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How monocultural does David Cameron want us to be?

2011 February 5
by Paul Vallely

The idea that the culture of different ethnic groups should be nurtured and celebrated, as the basis for social harmony, has been the cornerstone of Britain’s attitude to its minority communities for over three decades. Multiculturalism was never popular with the little Englanders of the right. But in recent years it has increasingly been attacked by the liberal left.

It is the critique of these so-called “muscular liberals” that David Cameron has adopted in his surprisingly hardline speech.

The shift began after the traumatic terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many of those who like to think of themselves as liberals then began exhibiting a new intolerance, demanding that minorities should assimilate more. Multiculturalism must not be allowed, as the prime minister now says, to encourage different cultures to live separate lives, sometimes behaving in ways that run counter to “our” values.

But he, like so many illiberal liberals, has resorted to caricature to make his case, citing practices like forced marriage as an example – a practise that is, as distinct from arranged marriages, generally condemned as unacceptable throughout most minority communities.

Some of the practical measures which Mr Cameron announced will be uncontroversial among minority groups. Few will object to a requirement that immigrants should learn English or that the school curriculum should celebrate “a common culture”, if it is truly common.  Ethnic communities with disproportionately high levels of youth unemployment will welcome the new National Citizen Service to bring 16-year-olds from different backgrounds to live and work together.

But they will bridle at the unnecessarily confrontational tone with which he warns that “Europe needs to wake up to what is happening in our own countries”. Withdrawing public cash from Muslim organisations which do not subscribe to particular values on “integration or separatism” sends an overly dogmatic message. Will they be required next to endorse British foreign policy in Afghanistan or Israel? Or will he, like other right-wing governments in Europe, introduce prohibitions on Islamic dress?

The truth is that Britain has not had too much multiculturalism but too little. What is required is not the tokenism of local councils translating leaflets into a dozen minority languages. Serious multiculturalism requires policies like the “racial identity nurturing” which can be found in schools with large black populations in places like Moss Side in Manchester.

This involves telling black kids that they have other options than rap music, boxing, drug-dealing or crime. It places before them black physicists, doctors and businessmen as role models who successfully motivate pupils to do much better at school. Lifting ethnic minorities out of poverty is the way forward, not finger-wagging or half-baked philosophical definitions of Britishness.

Such kids form good relationships which spill over into the wider community. One school in Moss Side has 37 different nationalities. Black children there do Irish dancing, and white kids play in the local Jamaican steel band. There are similar projects among the Asian community in Oldham and Leicester.

Multiculturalism is about creating a highest common factor society. David Cameron’s approach will doom us to a lowest common denominator one.