Does Cameron have multiculturalist ambitions?
The nature of what David Cameron was arguing in his speech in Munich is problematic. He claims some young Muslim men ‘find it hard to identify with Britain… because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity’. The doctrine of ‘state of multiculturalism’ is blamed for encouraging culturally different people to live ‘apart from one another and apart from the mainstream’. It is also said to have prevented a vision of society to which these young men can feel attached. Part of the cure is thus said to be ‘a clear sense of national identity that is open to everyone’.
These claims seem curious for four reasons. First, whilst some young Muslim men may find it hard to identify with Britain, overwhelmingly Muslims do not. Using citizenship survey data (the governments own data set) Anthony Heath and Jane Roberts showed in 2008 that 43 % of Muslims say that they belong ‘very strongly’ to Britain and 42% say that they belong to Britain ‘fairly strongly’. When focusing on those aged 16-24, 38% of Muslim respondents say that they belong ‘very strongly’ to Britain and 45% of Muslims in the same age group say that they belong ‘fairly strongly’. This last figure is higher for Muslim respondents than it is for Christian ones and those of ‘no religion’. Such data is not only re-enforced by earlier data, but also by a later survey which suggests British Muslims identify with Britain more strongly than the British public at large. If then there is a problem with some young Muslim men not identifying with Britain, it is not at all clear that it is widespread or more pronounced among them than other groups. This is especially as there is both quantitative and qualitative data that shows national identity is increasingly less important among the young more generally. With such evidence in mind, the question thus becomes should such claims about young Muslim men not identifying with Britain be made by the Prime Minister?
Second, ‘State multiculturalism’ is said to have encouraged the culturally different to live separate lives. Residential segregation is usually used as an example here, but it is notable that the person most known for saying that Britain is ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ is Trevor Phillips. Criticised by leading scholars like Professors Ludi Simpson, Ceri Peach and Danny Dorling, Phillips apologised for ‘mangling’ the figures that helped him to make such a claim. To the best of my knowledge, he no longer does so but leading government politicians do. As with claims about Muslims identifying with Britain, a claim is being made that is at odds with available evidence and generates unnecessary fear, which then raises the question of whether it should made?
Third, there is the suggestion that multiculturalism has ‘weakened our collective identity’ and prevented a vision of society emerging to which all can belong. Here it is not clear whether the collective identity Cameron is referring to is Britain’s identity or people’s British identities or how to interpret such weakening. After all, when more sophisticated survey questions are asked we can see some weakening, but we do not know the point a national identity has to weaken to for a society to fracture. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that national identities have always risen and fallen in salience. For example, people’s British identities are likely to have been highly important relative to their English ones during the Second World War but perhaps less so after England won the world cup in 1966. We don’t know whether the current decline in salience is just part of the natural ebb and flow of what is now often called ‘Britishness’, but there is also an assumption of cause and effect. State multiculturalism has allegedly weakened collective identity, but why couldn’t minority nationalism, supra national institutions or globalisation have done so instead? Indeed as debates about Britishness appeared as familiar traits of Britain like Empire and Protestantism were disappearing and relatively unfamiliar traits like minority nationalism and mass immigration were appearing, weakening collective identity seems to predate when critics claim ‘state multiculturalism’ began.
Finally, despite criticising ‘state multiculturalism’, Cameron is advocating a multiculturalist idea, namely that there needs to be a ‘clear sense of identity open to everyone’. This is not a new claim for leading Conservatives; in 2007 the then Shadow, but now Security Minister, Pauline Neville Jones, said in a report, ‘we need to rebuild Britishness in ways which do not breed shallow nationalism but do allow us to understand the contributions that all traditions, whether primarily ethnic or national have made and are making to our collective and shared identity’. Rebuilding Britishness in a way that includes all British citizens not just the cultural majority, is an idea that needs further clarification but it has a strong multiculturalist lineage. It was first advocated in the Swann Report into the education of ethnic minority children in 1985 and later by the Commission for Multi-Ethnic Britain in 2000. The latter said that ‘political leaders should…lead the country in re-imagining Britain…and in ensuring the national story is inclusive of everyone’. Whilst such ideas were condemned in the media at the time, it is interesting to see leading Conservatives advocating them now. It may be inconvenient for those who caricature ‘state multiculturalism’ to attack it, but creating inclusive national identities is not only something that multiculturalists in Britain have advocated. It is also something that my research on Canadian multiculturalism shows has been pursued in those countries with far more developed policies of multiculturalism. If this is something Cameron and his colleagues are serious about he might do well not only to learn from these foreign attempts to nation-build through multiculturalism, but also to recognise his own multiculturalist ambitions.
Dr Varun Uberoi is Lecturer in the Department of Politics and History at Brunel University and is also author of ‘Nationbuilding through multiculturalism’, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.Tagged in: david cameron, multiculturalism, muslim
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