Multicultural Britain: learning to live together

Multicultural Britain: learning to live together

The country needs a political project to get people to bridge their differences, not just bond over their similarities

It is depressing to discover that four in 10 adults in this country agreed with the statement that “having a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures has undermined British culture”. After all, such mainstays of British culture as curry, the Notting Hill carnival and bearded Muslim sports heroes were at one time all viewed as inimical to it. Cultures are dynamic things, developing organically from communities. They do not exist in isolation or remain static. Having a range of cultures in Britain is normal, not novel.

If so, then why are so many still resistant? There is a straightforward economic analysis: austerity has shrunk the space we might share, be that schools, parks or hospitals, while growing inequalities supply people with new opportunities to scapegoat minorities. Then there is a barrage of claims about a government policy of encouraging cultural difference at the expense of national cohesion. There is no state-led segregation policy today. British governments are not in the habit of sacrificing the nation on the altar of imaginary cultural preferences. Yet years of anger stoked around this falsehood found, unfortunately, an outlet in the Brexit referendum.

The thinktank British Future, which commissioned the poll and produced an in-depth study looking at immigration and integration, should be congratulated for engaging the public in a debate about their views and concerns on these subjects. It is no surprise that nine out of 10 respondents either strongly agreed or tended to agree that, in order to integrate, migrants ought to learn English, pay their taxes and respect democracy. There is nothing controversial about such opinions. Immigrant communities as a whole are hardly likely to disagree with any of them. What this research does not do is expose tensions between the demands of integration into wider society and the measures required to preserve cultural diversity.

Identity is a fact about us, but it should not define the horizon of our possibilities. It is a paradox that in an age where individuals have been most sovereign over the identities they assert, the politics of nationalism has become most potent. Some of the reasons why are obvious: nations offer a ready-made identity that is a cipher of commonly agreed myths. But liberal politics across the world has been noticeably susceptible to being overtaken by rightwing nationalists. Too often, this is because defenders of liberal values end up aligning them with a particular way of life, underpinning this by claiming there is a limit to how much diversity a welfare state can tolerate. This thought process leads to many wrong-headed policies – most notably in Britain to an arbitrary numerical cap on immigration.

What is lacking to counter such arguments is a project to get people to bridge their differences just as much as they bond over their similarities. The more people from different backgrounds trust each other, the better off their society. Politicians ought to preach the need to learn how to get along with strangers. That needs an honest conversation about the laws of association – that is, how we can legally group together. Other nations do this. The US prohibits discrimination in rental housing unless you have four or fewer units to let. One may bond with one’s ethnic peers in an exclusionary fashion as long as one limits the scale of those bonds. What needs attention are the small cliques that hoard contacts, access to information and, ultimately, power. Challenging those would ensure Britain fosters egalitarian and representative cultures. That is what, surely everyone agrees, the country needs.

Katharine Viner, The Guardian. Monday 17 Sep 2018.

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