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It's time to end the Tory war on multiculturalism

By Paul Goodman
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Before settling down to write this article, I made myself a cup of tea.  In doing so, I carried out a multi-cultural act.

The tea was made from Indian tea leaves that have been plucked, rolled, processed, packaged, transported, sold and consumed by me here at my desk in High Wycombe.  The culture of Indian tea-pickers has thereby been brought into contact with that of a British journalist through the medium of trade.  Welcome to multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is also at work every time you gaze at Cleopatra's Needle, listen to Ennio Morricone' s music from The Mission or, if you are so minded, pick up a Bible and read the New Testament, in which Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures mesh.  Before the first stone of Woking Mosque was laid or the first Notting Hill Carnival took place, Britain was a multicultural country (though admittedly far less of one).

To state the obvious in this way is to provoke debate about whose culture mixes well with whose; whose is more developed, whose better.  But since I want to write not about when cultures meet but what Governments do, I will avoid this discussion altogether.  I want instead to ask a question: since multiculturalism is as much a part of life as the weather, why is David Cameron so worked up about the M-word?

And worked up he undoubtedly is.  In his recent Munich speech, he said: "Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.  We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.  We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values."

The Prime Minister was describing how separatism can lead to extremism, and extremism to terrorism.  As he would doubtless agree, it ain't necessarily so.  Separatist Plymouth Brethren or Jehovah's Witnesses aren't extremists, in the sense of wishing to impose their religious vision on society by law.  Salafi quietists who believe in an Islamist state may be extremists, but they're not terrorists.

But in suggesting that separatism, extremism and terrorism can be linked, Cameron was undoubtedly right.  Furthermore, he was saying nothing new in doing so, having made the same case in opposition.  However, the M-word caught the eye of lobby correspondents and news editors.  And before he knew it, the Prime Minister was dealing with a carnival of reaction.

For in using the M-word, he unwittingly provoked exactly the debate which I earlier avoided.  He had meant to concentrate minds on the connection between people who live in isolated groups, hating western liberalism and British democracy, and bombs that slaughter innocents on the tube.  Instead, he provoked a rambling discussion about the merits or otherwise of, say, chicken korma, Bent and the Notting Hill carnival.

This must partly be because when one objects to "multiculturalism", what some people hear is an objection to "multi-racialism": the listener believes that the speaker is opposed to a multi-racial Britain.  I would hazard a guess that many though not all such listeners are members of ethnic minorites themselves.  In some cases, their suspicion is doubtless true, but not in most.

So for example, most British non-Muslims are prejudiced against Islamist hate preachers, but not against British Muslims, who share this dislike in any event.  (It is customary to write after such a sentence that "some of my best friends are Muslims", which in my case happens to be true.)  It is therefore tempting to say of such listeners that they're simply mistaken, and to carry on pronouncing the M-word through gritted teeth.

However, people are as they are, and just as the Almighty "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust", so politicians must communicate their views to voters in their infinite variety.  The Party is attracting especially low support among Scots, public sector workers...and ethnic minorities.  If the M-word is a problem, shouldn't we think about trying something else?

This is more or less the advice that Sayeeda Warsi has been doggedly offering for years.  It was rejected by the powers-that-be.  But politicians being politicians, it wasn't rejected completely.  So the adjective "state" was grafted on to the front of the noun "multiculturalism", like a papery fig-leaf, to differentiate between the multiculturalism the state has produced and that which people produce themselves.

I can see that there's a difference between failing to teach British history in schools, on the one hand, and a Vaisakhi parade through the streets of Leeds, on the other.  But such nice distinctions miss a big point.  To produce variants on the M-word to solve the problem is like trying to open a door with one key after another.  But the door isn't locked - it's bolted.  To run free, all one has to do is to raise the bolt.

Which means, in this case, dropping the M-word as a boo-word.  I haven't built whatever reputation I have by invariably agreeing with Warsi.  But on this point, she is right and I, to date, have been wrong.  Multiculturalism is neutral.  There is good multiculturalism, such as my cup of tea, and bad multiculturalism, such as Al Qaeda, that bastard child of takfiri ideas and western technology.

So the time has come to end the Tory war on multiculturalism.  Le's repeat the three reasons why.  First, because the word covers so many sins and virtues, and means so many things to so many people, as now to be almost meaningless.  Second, because it isn't helping the Party win votes: winning votes isn't everything in politics, of course, but it's more often an aim worth pursuing than not.

Third, because the M-word has become a distraction, a diversion, a dissipation of energies better focused "like a laser beam" on the struggle against extremism and the ideology that underpins it.  Tell a group of a hundred people in a mixed-ethnicity marginal that you oppose both, and most will agree.  Tell them you oppose multiculturalism - state or otherwise - and you'll begin an argument that will end on judgement day.

Don't be against multiculturalism - be for integration.  Be for teaching English history in schools.  Be for teaching migrants English (even at this time of tight budgets).  Be for cutting immigration to the tens of thousands.  Be for a national holiday to celebrate the Queen's Birthday.  I should have seen before the Munich speech that a single word in it would compromise the effectiveness of all the others.


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