Let’s talk about Multiculturalism in Britain! (Hey wait, where are you going?)

I would like to open a productive dialogue about whether multiculturalism is a failed concept in modern day Britain. But I will have to recognize that multiculturalism is a divisive topic. In fact the topic has probably already divided you. Some of you will have seen the dreaded ‘M’ word and jumped ship already. Some of you will already have extremely strong opinions on this topic, and how well this piece matches those opinions will determine whether your response is ‘well she knows what she is talking about’ or  ‘well that was utter shit.’ Some of you will hopefully be able to see beyond the many years that you have spent having the idea of multiculturalism shoved down your throat – and any other place that they could get it – to recognize that it is a complex issue that requires deeper analysis than the media or politicians can provide.

I would like to dive into whether multiculturalism is a failed concept in Britain but it would probably be prudent to first tackle those that feel that they have already adequately addressed this issue. Most significantly David Cameron who, in a 2011 speech to the Munich Security Council, announced that Multiculturalism was a State policy that had not only failed but had been a key factor in creating Islamic extremism.

Multiculturalism? We don't need no stinking Multiculturalism!

Multiculturalism? We don’t need no stinking Multiculturalism!

I would like to think that politicians employ analysis and reasoning when they make sweeping statements about the state of society. However most of us will be in agreement that this is often not the case and indeed political parties from any ideological background will often denounce the policies of past governments merely to set themselves apart.  In the case of multiculturalism, historian Ben Pitcher describes this as an example of the government using the rejection of the policy as a means to draw attention to and benefit from a public anxiety about ‘seperateness’ without implementing any true policy change.

I would like to wrap the concept of British multiculturalism up into a neat and easily consumable package but it would be more accurate to acknowledge that it is vastly more complicated. The topic is centered on policy that is implemented and supported by the government. But as to the ‘multicultural aspect, no clear definition exists. Multiculturalism is not something that can be pinned down into one definition or example. In fact the most important aspect of multiculturalism is that it is not a stable or coherent entity (Pitcher).  It is this aspect of multiculturalism that allows it to be easily altered, adapting to different contexts and enjoying longevity as a consequence.  However for the sake of not taking the complete easy way out I will acknowledge that multiculturalism does fall in the ball park of recognizing rights to cultural maintenance and community formation while promoting equality and resisting discrimination (Stephen Castles).

Multiculturalism: Giving us hands holding the Earth since 1997

Multiculturalism: Giving us hands holding the Earth since 1997

I would like to breakdown the historical context that multicultural policy has been a reaction to before turning to ways that the government has implemented various policy points. However being limited to a short blog format I will stick to the salient points which will highlight the basics of why multiculturalism is not a failed policy whilst also displaying that it is perhaps too optimistic to hope that a few paragraphs on a page, or a speech given by a Prime Minister in Germany, can cover the complexity that is the history of multicultural policy in Britain. The British Nationality Act of 1948 granted all inhabitants of the Commonwealth the right of free entry into Britain, which resulted in free colonial migration until 1962 when the Commonwealth Immigrants Act put a stop to it. Moving away from being an imperial power was key in pushing Britain to find a new way to define itself. The post-war context was extremely complex, racial tension was rife and multicultural policy needed to respond to this. However housing shortage was also a problem, which tied up racial tension with economic problems.

Examples of policy have ranged from those on a local level to the national stage. Community groups backed by the government, such as the Hindu Forum of Britain and Inter-faith Council for Wales have worked to build connections in the community.  Education programs, including those based on the Swann Report by the Thatcher government, have been implemented to reduce racism in the classroom. Under the New Labour government of 1997 the Equality and Human Rights Commission created education plans. General discourse in the parliament also reveals how embedded the notion of multiculturalism is, ‘interfaith dialogues’ being held in which multicultural rhetoric is commonly used (Lords Hansard, Sept 2011).

I would like to think that talking about multiculturalism necessarily prompts people to recognize that there are a plethora of nationalities within the British community.  However, as highlighted by academic Tariq Modood, criticisms of multiculturalism often focus on Muslims and extremism because of the social context of a post 9/11 world. However this fails to recognize that the population of Britain is made up from numerous ethnic groups including Chinese, Black African, Indian and Black Caribbean to name a few (Office for National Statistics, 2009).

 I would hope that no one would think that I would put forward that Multicultural policy has solved all of societies ills, however it is not a failed concept. It has been able to adapt as a policy to various contexts and was necessary following the end of the colonial era of the United Kingdom. There are various other areas of this complex issue that I have not brought up for discussion. But I find that any blog post, or indeed Prime Minister, that attempts to offer you all of the answers in the form of a limited medium is most likely operating with a specific agenda.

And he always looks closer than face value when someone proclaims to have ‘THE’ answer.

And he always looks closer than face value when someone proclaims to have ‘THE’ answer.

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8 comments on “Let’s talk about Multiculturalism in Britain! (Hey wait, where are you going?)

  1. arthurtonkin says:

    Hi Lauren,
    So I couldn’t help nodding along to your post in furious agreement! I think the last large scale survey had support in this country around 70-80% for multiculturalism and less for support for refugees in light of the ‘border protection’ game we play. I think you are very much right when we direct our gaze upon people from Islamic faith comes out of the paranoia of a post 9-11 world.
    I’d like to voice my support for multiculturalism, to me it is simply a catch all term for embracing the increasingly globalised world. I think for us in Australia it’s becoming more embedded as long as it’s not politicised, although other political events do strain and test it. I think being an immigration nation is challenging and exciting, I think Sydney is so much the better for it’s cultural diversity but I would say that or slow steps towards reconciliation are an area of shame yet to be resolved.

