Multiculturalism – the British way of life?

Shadow Home Secretary and Conservative leadership candidate David Davis calls for an end to the philosophy of multiculturalism in an opinion piece today:

Britain has pursued a policy of multiculturalism – allowing people of different cultures to settle without expecting them to integrate into society. Often the authorities have seemed more concerned with encouraging distinctive identities than with promoting common values of nationhood. The chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality has called multiculturalism "outdated". He is right. We should learn lessons from abroad – from the United States, where pride in the nation’s values is much more prevalent among minorities than here. Above all, we must speak openly of what we expect of those who settle here – and of ourselves.(Telegraph)

The implications of Davis’ call to ‘build a single nation’ may be more radical than he realises.

Multiculturalism has deep roots in Britain, as Will Hutton pointed out in a weekend piece directed against exactly the kind of approach he advocates.

This is all too combustible tinder, but one of the paradoxical saving graces of Britishness is that it is too vague an idea to be deployed in such a way. Whether Norman Davies documenting how Britain has been constructed from successive waves of immigration in The Isles, or historian Linda Colley describing how Britain was essentially an eighteenth century political artefact as the result of the union of England, Wales and Scotland in Britons, both unite to show how the idea of Britain is not a faith like the idea of, say, France, or America – or nationalistic like the idea of China or Russia.

It’s a political jurisdiction that has common practical mores while allowing our emotional identity to be rooted in one of the tribes from which the country has been constituted over time – English, Welsh, Scottish, Jews – and for immigrants, India, Nigeria or Barbados.

Even if we want to make Britishness more assertive and conservative or even to harden it into a citizenship test, it won’t wash. (Observer)

What Hutton leaves out, or at best hints at, is the real reason why Britishness is so understated in contrast to the assertiveness of societies like France or America.

Both of the latter possess a tradition of civic nationalism founded on the concept of popular sovereignty enshrined in a written constitution.

In Britain by contrast, the Crown in Parliament is sovereign and the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons is something of a constitutional afterthought. words like ‘the nation’, ‘citizenship’  and ‘secularism’ raise awkward questions. Is the UK a nation-state? Are its inhabitants citizens? Is it a secular state?

A good analysis of what would be required for a positive answer to the latter question was presented recently in a piece by David Hayes:

Disestablishment of the Church of England, and the complete “desacralisation” of the head of state and the political system it crowns

Closure of faith schools, and compulsory integration of schooling

Banishment of religious symbolism from public ceremonies and festivals

Redefinition of the entire state as a secular enterprise, including a coherent programme of induction for new arrivals and of re-education of those born, raised and domiciled here in the fundamentals of citizenship

Cultivation of a new public ethic of what it means to be a British citizen, its responsibilities, duties and rights. (OpenDemocracy)

I suspect that the British state would much prefer to implement Hayes’ alternative option, an institutionalised role for different faith groups along the lines of the Ottoman Empire, rather than address the issues he describes.

In order to be in a position to impose a common sense of civic identity, the British state would have to strengthen its own democratic legitimacy. The duties of citizens imply the rights of citizens. 

One reason the state may be reluctant to try is that would be impossible to achieve a consensus around issues of national identity across the current boundaries of the UK.

Democratic nationalism may be English, Scottish or Welsh rather than British.

The British state is not keen to make demands on its citizens that will encourage them to raise these issues.

This why British multi-culturalism is essentially conservative. It embodies a peculiar social contract between the state and its subjects. We will not look too closely at your baggage, if you do not look too closely at ours.






One response to “Multiculturalism – the British way of life?”

  1. Gareth avatar

    Nothing to add. I just wanted to say ‘great post’. Lots of food for thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *