Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
27 May 2002

The end of multiculturalism

The west is finding that there are limits to its tolerance of minorities where their beliefs clash v

By John Lloyd

Britain has been an actively anti-racist country for almost four decades now. British administrations, which had been fearful of “coloured” immigration because they feared that immigrants would not fit in and that the indigenous population would not allow them to, liberalised fairly rapidly. Since Edward Heath fired Enoch Powell from the shadow cabinet for his “rivers of blood” speech, even Conservative leaders have not tolerated overt expressions of racism in their cabinets or shadow cabinets. That Tory associations (like Labour clubs) will enjoy racist jokes in guilty or defiant privacy must be infuriating to black and brown Britons who wish to vote Conservative. But that is another matter, amenable only to time (if time is liberalising) or the speech police.

The liberal view, which underpinned public policy for many years, was expressed in the late 1960s by Roy Jenkins, then home secretary: “equal opportunities accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”. It depended on a system of core values and on an implicit acceptance of an indigenous British cultural hegemony. Over the past decade or so, however, it has come under sustained attack from multiculturalists or pluralists, who believe that this form of liberalism is at best constricting, at worst racist. A high-water mark in this thinking came in 2000, with the report of the Runnymede Trust’s Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by Bhikhu Parekh.

It criticised liberalism for “combining a monocultural public realm with a multicultural private realm” and for being insensitive to cultural diversity when intervening to protect and promote human rights. It did not see human rights as absolute: they must be “qualified” by “the logic of multiculturalism”.

The report made a splash, because it was represented as being anti-British. It took issue with the idea of British history as the history of a “unified, conflict-free land”. It claimed that Britain was purblind to racism, or actually racist. It seemed to propose civic re-education, arguing that “unless these deep-rooted antagonisms to racial and cultural difference can be defeated in practice as well as symbolically written out of the national story, the idea of a multicultural post-nation remains an empty promise”. The commission clearly saw the indigenous white community (with the exception of the Irish and the Jews) as the problem.

This thinking is now in retreat, in part as yet another consequence of 11 September, and the trend has been reinforced by the success in elections elsewhere in Europe of parties that express a popular distaste for mass immigration.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

America, with Canada, has been the boldest practitioner of multiculturalism allied to a relatively open immigration policy. But the attack on the World Trade Center has given an immense boost to US patriotism, which has been used to draw the various “something-Americans” closer together. This is most of all true in the military and the public services, where African-Americans are heavily represented. Indeed, the US military is one of the most successful “liberal” models of racial integration in the world.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

As the US historian William McNeill observed recently: “Nationalism, and the armed conflict with external enemies that it sustains, might have the effect of diminishing black-white friction in American civil society.” President Truman’s decision to desegregate the US armed forces – integrated units eventually fought in the Korean war – preceded the civil rights movement in the Deep South: the closer integration of the Vietnam war produced a generation of African-American officers, including the present secretary of state, Colin Powell.

The war against terrorism is a further aid to this, as it widens the distance between, on the one hand, Americans of all backgrounds and, on the other, the movements and groups with which radical African-Americans had once claimed the kinship of mutual oppression. Radical black groups were the cutting edge of the American multicultural moment, insisting on the right, even the duty, of black Americans to promote their separate culture (however that might be defined). Now, black Americans – after many decades of prejudice, and despite the poverty in which many of them still live – are able to conduct the same intricate negotiation with the rest of US society and its power structures as other groups that have successfully retained an ethnic identity. Middle-class blacks are both using and losing their separateness in order to climb up society’s ladders, to enrich themselves and to pass on their wealth and position to their children – as did the Irish, Italian, Jewish and other elites. Shorn of its most active support outside the academy (where it has become a subject), extreme multiculturalism is withering on the vine.

In Europe, the success of the right-wing parties (centre right as well as far right) has put those who took an “it’s the natives’ fault” approach to cultural accommodation on the defensive. The defining move in this direction was made by President Jacques Chirac shortly after his re-election. On 11 May, he stalked out of the football stadium when the “Marseillaise” was booed before the French Cup Final, showing his solidarity with those concerned at the loss of what the French call “republican values”.

Britain, not being a republic, has no such values. That allowed it to move towards North American multiculturalism more rapidly than France. It also helped that Britain was a Protestant country: Protestant countries have been generally more convincing in effecting a separation between church and state, largely because moderate Protestants tend to wear their religion lightly, or abandon it entirely. Religion, whatever its consolations, makes for hideous governance.

The British governing classes have been willing to accommodate cultural exceptionalism in many ways – exempting Sikhs from wearing motorcycle helmets; allowing Jews and Muslims to kill conscious animals; acknowledging (now) that Muslims, like people of other faiths, should have their own state schools. But that is as far as it will go for a while. “Liberalism” – rather more hard-edged and unillusioned than in the 1960s – is back. David Blunkett, who articulates the view of the council estates best, as he came from one, has made it clear that citizenship, learning the English language and adherence to the law and cultural norms will now be more explicitly expected of communities that still define themselves as culturally or religiously apart from the indigenous one (white, brown or black). This month, the police got new guidelines on forced marriages which stress that these are not simply a faster version of arranged marriages, and that the possible consequences – assault, rape, kidnap – are no less crimes because committed within a family. A recent ICM poll for BBC News Online showed that, even though most people think that race relations have improved in the past ten years, they also think that immigration has had a negative effect – further ammunition for those who believe that multiculturalism, which pinpoints the indigenous community as the problem, can damage race relations.

Yet immigration into the UK (as into other European states) is higher than it has ever been, and is likely to continue rising, mainly to compensate for an ageing and increasingly childless home population. Indeed, advanced states – the US, Canada, Germany and Sweden, as well as the UK – increasingly compete for central European engineers, Asian software designers and African doctors. The immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s, whose children and grandchildren are now black and brown Britons, were overwhelmingly the labouring poor. The new waves of skilled people are actual or potential members of a global technocracy.

As Lord (Navnit) Dholakia, a member of the Runnymede commission, said to me, states will need to make themselves attractive to these people, which will make the old multicultural ideas increasingly irrelevant. The new immigrants will want a secure home, safe against the illegal immigrants who are largely poor and who are more prone, because of their desperation, to resort to crime; safe, too, against poor whites who will see them get jobs and salaries “above”, rather than “beneath”, them. This implies a country secure enough to maintain its human and civil rights; and that in turn means no large enclaves of cultural exceptionalism. We have learnt since 11 September how ferociously anti-Semitic is radical Islam, even more than it is anti-Christian or anti-American. A video of Osama Bin Laden shows him telling disciples that “the war is between us and the Jews. Any country that steps into the same trench as the Jews has only itself to blame.” European states, which have spent half a century trying to understand the Holocaust and to ensure that it does not happen again, cannot tolerate adherence to these principles – but find it hard to enforce laws that would be used against white racists. In Tower Hamlets, London, members of student Islamic societies have been banned from holding meetings on college premises, because so many of them are arranged so that the students can hear streams of anti-Semitic invective. The meetings, however, continue off-premises.

Multiculturalism, at its worst, condoned or tried to explain away such behaviour – as did many when the fatwa was declared on Salman Rushdie, and some still do in order to give al-Qaeda the gloss of an anti-imperialist liberation movement. But the challenge of the new liberalism is to propose a Britishness that is capacious enough for all who wish to live within it peacefully – “in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”. If the accent is now on the mutual rather than the tolerance, that is no bad thing.