Multiculturalism and the British Dream


In the past few months David Cameron has made a couple of controversial speeches on the issues of immigration and multiculturalism that have received a great deal of attention. Back in February, he made a speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which he announced his view that “state multiculturalism has failed.” Specifically, he went on, it has been a failure in the sense that it has caused an erosion of our collective identity, with the dangerous consequence that more and more young British Muslims are turning to extremism in search of an identity to fill the void left by the disintegration of Britishness. He returned to the theme in April with a speech in which he promised to fulfil his manifesto pledge to reduce the number of immigrants entering the UK every year to approximately the level it was at in the 1980s and 1990s.  He argued that mass immigration in recent years has “created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cameron’s pronouncements have garnered a fair amount of approval in the right-wing press, whilst provoking considerable outrage in some of the more traditionally left-leaning parts of the media. Some have even accused the Prime Minister of giving succour to extremist groups like the English Defence League (EDL). Amidst all his fluffy rhetoric about the need to create a “Big Society”, Cameron’s remarks on multiculturalism and immigration have been interpreted, by both approving and disapproving commentators, as constituting the truly conservative bit of his unique brand of “progressive conservatism.”

Yet, in many ways, Cameron’s speeches on multiculturalism and immigration echoed concerns that have been prominent on the centre-left for the best part of a decade. Since its defeat in the 2010 election, Labour has been desperately trying to re-connect with working-class voters by telling them that the party shares their concerns about immigration. Gordon Brown’s famous encounter with Gillian Duffy, whom he called a “bigoted woman,” not realising he still had a TV microphone on him, has come to be seen as symptomatic of the elitism that caused the last Labour government to lose touch with voters.

But it is not just in the last year that Labour has discovered that immigration is an emotive issue for many voters. Nor is the left simply pandering to the Gillian Duffys of this world. As long ago as 2004, David Goodhart, founder and editor-at-large of Prospect magazine – which since its birth in October 1995 has become one of the foremost organs of the intellectual centre-left – wrote an article asking whether Britain had become too diverse to sustain the mutual obligations that underpin a good society and the welfare state. His answer was a tentative yes. In 2006 he authored a pamphlet, published by the think-tank Demos, which claimed a new “progressive nationalism” was necessary to bolster the traditional left-wing ideal of collective solidarity. The pamphlet included generally favourable responses to Goodhart’s ideas from Labour heavyweights David Blunkett and John Denham and it struck a chord with then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown’s rhetoric on “Britishness” and “British values.”

According to Goodhart, who is currently working on a book about multiculturalism and immigration, with a modest working title – The British Dream – a measure of what he calls “fellow-citizen favouritism” is a very healthy thing. The rights and responsibilities that come with British citizenship need to be formalised. This would stem the growing sense amongst much of the population that certain sections of society, particularly recent immigrants, are receiving the benefits that come with British citizenship without shouldering their fair share of the burdens. The problem is therefore alleviated before it turns into support for groups like the EDL and the BNP. What Goodhart calls “asymmetrical multiculturalism” has compounded the problem in recent decades by encouraging ethnic minorities to develop strong ethnic identities without simultaneously encouraging immigrants to integrate and embrace a wider British collective identity. Of course the liberalization of attitudes to race and ethnicity since the heyday of the National Front in the 1970s are cause for celebration, but for too long, Goodhart says, our political elite has taken a “laissez-faire attitude to integration.” Result: “if anything, we’re more segregated than we used to be.”

Goodhart is understandably keen to spread the blame for this failure. He argues that the whole idea of multiculturalism was as much the brainchild of liberal Tory ex-colonialists as it was of the liberal left. What’s more, it was in the Blair-Brown era that the government belatedly got round to the task of defining the concept of citizenship (though there is still much work to be done here), after decades of the issue being ignored by Tory and Labour governments alike. The fact that it is now a Conservative prime minister who is most eloquently espousing the need for a stronger sense of British national identity and the curtailment of mass immigration is clearly a source of irritation to Goodhart. His thunder has been well and truly stolen.

His sole criticism of Cameron’s foray into multiculturalism-bashing is that it comes a little late in the day. The use of state funds on race- or ethnicity-specific programmes has had the effect of encouraging individuals to identify themselves first and foremost as members of an ethnic minority, and only secondarily as British citizens. This high-water mark has long since passed.

Though I suspect neither of them would admit it, Cameron and Goodhart are fundamentally agreed on the need for a new integrating ideology. Goodhart calls it “progressive nationalism” and Cameron calls it “muscular liberalism” but it amounts to roughly the same thing. Cameron’s linkage of multiculturalism to terrorism in his Munich speech may have been unwise, but his fundamental point is a valid one. State multiculturalism has failed, and it’s not just conservatives that think so. Cameron’s progressivism is more genuine than is generally assumed.

All this leaves Ed Miliband facing something of a predicament. He is naturally keen to oppose the government at every possible opportunity, but with Cameron championing ideas that appeal to so many progressives, the Labour party is being backed into a corner as the unwilling defender of “big government” and “state multiculturalism”, neither of which Miliband really believes in. In order to turn the tide in Labour’s favour, Miliband must stop trying to oppose Cameron and start trying to outdo him. He should embrace Cameron’s “Big Society” rhetoric and turn it into a weapon with which to critique global capitalism as well as the state. And he should acknowledge that immigration needs to be checked, and push the government to do more to strengthen the ties British citizens feel towards one another.

Richard Roberts