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Andrew Lilico: Tell Conservatives to avoid attacking "multiculturalism" when they attack multiculturalism

By Andrew Lilico

Yesterday, Harry Phibbs on ToryDiary told us we should avoid attacking "multiculturalism." He was careful to emphasise that this was so that "language is not misinterpreted" rather than because one should avoid debating certain questions.  I thought it worth unpacking this a little.

I think there is an analogy here with the debate about "austerity".  I've argued this week, in various fora, that the normal public concept of "austerity" does not match with the way some economists use the term, and economists debating "austerity" in their own technical sense should be aware of the impact that has on public discourse.  Another technical term in which there is a gap between the popular meaning and the technical meaning is "multiculturalism".  In the casual popular imagination, "multiculturalism" means "being welcoming to those from other cultures" – i.e. whether we welcome immigration from anywhere other than Canada, Australian, New Zealand, and perhaps some parts of the US.  So when laymen hear that such-and-such a commentator or politician has attacked "multiculturalism", they are likely to think that means those commentators are opposed to immigration or perhaps even believe that those that have already arrived from other cultures should be "sent home".

That's not what Conservative critics of multiculturalism such as Lord Tebbit, or left-leaning critics of multiculturalism such as Prospect magazine, mean when they criticise multiculturalism.  It's worth pausing to understand the more technical meaning of "multiculturalism" before we proceed.

Let's distinguish between four models of dealing with immigrants. First, there is separate development, the old South African model – in this case, the immigrants are never accepted as fully part of the host country.

Second, assimilation – in this model immigrants can become part of the host, but only if they take on the host country culture. This, as we all know, is the French model – unlike in South Africa, any immigrant (regardless of race) can come to be accepted as French, but only by learning to speak elegant French, wearing Parisian fashions and recognising Roquefort as the greatest of all cheeses.

Third, multiculturalism. This has been the British model at least since the 1950s. Immigrants can be accepted as fully part of the host country without adopting the indigenous culture, instead pursuing their own separate cultures. This is in some ways close to the South African model (cultural development is separate) but without (at least in principle) differing civic status.

Fourth, synthesis. This was the traditional American model – immigrants entered into the "melting pots" of the great US cities, where their incoming cultures blended with the indigenous culture, neither dominating the other, but still producing a final culture that is vastly more homogenous than the multi-cultural model.

Personally, in terms of an ideal I am torn between the multicultural and synthesis models, probably tending towards the latter.  Indeed – and this is important – I think almost no-one in the British debate that criticises multiculturalism wants to abandon it.  No-one serious here proposes a strict French-style assimilation model, for example.  What people want is to shift the balance – it's a matter of degree.  They want things to be a bit more towards assimilation in some respects (e.g. everyone learning English), are perfectly happy for there to be synthesis in other respects (e.g. chicken curry being as British a dish as roast beef), and eager for multiculturalism to contine in others (e.g. who doesn't like Chinatown in Soho?).

I repeat – I'm by-and-large a fan of multiculturalism, and if there is an alternative it seems to me to be synthesis.  As an example of synthesis, I would hope our culture might be challenged by and learn something from the social conservatism, discipline and modesty of Muslim immigrants.

Furthermore, I do think there is a risk that multiculturalism, if pursued overly-actively through policy, could degenerate into a kind of de facto separate development/Apartheid.  Indeed, the allegation that multiculturalism is in some respects degenerating into a de facto Apartheid seems to me to lie at the heart of the objections of multiculturalism's critics.

That's an important critique/challenge, to which Conservatives should not close their ears.  So if Conservatives are, as Harry hopes, to be encouraged to use different words from "multiculturalism" in expressing that critique (and Harry may well be right), no-one should understand that as pressure not to express the critique.  There has been for some, in politics and society, an unpleasant attempt, Newspeak-style, to prevent people from debating certain questions by denying them the use of certain words (that is, in my view, a key source of the opposition to "gay marriage").  But that's not what Harry wants here.  It's just a matter of using a different language to say the same thing in a way that the public will actually understand rather than misinterpret.


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