Blowing the whistle on multiculturalism

“Islam” was daubed in red letters on war memorials in Green Park and Hyde Park in London on 27 May. The attacks came in the wake of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, brutally hacked to death on 22 May on the street in Woolwich, South East London.

Excerpt from The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration, by David Goodhart (Atlantic Books, 2013). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: The Multicultural Odyssey

It is often said that a host society cannot demand anything of a newcomer that it does not demand of existing citizens. It is an idea that I would agree with in most circumstances, but it’s not always true. In citizenship and language tests Britain makes special demands on newcomers and it’s right that it does so. The act of immigration is, normally, freely chosen. The immigrant has chosen to come to an already existing country with its own laws, history, language and so on. Those need to be respected and understood. The host society must offer equal rights to the newcomer, including the right to be different in a way that does not foster separation. Majorities do then adapt to accommodate minorities but it is a long-term and largely unconscious process, whereas the immigrant’s adaptation is shorter-term and more conscious. That is as it should be. But the stress that academic multiculturalists place on the ‘two-way street’ implies that the immigrant is doing the host society a favour by coming to the country and that its citizens should be grateful; a somewhat eccentric view of immigration, especially of the low-skill kind.

The host society majority are, in any case, largely absent from the multiculturalism story. It is one of the blind spots of most of the academic multiculturalists I have been considering (though Parekh has publicly acknowledged the failure). Multiculturalism encourages, and wants funded from the public purse, the expression of minority ethnic identification, but has been silent about – or hostile to – the expression of majority ethnic identification.[1]

It is often hard being a newcomer in a society, even a liberal one like Britain that offers undreamt of protections and rights compared with earlier eras. But mass immigration makes big demands on host communities too, and if multiculturalism only addresses the concerns and promotes the identity of minorities – what Eric Kaufmann calls ‘asymmetrical multiculturalism’ – it will not help Britain to adapt successfully to the big demographic changes taking place. A successful integration strategy must engage the attention, consent and sympathy of the majority, particularly in the areas of high immigration, if the formal equalities offered to minorities by politics and law are to become the felt equality and acceptance of everyday life.

What, for example, does multiculturalism theory have to say to those elderly white people of the Pollards Hill estate in Merton, in south-west London, many of whom feel displaced and disrupted by the arrival of a large Ghanain population in recent years? To the local whites the Ghanaians are not fitting in but imposing their own way of life on the neighbourhood. Similar small battles are taking place in thousands of other housing estates up and down the country.

There is a strong strand of wishful thinking in most academic multiculturalism – and a reluctance to accept trade-offs. All three thinkers I have been looking at assert, for example, that strong multicultural identities are perfectly compatible with strong national identities, but they provide no evidence for this claim. Common sense would surely suggest that, on the contrary, minority autonomy and feelings of national solidarity pull in different directions.

Modood makes much of the ‘ethnicity paradox’ that the more you are allowed to be yourself and take pride in your own roots the more likely you are to identify with your adopted country – again, this may be true for some groups, particularly relatively successful ones like Hindu Indians, but where is the evidence? French Muslims who tend to be less pious than British ones identify more with France than their British counterparts.

Indeed the argument could be turned around. The more the majority in a modern liberal state has a confident and well-articulated sense of its collective identity and history the easier it is for minorities – both as individuals and collectively – to see themselves as part of the national story. This seems to be the case in Scotland, for example, where many of the South Asian minority are enthusiastic Scottish nationalists. On the other hand, as Lauren McLaren has written, possibly with the English in mind, ‘where individuals struggle to define their socio-political community they tend to be more threatened by outside influences. Without knowing who “we” are, we worry about where “they” will fit in.’[2]

Surely the interesting and difficult issue here is the balance: how much separateness in lifestyles, language and so on remains compatible with an idea of strong citizenship? All three theorists just assume that the welcoming stance implied by multiculturalism towards newcomers must succeed in incorporating them as loyal citizens. And once this is seen to happen, sceptical natives will no longer view immigrants as a threat to prevailing values and will come to accept cultural heterogeneity as compatible with national cohesion.

Will Kymlicka makes a strong case for this in the Canadian story, but Canada is a one-off where multiculturalism has always had a strongly integrationist assumption and where it has become part of the country’s identity in the quest to distinguish itself from the US. But it is not obviously borne out by recent history in, say, Britain or the Netherlands.

The work of American academic Jack Citrin shows that differences in multicultural policy regimes between countries make no discernible difference to public attitudes towards immigration or minorities. It is just as plausible to argue that multiculturalism has elevated ethnic identification and group belonging at the expense of a commitment to a common core of norms and experience and that the insistence on difference – in dress, in language and so on – provokes resentment that can easily turn into outright hostility. One Labour MP in a town with a large and quite segregated Muslim minority told me about the suppressed anger he has often observed in his white constituents when passing a Muslim woman in a niqab in the town centre. ‘You can see them muttering to themselves and scowling at the woman,’ he says. That is just an anecdote but no better evidence is provided for the inherently less plausible claim that celebrating difference encourages minorities to join in and majorities to embrace them.[3]

Because it is hostile to the idea of a core national culture and the idea of the legitimate cultural and political weight of the majority community, academic multiculturalism can end up supporting a very thin notion of national citizenship. And despite the avowed leftism of most academic multiculturalists, they often end up on the same side as liberal individualists and conservatives. ‘So long as I pay my taxes and obey the law, society can make no further demands on me’ – one can imagine this being said by both a small-state free-market conservative and a separatist multiculturalist.