    Thanks
    Arthur

    • laurenswain15 says:

      Hi Arthur,
      Thanks for the comment! I totally agree with what you are saying about multicultural policy becoming a catch all phrase for our world as it is today. It is always interesting when people resist multiculturalism in it’s entirety (although i do think that criticism of many of it’s aspects is warranted). I think sometimes people forget that multiculturalism as a state implemented thing is a policy that is in response to, and did not create, growing globalisation. That even if you did want to, it’s too late to turn the clock back there! Thanks again!

  2. Tash says:

    Hi there 🙂

    Just wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It’s difficult to discuss multiculturalism without it getting very ugly very quickly, so I appreciated the nice, open format. And just to let you know, I’m definitely in the ‘she knows what she’s talking about’ camp.

    I agree that multiculturalism is not a failed policy and I just wish that more people were open to discussion and not so staunchly on one side or the other because it makes progress incredibly difficult.

    p.s. It’s always lovely to be met with Mr Gosling’s face at the end of an article, so thanks for that! 😛

  3. amywaymq says:

    Lauren this is a fantastic blog post. I love the format you’ve used, and for someone who doesn’t know a lot about multiculturalism you’ve helped me to understand the concepts and policy. Nicely wrapped up and nicely worded. Kudos for taking on such a difficult and at times controversial topic, particularly in a public forum like this (even though they’re monitoring our comments — Hi Kate and Tanya!). I agree that talking about multiculturalism can be one of the most difficult yet necessary conversations for societies to have. Great post, great format, you’ve done well to keep this informative, critical and engaging.

  4. Simon says:

    Hey Lauren,
    Thanks for taking the time to write an informational post on multiculturalism. As a student of science with a limited understanding on the anthropology of human culture and issues, your piece has touched on the complex and multifaceted issues. It was digestible and I applaud you for making it easy for a dummy (myself) to follow.

  5. greergamble says:

    Hi Lauren,
    Your piece on multiculturalism in Britain is really interesting and I think it’s always a great idea to start looking at history to help comprehend a complex or controversial political situation. I’m sure the history of the different ways multiculturalism had been used and implemented will help us understand some of the problems that face the policy today. The only issue when practicing this kind of history is that if we have “a dog in the bone” in the present debate, ie if we feel strongly one way or the other, we may not analyse the history of the issue with enough objectivity to make our analysis effective. For instance it makes sense to dismiss David Cameron’s remarks from a pro-multiculturalist standpoint, but our response might be different from a historical standpoint- we might compare a group like Russian Jews, who arrived in the UK en masse around 1900, and assimilated and prospered quite quickly, with say Caribbean immigrants from the postcolonial period, who arrived in a period of multiculturalism, but have prospered significantly less, and wonder why?

    • laurenswain15 says:

      Hi Greer,
      Thanks for your comment! I completely agree that on contentious issues, such as this one, it can be difficult to remain objective. In fact one of the most interesting things that I found doing this assignment was the responses that I got from people! I do however think that we can heavily critique David Cameron’s speech, and not necessarily from a pro-multicultural viewpoint. In fact I think that there are many reasons to critique multiculturalism, and whilst I don’t believe it has failed, I also don’t believe that it has been entirely successful. The problem with speeches such as David Cameron’s is that they completely ignore the complexity that is the context surrounding multiculturalism and don’t recognise that it is a notion that has been heavily embedded into the public. Instead politicians (from all sides of politics) now offer ‘soundbite’ policy that takes up public awareness without engaging with any critical analysis (our politicians do it as well: “Stop the Boats” “Reduce the Debt” – things that we may want but that are clearly much more complex than presented). In fact historians such as Ben Pitcher have suggested that new policy will likely be created that is multiculturalism in everything but name, just so that the public can be appeased. Something that i think is just counterproductive when Britain could instead be truly engaging with, and altering, what is wrong with current multicultural policy. This is more to the heart of why i was ‘dismissive’ of David Cameron’s speech. Apologies for the long response, limited word count means that there is a lot that had to be edited out of the main blog haha. Also i really really appreciate that you did so clearly engage with the post, and as such have probably taken a bit too much liberty in my response to you. Also if you would like here is a link to the speech in question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsGQvOq8cEs
      Thanks again!

  6. soniakukreti says:

    Lauren, This was fantastic! I love that you are hyper-aware of the fact multiculturalism is not only something that is an optimistic ideal for inclusivity; but also a a term that people hold some disdain for. I really appreciate that you have taken the time to talk about how multiculturalism is approached as an ‘inter-faith dialogue’ within governments and how important it has been in governance during the second half of the twentieth century and today. You are absolutely right in saying that multiculturalism is a difficult thing to talk about today; particularly with the tensions of post- 9/11. What I found, however, most intriguing is the way you have alluded to the idea that in being multicultural, segregation and separatism has also existed and the two are not mutually exclusive. Multiculturalism seems to have become a title that is an umbrella for all things cross-cultural and racial and often; while may try to moose an optimistic ideal of equality; it is also so complex that one cannot simply talk about multiculturalism in solely an optimistic light.

    Great Writing!

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