Should we mourn the quiet death of ‘multiculturalism’?

21 Jan 2016


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The choice of a word can tell you a lot. One result of having a political landscape examined by a 24-hour news cycle is that our politicians have never been more careful about what they say in interviews. Questions might be frequently evaded, but when they are answered the choice of language is more often than not both deliberate and calculated.


Taking this into account, it has become overwhelmingly clear when listening to the Prime Minister over the last few months that ‘multiculturalism’ is no longer something celebrated by the government or pursued as an active policy for the future.


On Monday’s Today programme, after announcing a drive to ensure migrants learn to speak English so as to prevent their marginalisation, David Cameron professed his belief that Britain is “one of the most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracies anywhere in the world”. During his Diwali message in November, the Prime Minister delivered a similar message, describing Britain as “the greatest multi-racial democracy on Earth”. When defending the stance on migration outlined by his Home Secretary in a controversial speech at the Tory party conference last year, he again deployed a similar line, coupling 'multi-ethnic' and 'multi-racial' on this occasion.


In all three cases, the use of the terms ‘multi-ethnic’, ‘multi-faith’ and ‘multi-racial’ have occupied a space commonly held in the past by the term ‘multicultural’. The significance of this is borne out when you realise these terms are not, as some might mistakenly assume, synonyms of one another.


Simply put, whilst Mr Cameron remains happy to profess in quite emphatic terms his enthusiasm for a Britain made up of different ethnicities, faiths and races, he has become exceedingly reluctant to do so for a Britain made up of different cultures.

The reasoning behind this is seemingly the Prime Minister’s subscription to a line of conservative thought expressed in less accommodating terms by the commentator Douglas Murray among others. Multiculturalism, they argue, is distinct and concerning as it implies that Britain should seek to champion separate, indivisible cultural groups within a single state, as opposed to a unified culture common for all.


Championing such a society is claimed to entail an acceptance of the non-existent cultural integration that is held responsible for a variety of social ills. It is argued that the cultures identified are often hostile towards core British values, which thus means that the government is effectively pursuing a policy that fuels radicalisation and extremism.



That multiculturalism has been quietly removed from the language of government by Cameron is hardly a surprise, however. In 2011, as part of his first speech as Prime Minister on the issue of radicalisation and terrorism, he declared to a security conference in Munich that the policy of state multiculturalism had “failed”. What was needed, he claimed, was a more robust sense of Britishness in which all embraced the values he felt were at its core, namely liberalism and tolerance.


I would suggest this stance is sincerely held. In a premiership commonly cast as being dominated by a pragmatic, populist approach which sees the Prime Minister only too willing to U-turn the ship to ensure he is always sailing with the winds of public opinion, his rhetoric on extremism and its causes is a rare constant.


When the Prime Minister says a more strenuous belief in British values is required to confront the challenges the country faces he is not merely placating those on the Right of his party who are suspicious of his modernising project. Nor is it the case that he is pandering to those voters he fears might be seduced by UKIP. He is articulating a fundamental belief in the importance of a strong British identity and the superiority of British values that informs his often ignored ideals.


So, if Britain is seeking to kill of multiculturalism as an objective of government, should we be mourning?


As a young, second-generation British Indian, proud of his roots but utterly at ease in Britain (the only country I have ever called home), I don’t think we should on this occasion be too alarmed.


The term multiculturalism has for years generated more heat than light. For those of a liberal persuasion it has become a catch-all term for a plethora of views tied to a vague belief in the value of diversity. A rejection of multiculturalism, liberals have held, would amount to racism. For those of a more conservative bent it is a conspiratorial term for the development of a fragmented Britain dogged by “political correctness gone mad”. Of course, neither is an accurate nor helpful casting of the term.


The dominant, singular culture Mr Cameron clearly wishes to establish can be inclusive in its nature and balance the concerns of Left and Right. It needn’t be drawn from an overly romantic picture of a Britain “pre-migration” which would ostracise swathes of the country’s modern population. Britishness evolves as migrants come to take a part in the living history of the country.


And this country, let us not forget, is one where the national dish is arguably chicken tikka masala, where sportsmen and women of diverse heritage gain cult status in our national teams, and where a young Muslim woman from Luton can capture the heart of a nation with her expert baking of a Victoria sponge cake.


All of this can feed in to a common culture shared by all. Though the individual histories of the British people might be diverse and drawn from all corners of the world, these roots can be celebrated in an evolving, inclusive British culture alongside longstanding domestic customs, values and traditions.


The term ‘multiculturalism’ might have been killed off by the Prime Minister, but the best elements of what it stood for can continue to thrive.

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