The minority demand for greater autonomy in the light of the prejudice that was still pervasive in the early 1980s was understandable. But at what point does a ‘demeaned identity’ cease to be demeaned? And how can the demand for something as nebulous as ‘recognition’ ever be satisfied? Too much of academic multiculturalism remains stuck in the 1980s. Instead of requiring that long-established liberal democracies tear up the rule book and reshape their political structures to suit minority group rights, something that would surely serve only to alienate the majority, academic multiculturalism should focus on how best to exploit the plentiful space offered to minorities by modern liberalism.

Much of the work of multiculturalist writers is highly abstract, with little attempt to test the ideas against the real world. And multiculturalism in the universities has had no significant internal opposition to bring it back to earth. Yet, as one of the intellectual manifestations of post-war immigration, it has brought some insight, and passion, into old debates on liberalism, pluralism, universalism, relativism, religious freedom and identities. And a few good ideas have emerged over recent years. One example is Parekh’s idea of ‘operative public values’ – how values are often hidden or implicit in national institutions, which then tends to favour insiders who enjoy a kind of implicit knowledge. These values should be made more explicit; indeed, if we are trying to reimagine national citizenship for a more plural but still coherent society, many things must be made more explicit.

But the great advances of recent decades in minority rights and anti-discrimination legislation owe little to academic multiculturalism (despite the claims it sometimes makes) and much to conventional, colour-blind liberalism. Moreover, academic multiculturalism’s uncritical championing of minority traditions, its neglect of majorities, and suspicion of integration, its continuing promotion of minority autonomy even after Britain has become a much more accommodating country, has left it politically marginalised.

The broader story of multiculturalism as a ‘live and let live’ approach to the management of minority-majority relationships can, however, count some successes. There is, indeed, some truth in Tariq Modood’s ‘ethnicity paradox’. By allowing the post-war minorities to find their own way to an understanding of the country and their own hybrid versions of what it is to be British, it has probably ended up binding them into the country more thoroughly than if they had been pushed.

This has worked especially well for those minorities, such as Hindus and Sikhs from India, East African Asians and some black Africans, which have the right level of ‘cultural protection’ – a benign combination of supportive family networks, a powerful work ethic, a pro-education tradition and a cultural confidence that has also helped them to integrate successfully.

But ‘laissez-faire’ has worked much less well for those groups such as Kashmiri Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Somalis who were poor and often illiterate when they arrived and brought with them a conservative, rural version of Islam and family networks that locked them away from mainstream society.

Successful immigrant groups do not need an integration strategy, they already have one in their culture and their socio-economic starting points. Britain’s brand of multiculturalism has allowed the well-equipped to succeed and the problem groups to flounder and self-segregate. That is one reason why it is possible to hold apparently contradictory views about the multiculturalism record.

Excerpted from The British Dream by David Goodhart. Copyright © David Goodhart, 2013. All rights reserved.

David Goodhart is the director of the think tank DEMOS, and the editor-at-large of Prospect magazine, which he founded in 1995. He was previously a senior correspondent for the Financial Times.


[1] Varun Uberoi and Tariq Modood talk about ‘minimising’ the dominant culture, see ‘Inclusive Britishness: A Multiculturalist Advance’, Political Studies, 2012.
[2] See the recent work of Christian Joppke.
[3] The opinion poll data also shows no support for a strong multiculturalist position even from minorities. According to Ipsos MORI only 16 per cent of the native born with native parents strongly agree that ethnic groups should maintain their traditions. For EU immigrants the figure is similarly low; it is a bit higher for non-European immigrants – 43 per cent for those who have been here less than seven years and 34 per cent for more than seven years.

White Britons ‘In Retreat’ From Minority Areas

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3 COMMENTS

  1. yeah, old europeans will have this problems with islam until they refuse insane liberties they grant to traditional european religions… for it is impossible, in a just society, to refuse to grant same liberties to all religions…

    and islam just (mis)use standard (yet – insane) religious liberties of european societes and traditional religions in a new, aggressive way

    all the people must first be loyal citizens and only then faithfull… and religions must, by all means, be kept out of schools… otherwise, traditional people will soon become – obsolete…

  2. yeah, old europeans will have this problems with islam until they refuse insane liberties they grant to traditional european religions… for it is impossible – in a just society – to refuse to grant the same liberties to all religions…

  3. Be a white victim of violent racist assault in one of these ghettos, and the police won't help you, the immigrants won't help you. I've been a victim, and the police would not even visit to see the damage. My partner's been a victim – assaulted on the street outside our house on 3 separate occasions. The only time that anyone came to his aid, was when passing (white) motorists stopped their cars and got out to help. To this day, I thank those strangers for intervening in a racist assault.

    Having been on friendly terms with many immgirants, I was appalled to see how happy they were to inflict racist violence on white people.

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