has failed but tolerance can save us
Multiculturalism is of another era and should be
scrapped. That conclusion, expressed last year by
Trevor Phillips, caused a sensation.
The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), which
he chairs, was founded to promote multiculturalism
and governments of both parties pursued that policy
since the 1960s.
Phillips went further: We need to assert there is
a core of Britishness. He lamented the loss
of Shakespeare. That sort of thing is bad for immigrants,
he said, who come here not just for jobs but because of
Britains tolerance and parliamentary democracy.
Despite the CREs retreat, immediately after the
London bombings the prime minister referred to Britain
as tolerant, multi-ethnic and multicultural. Its
clear from the way he spoke that he regarded those three
words as interchangeable. One reason why we in Britain
have enjoyed a broad consensus on multiculturalism is
that we have been so imprecise about what it means. Given
that Britain has attracted waves of immigrants who in
their new home still celebrate Passover, Ramadan or Diwali,
to many it seemed to be just a statement of the obvious.
In the 1960s Enoch Powell foresaw
immigration leading to rivers foaming with blood and was
sacked from the Conservative partys front bench for
saying so. In 1990 Norman Tebbit talked of a cricket test,
meaning that you doubted whether people were integrated
into this country if they supported Pakistan or India when
those teams played England. Those remarks embarrassed the
With those exceptions the respectable
British right has left multiculturalism unchallenged out
of fear that it would be accused of racism. Phillipss
remark indicates that multiculturalism has passed its high
water mark. But that occurred because the left got cold
feet, not because the right won the argument.
The American right has not been so passive.
For example, the Ayn Rand Institute (which bears the name
of the author of The Fountainhead, the bible of individualism)
claims that: Multiculturalism is the view that all
cultures, from the spirits worshipping tribe to that of
an advanced industrial civilisation, are equal in value.
It continues: A culture that values freedom, progress,
reason and science is good; one that values oppression,
mysticism and ignorance is not.
The institute has battled against such
terms as black American on the grounds that
they invite us to categorise a person according to his ancestry
rather than his qualities as an individual. The voters of
California rejected the use of teaching in Spanish, which
had become standard practice in state schools. Victory went
to those who argued that American children who could not
speak English would founder in later life.
A number of things have unsettled the
British left and led to the dramatic U-turn. The Labour
party has had to respond to its white working-class voters
in urban seats such as David Blunketts in Sheffield.
The former home secretary introduced English language tests
for those wishing to become British and town hall ceremonies
at which successful applicants receive citizenship. More
worrying was the issue of Muslim schools. The demand for
them was difficult to resist given that Britain had Catholic,
Church of England and Jewish schools. The authorities felt
on the back foot when Muslim leaders argued that they would
enforce higher moral standards than state schools. After
September 11, 2001 the issue seemed less straightforward.
Another problem for the left was that
its belief in multiculturalism collided with its espousal
of womens rights. Thinkers on the left struggled to
accord equal respect to all cultures when they felt offended
by the idea of some Muslim women living in Britain being
shrouded in the burqa.
Maybe the greatest blow to those who
believed that all cultures were to be esteemed equally was
dealt not by Islam but by some Christian sects in Africa.
The two guardians of Victoria Climbié, the little
girl whom they murdered in 2000, claimed that she was possessed
by witchcraft. At the time of her death she was due to undergo
a church exorcism ceremony.
More recently three people were jailed
for torturing another girl from Africa, claiming she was
gripped by evil spirits. BBC reporters who tracked her family
to Angola found a boy being beaten. He died before the authorities
British police investigating the discovery
of a boys torso declared that he had been the victim
of a ritual killing and revealed that in a three-month period
in 2001, 299 African boys living in Greater London had disappeared.
Britains failure to collect data on people leaving
the country makes it impossible to prove that they did not
simply return to Africa, but experts fear that human trafficking
and abuse of such children are widespread.
The Climbié case suggested that
political correctness hampered local authorities in their
duty to protect children, and social workers were afraid
of appearing insensitive to legitimate cultural diversities.
Tolerance was clearly never meant to
mean that Britain should allow those with roots outside
the country to flout human rights and the laws of the land
on the pretext that things were done differently where they
came from. The Ayn Rand Institute is right to say that it
is dangerous nonsense to pretend that all cultures are morally
equivalent. Such sloppy thinking corrodes our ability to
distinguish good from evil.
It is tempting in a tolerant society
to want to see other peoples point of view. If Islam
has thrown up its extremists, we can recall the excesses
committed over centuries in the name of Christianity. We
can understand that a devout Muslim might find western society
licentious and irreligious. But the time for sophistry has
passed. Our citizens and our society are under threat from
those who believe that difference is a justification for
terror and murder. Our country has the right to assert its
values and require from everyone living here compliance
with our laws and respect for our standards.
Britains woolly thinking
about multiculturalism has helped to make us vulnerable.
We were reluctant to heed warnings passed to us by the French
about the dangers of Islamic extremists settling here. Last
week the Conservatives were in no position to criticise
the government because the last Conservative government
was no more inclined to recognise the perils.
The discovery that the young men
who planted the London bombs were British is deeply worrying.
It defies comprehension that people who have grown up enjoying
our liberties should hate our society enough to engage in
mass murder and to kill themselves. We cannot know whether
tens or thousands of our fellow citizens have been perverted
in that way and now pose a danger to us.
The impact on community relations is another worry. For
all the concern that I and many others feel about the growing
intrusion of the state in our lives, our security services
will have to penetrate more deeply the places where some
of our young people are being taught to hate Britain.
We need to think more clearly than
in the past. Politically correct commentators will want
us to cast our security measures wide to avoid stigmatising
the Muslim community. After the bombs Sir Ian Blair, the
Metropolitan police commissioner, argued that the words
Islamic and terrorist must not be
If he means that most Muslims abhor murder
he is right. But most Irish people did not support the IRA.
Nonetheless the security forces infiltrated Britains
Irish community to know what was going on and to disrupt
the activities of individuals. Another lesson from the Irish
Troubles is that the British showed themselves well able
to distinguish between Irish terrorists and Irish people.
British and Irish people feel an affection for each other
that neither politics nor terror has diminished.
I do not think that the bombings will
produce a backlash among the majority of our non-Muslim
population. Even if multiculturalism in Britain went perilously
too far it had important successes. Britain has undergone
enormous changes in the make-up of its population with little
social unrest. There is understanding and respect between
our diverse ethnic communities. Our signature national quality
of tolerance has been strengthened, not diminished, by successive
rounds of immigration.
Multiculturalism may, as Phillips says,
belong to a bygone era. But magnanimity and understanding
must shape our future.