The hard knock life of British multiculturalism

After decades of simmering instability, the once lauded ideal of British multiculturalism is now seen as a failure.

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Last week on Question Time, Nigel Farage claimed that uncontrolled immigration has made Britain overcrowded. He added: “I think ordinary folk, going about their lives, are feeling it.”

His diagnosis demonstrates the narrowness of Ukip’s philosophy. A tribal, islander state of mind, unable and unwilling to grasp the globalised world that Britain and its empire pioneered. A sort of soft, cosy nationalism that denies being racist but sweats and fidgets at the sound of foreign languages on the train or ignores the cries of migrants stranded in the Mediterranean.

But it is also indicative of a broader concern about British multiculturalism reaching its full realisation in 2014. By speaking for "ordinary folk", Farage has given a voice to the concerned frowns that have, until now, been kept behind closed doors, politely hidden by the disillusioned portion of the electorate who have felt trapped by political correctness. A stubborn gut feeling in the less tolerant side of the British psyche has bubbled beneath the surface, denouncing multiculturalism as an unrealistic cosmopolitan ideal - a liberal caricature. In the anti-immigration tone of the current hour, set in motion this time last year by the hysteria surrounding the entrance of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU labour market, this suppressed frustration has found a tangible way of expressing itself. With the election now only months away, this has meant immigration has become an important battleground for the major political parties.

The atmosphere hasn’t always been this tense. Despite riots in migrant communities like Southall in the Seventies and Brixton in the Eighties, fuelled by racism and hostility to fast change throughout these teething years, there was a brief stage of celebration about multiculturalism before the end of the millennium. In the Nineties, with Tony Blair leading the applause for globalisation and the free movement of labour, the effects of mass mid-century immigration began to trickle down into a new hybrid generation. Muslims became British-Muslims. Mongrel music genres like bhangra and jungle were birthed from the merger of imported parental sounds arriving at our shores a generation before. Chicken tikka masala was coined as a British national dish. And for the first time ever, a "mixed" ethnic group option appeared on the 1991 census form.

It was hardly utopian, but British multiculturalism could at least be regarded as a tangible project alongside the New Labour boom years.

Nevertheless, the initial excitement for the colours, foods and other shallow novelties of diversity  what The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has called "3S" multiculturalism, "saris, samosas and steeldrums" – was short lived. It struggled to entertain any deep level of the public imagination.

Clashes between Muslims and whites in northern cities in 2001, the terrorist attacks in London in 2005, and the riots in 2011 have since demonstrated a nationwide fragility. Along the way, these tipping points have been labeled signs of multiculturalism’s inadequacy. In various landmark speeches since his leadership, David Cameron has denounced it as a “wrong headed doctrine” with “disastrous results” for British identity. 95 per cent of respondents to a BBC straw poll said they think multiculturalism in Britain is a failure in August this year.

Is this a fair assessment? Perhaps in an age of increasing global movement and rapid cross-cultural pollination, multiculturalism is more usefully understood as an undeniable reality; a challenge rather than something to succeed or fail. There is a complicated set of dynamics at play. British identity in the 21st century is yet to be sufficiently defined and understood in depth. Furthermore, serious questions must be asked about why some communities have failed to integrate with broader society.  This becomes messier when considering the imbalance of hostility towards some ethnic and religious groups compared to others: EU-backed eastern Europeans are seen to saturate the job market, whilst people see south Asian Muslim communities as isolating themselves from the rest of the population (only 24 per cent of people think Muslims are compatible with the British way of life).

Talking hard about the shortcomings of the multicultural reality in Britain appears to fit the bill as a coping mechanism for "ordinary folk"  who think-tank British Future refer to as the "anxious middle" in a report about discussing immigration last month  to explain away their emotional reaction to unwanted cultural change. If it is going to gain the support of these skeptics, multiculturalism must certainly evolve. But reductively labelling it a failure, dismissing the very diversity that has become an integral aspect of the British character over the years, may risk oversimplifying the complex, tangled web of challenges we face as a once proud patchwork society.