especially anti-multiculturalist ones like France and Germany. In relation to ‘ethnic penalties’, the extent to which membership of an ethnic group means that one’s socio-economic location is worse than it is for whites, the overall picture is patchy. There has been good progress on ethnic minorities into higher education and achievement of degrees; some progress on getting ethnic minorities into the most prestigious universities; limited progress on ethnic minorities getting jobs appropriate to their qualifications; and the least amount of progress on reducing the disproportionate rates of ethnic minorities in low paid jobs and in unemployment.

England and Labour

The point of the above is that multicultural Britishness continues to have a pertinence as an ideal, and its ethos is present in elements of law and policy and in a a form of governance closely associated with Labour governments. Hopefully, this will be true of future Labour governments, in contrast to Conservative efforts to displace it with a more top-down, mono-nationalist and establishment ‘British values’ perspective.

Yet over the last couple of decades a new set of identitarian challenges have become apparent, initially in Scotland but latterly throughout the UK. In none of the nations of the union does the majority of the population consider themselves British, without also considering themselves English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish. The 2011 census is not a detailed study of identity but it is striking that 70 per cent of the people of England ticked the ‘English’ box and the vast majority of them did not also tick the ‘British’ box. This was much more the case with white people than non-whites, who were more likely to identify as British only or British combined with English.

Multiculturalism, then, may actually have succeeded in fostering a British national identity amongst the ethnic minorities. The challenge now is to relate those who primarily think in mono-nationalist terms with those who think of themselves in bi-nationalist terms – e.g. English and British – or whose sense of Britishness is a union of multi-level and crosscutting differences. Multiculturalism here offers not only the plea that English national consciousness should be developed in a context of a broad, differentiated British identity but ethnic minorities become an important bridging group between the English mono-nationalists and the English-British. Paradoxically, a supposedly out of date political multiculturalism becomes a source from which to think about not just integration of minorities but also how to conceive of our plural nationality and give expression to dual identities such as English-British. It is no small irony that minority groups who all too often are seen as harbingers of fragmentation could prove to be exemplars of the union and a source of differentiated unity.

The minimum one would wish to urge upon a centre-left taking English consciousness seriously is that it should not be simply nostalgic, exclusively majoritarian and that it should avoid ethno-nationalism (‘Anglo-Saxonism’). More positively, multiculturalism, with its central focus on equal citizenship and diverse identities and on the renewing and reforging of nationality to make it inclusive of contemporary diversity, shows how we can be equally sensitive to internal diversity, multiple identities and the need to strengthen an appreciation of the emotional charge of belonging together.

The England and Labour project is being coordinated by Prof John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, with an editorial group of Prof Mike Kenny (Director of the Mile End Institute, QMUL), Mary Riddell and Jonathan Rutherford. The Fabian Review will be publishing regular articles from the series, as part of the debate about Labour’s response to contemporary England.


Tariq Modood

Tariq Modood is professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, and founding director of the Centre for the study of Ethnicity and Citizenship.

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