James Steel is a political journalist and novelist.
In a new Channel 4 documentary this week, Trevor Philips, the former race tsar, points out how distanced some Muslims have become from British society, but how has that process happened?
The answer is an idea called multiculturalism. Most people would find it hard to describe this ideology but we are all very familiar with the ways in which it effects our lives: immigration, political correctness and identity politics. It is to the twenty-first century what nationalism was to the nineteenth.
So what is multiculturalism? Well firstly it comes from two distinct ideas: liberal multiculturalism believes in ‘shallow diversity’ whilst Marxist multiculturalism believes in cultural separatism or ‘deep diversity.’
So how did liberal multiculturalism develop? Liberalism is based on ideas of freedom and toleration and after World War Two some thinkers were also influenced by a wave of horror and guilt about the Holocaust and colonialism. Then from the 1960s liberals also began to have more regard for community and diversity because it creates a vibrant society. They also believe diversity is good for minority groups, because if people have a secure cultural identity then they feel able to participate in politics, and so diversity encourages unity. However, liberal multiculturalism will only accept ‘shallow diversity’, meaning that individuals have the freedom to express their beliefs but they must accept the rule of law.
By contrast to this, Marxist multiculturalism argues for ‘deep diversity’. This alternative vision of multiculturalism arose from Lenin’s critique of colonialism as an extension of capitalism. In this view culture came to be another front in the class struggle between oppressor and oppressed groups and so cultural distinctiveness became another form of political resistance. In the same way, during decolonisation in the 1960s the successes of independence movements in Africa and Asia spurred on cultural separatists like Malcolm X and the Black Power movement in the USA.
These influences led to the development of identity politics, the belief that culture is the basis for all politics as it gives people a sense of rootedness who would otherwise be isolated, confused and exploited. This type of multiculturalism thus positively approves cultural differences because it allows oppressed minority groups to assert their culture and reclaim self-respect.
Similarly, Marxist multiculturalists do not see the state in the same positive light as liberals as a neutral arbiter but instead see it as a façade to impose the values of the ruling white, male elite on the rest of society. Identity politics therefore urges groups to claim and vociferously assert their identity as a political act of defiance to reclaim their self-respect. What gives the movement this trademark combativeness is that it fuses the personal and the political into events such as Gay Pride marches or objections to whites wearing dreadlocks on grounds of cultural appropriation.
So if these are the two main strands of multiculturalism, how has the ideology as a whole been criticised? Firstly, the motivation for multiculturalism has been attacked by Paul Gottfried in ‘Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt’, as being based on post-colonial white liberal guilt which he sees as an over-reaction that has often had counterproductive consequences. The crimes of empire were terrible but it does not mean you need to invite everyone to live in your country to make up for it.
Another more general complaint is that multiculturalism leads to political correctness, which creates double standards and undermines the rule of law. The fear of being seen as racist has prevented the state from intervening to stop abusive behaviour by minority groups for example the Rochdale and Rotherham scandals where Asian men abused young white girls. Denis McShane, the local MP, memorably said: “as a true Guardian reader, and liberal leftie,” that “there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat.”
Another major criticism is of ‘ghettoisation’, another complaint made by Trevor Philips in a speech after the 7/7 attacks in 2005, when he said that the UK is “sleepwalking to segregation”. He said that multiculturalism encourages people to focus on what divides them, not on what unites them, thus creating a society of parallel universes. The Marxism that this comes from is an ideology based on conflict that can see no possibility of cooperation between groups in society for mutual benefit.
Since 7/7 there has been an awareness that society has become too fragmented and there is a need to reassert a common core of values and identity. David Cameron criticised politically correct culture for being too timid to assert liberal values, thus leaving a vacuum to be filled by Islamic extremists. This recognition led to the government’s Prevent strategy and British values now have to be promoted in all schools whilst universities are now legally obliged to vet all speakers on campus.
Similar to this criticism of ghettoisation is the belief that multiculturalism has been used by minority groups to blackmail and exploit state resources. As Trevor Philips put it, “multiculturalism has become a racket”. A major recent example of this was the 2015 Lutfur Rahman case, where the mayor of Tower Hamlets was found guilty and dismissed for misappropriation of civic funds and abuse of religious power to influence the mayoral election. What was telling about the case was that it was a private prosecution; as with the Rochdale and Rotherham child abuse cases, the authorities had failed to enforce the law because of fear of causing offence.
A final major complaint about multiculturalism is the change that has been imposed on the white working class by a liberal elite without asking for their consent about changing the nature of their local communities. Immigration has been a boon to the middle class who benefit from cheap builders, cleaners and nannies but it has been harder for the white working class who have had their wages undermined and are at the sharp end of the competition for scarce state resources in housing, healthcare, education and transport.
Migration Watch pointed out that the New Labour government admitted 3.6 million immigrants to the UK but at no stage did it highlight this policy to the electorate or ask consent for it. Critics of the policy were routinely denounced as racist – ‘Oh, some bigoted woman,’ as Gordon Brown memorably described the lifelong Labour supporter Gillian Duffy.
So multiculturalism has been a contentious ideology but it will continue to shape the future of modern British society and of the world in this globalised age – no matter how many documentaries Channel 4 makes about it.