Has multiculturalism failed in Britain?

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The tragic events that have occurred in the last few weeks in Paris and across the world have brought back into sharp relief the problem of multiculturalism and integration. This is hardly a new issue in British society: ever since the end of the Second World War the UK has seen large-scale immigration and conflict has arisen many times, such as in the riots of the 1980s. But with the rise of home-grown terrorism, ISIS, and the atrocities that these have brought, commentators and citizens alike have increasingly turned their focus to the policy of multiculturalism and its consequences for society.

The British approach to multiculturalism has, essentially, been to welcome people from different cultures and backgrounds to the UK whilst allowing them to continue practising their own cultural traditions, without demanding that they adapt or conform to “British” ways. Policy has thus had a focus on accommodating minority rights and empowering local minority communities, to better allow immigrants to retain their heritage and social cohesion.

This conciliatory, two-way, communitarian approach has attracted much criticism in recent years – so much so, in fact, that in 2011 David Cameron proclaimed that state multiculturalism had failed, and that the policy was contributing to the rise of extremism. What, then, has gone wrong?

Most of the hostility has focused on the idea that under multiculturalism minorities have been allowed to live parallel lives, insulated in their own communities, rarely interacting with society as a whole. Consequently, the argument goes, multiculturalism has increased social division rather than broken it down; it has led to a more fractured society devoid of a uniting national identity, and it has permitted anti-democratic, illiberal values held by a minority to take hold in Britain and contribute to the process of radicalisation.

These arguments should be taken seriously, it is certainly the case that in many areas of the UK (such as deprived inner city areas) segregation is a problem, and the public perception that the ingredients, so to speak, of multiculturalism are not mixing should not simply be dismissed. However there is evidence that might suggest this pessimistic picture of multiculturalism’s legacy is somewhat exaggerated.

One of the main concerns is that minority communities do not think of themselves as British, or as though they belong. But according to data from the 2007 Citizenship Survey, minority ethnic communities show very similar levels of belonging to Britain and their local area than do white British respondents. While 85% of white British feel “fairly or very strongly” that they belong to Britain, the proportion agreeing with this statement in all the other groups ranged between 84% and 89%. Similarly, in terms of local belonging, differences were modest among the different ethnicities. What is interesting, though, is the response to the question of whether one can belong to Britain and maintain a separate cultural or religious identity. Around 80-90% of ethnic minorities perceive no such conflict between these different identities, and think that they are fully compatible together.

So it seems as though the fear that multiculturalism has utterly failed to encourage a sense of belonging in different cultures and communities has been overstated. The vast majority of minority groups do feel as though they belong and view their cultural heritage and a British identity as compatible. To a large extent at least, minority groups feel welcome in Britain.

There’s no doubting, though, that multiculturalism has brought tensions. It is often said that multiculturalism puts people into boxes by defining individual rights and needs by the community to which they belong – and treating communities as more or less homogenous blocs, for instance when it comes to group opinion. In going too far to promote group solidarity, multiculturalism has overlooked the importance of individuals, forgetting that the individuals who make up these communities have individual rights and opinions that may well differ from those of the community.

Insofar as this community-based approach has a tendency to oversimplify people and groups, and holds that groups should be treated differently, it can be seen how multiculturalism might contribute to growing resentment across the UK. Identifying people on the narrow basis of their community before applying other criteria often reduces them to a caricature of that group, which can lead to suspicion and hostility towards these individuals. As well as that, affording communities special rights and being too accommodating to certain groups within them has meant undue cultural conservatism has been tolerated in the name of protecting the community.

Proponents of France’s “assimilationist” policy, where all are treated simply as citizens with the same rights and no groups are given any special recognition, say that their approach avoids subordinating the individual to the group. They also suggest that by treating groups in the same way, and trying to incorporate them into the same national identity, there is less danger of fostering division by focusing too much on the differences between communities; after all, to treat groups differently in the public sphere is in a sense to treat them as “the other”.

Perhaps we could take a leaf out of France’s book on this one. Much of the problem of issues such as Islamophobia lie in the fact that people are too quick to judge someone, for example, as “a Muslim” and then assume that what holds for the perceived “Muslim community” must also hold for the person in front of them. Although multiculturalism is far from the only cause of this- on some level it’s simply human nature, like it or not- the tendency to categorise communities, treat their leaders as reliable authorities on group opinion, and highlight the differences between groups by treating them differently, goes some way to oversimplifying the terms of the debate. It also leaves many individuals feeling as though they’re not being accurately represented, as though one dimension of their identity is being focused on while forgetting other important aspects.

I do not think multiculturalism has failed. Multiculturalism has brought us diversity and tolerance, words which have found a special place in the heart of the British identity. It has made minorities feel welcome and, for the most part, positive about being British. That being said, especially in the wake of the terror sweeping the world the policy needs to be looked at, reviewed and refined. Multiculturalism has its share of problems. We should look at how to incorporate the strengths of other models such as assimilationism, by giving a more individualist focus to our policies, and making sure that we have a clearly defined identity which all groups can participate in without giving up their heritage. Multiculturalism isn’t dead yet, but it does need to adapt.

Sam Robinson

[Image: Abbitt Photography, Shutterstock]

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