UK / Europe — 08 August 2005

Introduction to the current situation

Just three approaches have traditionally dominated U.K. minority and race-relations; the racist assimilation policies of the far right, the melting pot integrationist policies of the secular liberals and the ‘politically correct’ morally-relative multiculturalist policies of the left. Since the events of September 11, 2001, multiculturalism, the trend that had formed the core of race-relation thinking in the U.K. and many other secular societies for at least two decades suffered a critical mauling. This directly resulted in the theory being marginalised, if not thoroughly discredited. By January 2005, Damian Thompson was writing:

“Multiculturalism is in crisis…’Political correctness’ is shorthand for the etiquette and working practices of the most influential ideology of our age: multiculturalism or ‘identity politics’. And that ideology is falling apart” (2005). Therefore a new trend emerged in race and minority relations in secular societies. It can be traced via the responses to the respective deaths of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh as well as via the reactions to la loi sur la laïcité (or the ban on conspicuous religious symbols, such as the hijab) and the current proposals against Incitement to Religious Hatred (Part IV of the Government’s Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill).

The phrase I use for this new trend is ‘The New Liberalism’ and in order to trace its development it is first necessary to draw a timeline to illustrate how multiculturalism’s influence faded and The New Liberalism became dominant.

U.K. race relations

Britain’s race-relations history has been eventful, to the say the least. After World War II Government agencies advertised ‘British’ jobs in former British colonies such as the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean (cf. Lunn, 1990) but some native Britons viewed the newcomers in the light of an ingrained racism. Racial tension escalated as the far right encouraged people to view their privileges as under threat. Nick Cohen’s brief examination of the social and political milieu of the 1960’s is still illuminating:

“In 1964 the Tories secured a shock victory in Birmingham Smethwick with the catchy slogan of ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour’. In his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech to members of the West Midlands Conservative Political Centre, Enoch Powell attempted to turn the white working class from Labour by telling them that ‘in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the upper hand over the white man’. It worked. Not only did he incite the mass beating of blacks and Asians, but Powell’s racism helped the Tories win West Midland marginals and with them the 1970 general election” (2004).

The far right discriminated against those who didn’t share similar racial characteristics to them while liberals, proud of Britain’s historical tradition of tolerance, pluralism and constitutional liberalism instead pressed for migrants to commit to certain, core ideas.

From 1965 to 1968, known as the ‘liberal hour’ of British race relations, a ‘consensus’ emerged where political parties followed a similar liberal line on the issue of minorities. The liberal counter-argument to the far right was that a simple focus on assimilation and migrant numbers missed the point and a migrant’s loyalty could not be reduced to passive obedience to a set of laws. Liberals argued one’s citizenship in a nation-state was deeply dependent on a collective history, joint vision of what the future should be and shared values that naturally arise from living closely together i.e. a common identity and a common culture. Only then could society be cohesive, stable and unified.

Modern liberalism is inseparable from the Enlightenment that prized freedom, secularism and benefit above all. The emphasis was secular-on the public sphere and liberals favoured a melting pot (cf. Schlesinger, 1998) approach similar to the U.S. where newcomers, by definition, did not share the common identity or values of the public culture. They would then be expected to actively adopt them in the public sphere. If they did not, the newcomer would be exposed as disloyal i.e. not ‘one of us’. The outcome of the liberal ‘consensus’ was that immigrants had to be ‘integrated’ into the common identity and culture (a mutual collective history, joint vision of the future and shared value-system) to prevent them segregating to live parallel lives in parallel societies.

Liberals accepted racism had to be fought to help ease the transition of immigrants willing to adapt into citizens and they saw fighting racism as their part of the bargain. Integration was therefore always discussed as a two-way (carrot and stick) process and could therefore effortlessly be distinguished from assimilation, which was very much one-sided (just stick).

With an atomistic view of society that exalted the status of the individual human being over the social whole the search for individual happiness was also a cornerstone of liberalism. Jeremy Bentham elucidated this in his theory of Utilitarianism when he wrote “…the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong” (1994, reprint, p3). Thus the way liberals viewed the immigration and race-relations dilemma of the 1950’s and 60’s was also from the angle of utility and enlightened self-interest. With minorities potentially threatening to erode national identity and societal harmony liberals viewed the greatest happiness of the greatest number as their will against the minority.

This leads us to a disturbing conundrum. If, on the one hand, minorities integrated and accepted the norms and values of the majority they would no longer be viewed as a minority by a liberal society. They would instead become of the majority and their happiness would automatically be part of the greatest happiness of the number. If, on the other hand, sections of society did not integrate then they would permanently be viewed as a ‘minority’, the ‘other’ (cf. Habermas, 2000), needing help and assistance, i.e. integration, to progress. They would surely then clash with the common public civic identity and ‘universal’ liberal values they had failed to adopt.

So what guarantee of rights can a liberal society possibly offer minorities when it prizes freedom, secularism and benefit and seeks to uphold a common public identity and culture against foreign incursion from those who are ‘other’ (which minorities inherently were)? The answer most minorities supposed was exceedingly little.

Minorities often expressed disappointment at liberal integration policies. Most first-generation immigrants were already remarkably loyal to Britain and its values and were determined to fit in. They viewed racism as the obstacle and saw the Government’s persistence in simply demanding their devotion as belittling. The second generation of immigrants remained largely suspicious of integrationists feeling palpably threatened by the existence of a dominant liberal cultural framework that they had to accept as superior. Soon minorities in the U.K. had generally begun to retreat from integration. The 1970’s witnessed the growth of various rights movements including feminists, Black Panthers, Native Americans etc. so when calls for ‘equality’ and ‘recognition’ throughout the Western world grew louder an alternative to the liberal model was sought. Multiculturalism evolved in reaction to this state of affairs.
Multiculturalism is moral relativism
In 1971, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy and other Western nations soon followed suit till the liberal integrationist ideas of the 1960’s on race-relations were uprooted and multiculturalism became an organising principle of society (cf. Ravitch, 1990).

A few have attempted to define multiculturalism (also known as ‘cultural pluralism’) in a one-dimensional manner relying on the word itself to guide them hence they believe multiculturalism simply means many cultures. This confuses multiculturalism with the pluralistic view of liberal race-relations. Failure to differentiate between the diversity that liberalism endorsed and the anti-integration logic of multiculturalism is patently naïve. Liberals believed they were correct and depended on a common culture to integrate newcomers. Multiculturalists denied anyone could ever be correct and denied a common culture existed. Multiculturalism was therefore completely distinct from the liberal view and clashed with it on various levels.

The definition of multiculturalism was always in conflict as it was an ‘essentially contested’ concept. However it could be summed up as the recognition of all groups by society and the denial of any form of common culture in order to equalise relations between minorities and the dominant majority in the conviction that no way of life was correct and all were deserving of equal respect. Bhikhu Parekh confirmed this when he wrote: “Multiculturalism basically means that no culture is perfect or represents the best life and that it can therefore benefit from a critical dialogue with other cultures” (‘So what exactly is multiculturalism?’ 2005).

Detractors contended the ‘cultural difference’ approach led to a lack of moral certainty by firmly pointing the way to moral relativism. Moral relativism was a point of contention between multiculturalists and liberals. If what is morally right or wrong is purely relative depending on one’s view then there can be no certainty in anything not even with the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Liberals accused multiculturalists of evading moral judgements and questions by not answering at all.

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