By Edoardo Turco
All over the world, events of violence and clashes between different ethnic groups due mainly to the propaganda rhetoric of the sovereigntists have brought the problem of multiculturalism and integration back into sharp relief. This is certainly not a new or Brexit- related problem in British society. Since the end of the Second World War, the UK has seen immigration on a larger scale, and conflict has arisen many times, as it did during the 1980s riots. But with the rise of home- grown terrorism, ISIS, COVID and the atrocities these have brought, both the media, politicians and citizens have increasingly focused on the politics of multiculturalism and the consequences this brings for society.
The British approach to multiculturalism has essentially been to welcome people from different cultures and countries, allowing them to continue to practice their own cultural traditions without demanding that they adapt or conform to ‘British’ ways and customs. The policy, therefore, focused on accommodating the rights of all and empowering local minority communities, allowing immigrants to better preserve their cultures and, at the same time, social cohesion; this conciliatory, two-way, community-based approach has attracted much criticism in recent years – so much so, in fact, in 2011 David Cameron proclaimed that state multiculturalism had failed, and that the policy was contributing to the growth of extremism. What went wrong then?
Much of the hostility focuses on the idea that minorities live parallel lives that are isolated in their own communities and rarely interact with the rest of society under multiculturalism. As a result, according to some, multiculturalism has increased social division rather than eliminating it; it has led to a more fractured society, lacking a unified national identity, and has allowed the anti-democratic and illiberal values of a particular minority to become the ‘masters’ of the country and thus contribute to the radicalisation process; these arguments should be taken seriously; it is undoubtedly the case that segregation is a problem in many areas of the UK, and the public perception that the ingredients of multiculturalism do not mix should not be ignored. However, evidence suggests that this pessimistic picture of multiculturalism is somewhat exaggerated.
One of the main concerns is that minority communities do not see themselves as British. But according to data from the 2007 Citizenship Survey, minority ethnic communities show very similar belonging to Britain and their local geographic area compared to white British respondents. While 85% of white British people felt ‘fairly or very strongly’ that they belonged to Britain, the percentage agreeing with this statement in all other groups ranged from 84% to 89%. As can be seen, in terms of local belonging, the differences were modest between the different ethnic groups. However, what is interesting is the response to the question of whether one can belong to Britain while maintaining a separate cultural or religious identity ( Hard Evidence: how British do British Muslims feel? Some 80-90% of ethnic minorities do not perceive a conflict between them and believe they are fully compatible.
On the economic side, apart from the fact that a more significant influx of immigrants – especially from similar cultural spheres to the UK, such as Europeans – always brings a substantial benefit to the state coffers simply because the natural ageing of the population is slowed down, or even reversed in certain parts of the UK, and therefore they can be a stable source of tax revenue; a crucial proportion of young people with a mainly non-European background has brought a fair amount of development in the new technology sector, education and entrepreneurship.
This phenomenon has occurred mainly due to the relatively better level of public education in Europe and the UK compared to other parts of the world, which have enabled young children of first-generation immigrants to have the opportunity to acquire the tools to become active members of the ‘global village’ (and local) economy. Whatever readers’ views on immigration and multiculturalism may ultimately be, to have a prosperous and progressing society, a good provision of state schools (both at school and university level) must always be guaranteed, not only to the locally born but also and especially, to those of foreign origin.
Most minority groups feel that they belong and consider their cultural heritage and British identity compatible. Minority groups, at least, for the most part, feel welcome. So it seems that the fear that multiculturalism has not encouraged a sense of belonging to different cultures and communities has been overstated.
There is no doubt, however, that multiculturalism has created tensions. It is often said that multiculturalism puts people in boxes, thus defining the individual rights and needs of the community to which they belong and treating communities as more or less homogeneous blocks, for example, when it comes to group opinion (Intercultural Approach To Task-based Collaboration 11th. ( https://www.slideshare.net/dbrooks25/intercultural-approach-to- taskbased- colloboration-11th). In trying so hard to promote group solidarity, multiculturalism has neglected 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.
Identifying people on the narrow basis of their community before applying other criteria very often reduces people to a caricature of the group they belong to, leading to hostility towards these people. Furthermore, offering ‘special rights’ to communities and being too accommodating to some groups has meant undue conservatism in the name of protecting one’s own culture and society. To the extent that this community-based approach tends to oversimplify things and the idea that they should be treated differently, one can somewhat understand why multiculturalism might be contributing to growing resentment across the UK.
Proponents of France’s ‘integrationist’ policy, where everyone is treated simply as a citizen with the same rights and no group receives any special treatment, argue that this approach avoids subordinating the individual to the group. They also suggest that by treating groups equally and trying to incorporate them into the same national identity, there is less danger of fostering divisions by focusing too much on the differences between communities; after all, treating groups differently in the public sphere is in a sense treating them as different or in other words ‘the other’.
Issues such as Islamophobia come mainly from the fact that people judge too quickly, e.g. for a ‘Muslim’ one is quick to assume that what applies to one’s perception of the ‘Muslim community’ must also apply to the person in front of one. Although multiculturalism is not the only cause of this, in some cases, it is simply human nature, like it or not, the tendency to categorise communities, to think of their leaders as reliable authorities of group expression and to highlight the differences between groups and treat them differently, somehow contributes to oversimplifying the terms of the issue. In addition, many people feel that they are not accurately represented as if one part of their identity is more critical while forgetting other equally important aspects.
Multiculturalism has not failed though; it has brought diversity and tolerance, not only to London, but words also that have found a special place at the heart of both British and European identity. Minorities, according to the data, feel welcomed and, for the most part, happy to be on this side of the Mediterranean Sea. That said, especially in the wake of terror worldwide, the policy needs to be examined, reviewed, and refined. Multiculturalism has its problems. Seeing how to incorporate the strengths of other models, giving a more individualistic focus to the country’s policies while at the same time making sure we have a clearly defined identity in which all groups can participate without giving up their heritage. Multiculturalism has not failed, but it must be improved, adapted, and developed, considering the needs and fears of all. And let’s be careful not to mistake someone’s poor manners or smiles and attitudes that may seem cold and aloof -but are simply different from our own- as a sign that multiculturalism has failed because it hasn’t.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.