Attacks on multicultural Britain pave the way for enforced assimilation

By A. Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations (THE GUARDIAN, 13/09/06):

The mounting campaign against multiculturalism by politicians, pundits and the press, in Britain and across Europe, is neither innocent nor innocuous. It is a prelude to a policy that deems there is one dominant culture, one unique set of values, one nativist loyalty – a policy of assimilation. And yet it is passed off as a virtuous attempt at integration, thereby deliberately and dishonestly conflating the two terms. To use “integration” and “assimilation” as synonyms is not just to misuse language and confuse concepts, but to dissimulate practice. Integration provides for the coexistence of minority cultures with the majority culture; assimilation requires the absorption of minority cultures into the majority culture. The aim of assimilation is a monocultural, even a monofaith, society; the aim of integration is a multicultural, pluralist society.

Countries such as France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany are opposed to ethnic minorities having their own cultural expression – be it of dress (the veil), language or values. The problem in Britain is that the government has allowed these European preoccupations – which come out of totally different histories and struggles – to contaminate our debate. Assimilation was something that Britain consciously rejected in favour of integration 40 years ago. In the former Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins’s classic definition, integration is “not a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.

In practice in Britain, however, the racial discrimination that prevailed in employment, housing, social services and so on did not make for equal opportunity, and mutual tolerance was undermined by a populist media and opportunist politicians. All that was left was cultural diversity. But cultural diversity or cultural expression came not from government edict, but from the joint fight against racial discrimination – on the factory floor and in local communities – by Asians, African-Caribbeans and whites, creating unity in diversity. It was that unified struggle, across communities, ethnic groups, faiths and locales, that also led to the introduction of the government’s anti-discrimination legislation in the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976. And that understanding of multiculturalism, in the early 1970s, encouraged schools to teach children to respect each other’s cultures and religions and celebrate each other’s festivals.

But those very successes were instrumental in making multiculturalism government policy, and thereby institutionalising it. In the process, multiculturalism was stripped of its anti-racist roots and remit. It ceased to be an outcome of the struggle for equality emanating from below, and became government policy imposed from above. And as the anti-racist component of the struggle ebbed, multiculturalism as policy began to degenerate into what I would term culturalism or ethnicism. It became part and parcel of a competitive fight for central and local government favours, and moved the struggle from the streets to the town halls. But there was quite a long history to that descent into culturalism and cultural, ethnic enclaves.

First, in the 1970s, the money from Urban Aid, allocated from town halls to black groups, undermined their ethos of self-reliance and blunted the cutting edge of their politics. Then the strike of Asian workers at Grunwick (in 1976-77) against racism and for union recognition, initially supported by black groups only, was taken over by the trade unions, which, in changing the terms of the strike to meet their own preoccupations, gave it the kiss of death. That was the final nail in the coffin of militant black industrial protest. Many of the progressive whites who had been part of a common anti-racist fight went off to fight the fascists, and the black community itself began to split into its ethnic components. All of which shifted the struggle against racism into a struggle for culture.

Second, the government’s white paper, which preceded the 1976 Race Relations Act, signalled the state’s concerns about the disgruntlement of British-born black people. The street rebellions against police racism in Brixton and elsewhere in 1981 and 1985 bore out those anxieties. Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the disturbances identified the underlying problem not as institutionalised racism but as individual prejudice and “ethnic disadvantage”, and he recommended programmes to combat this. The orthodoxy grew that the disaffection of Britain’s black population could be dealt with by funding a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups and projects. Meeting their cultural needs would somehow stave off protests about inequality and injustice.

The kinds of policies that emanated from Scarman set different groups against one another in a bid for funds; they helped just a handful of individuals to find upward mobility on the basis of culturalised, nationalist programmes; they began to entrench a dangerous ethnicised patronage in local politics; and they debased the anti-racist struggle and confused those, including white people, who wished to combat racial injustice. If cultures exclude each other through a hierarchy of racial discrimination, multiculturalism becomes regressive. Conversely, it is only in combating racism that multiculturalism becomes progressive. The fight for multiculturalism and the fight against racism go hand-in-hand: anti-racism is the element that makes multiculturalism dynamic and progressive. It was a common struggle, against racism in the workplace and the community, that politicised multiculturalism and led to integration. When anti-racism was taken out of the equation, as it was by the beginning of the 1980s, all that was left was culturalism and ethnicism. The result was cultural and ethnic enclaves with their own cultural and ethnic politics.

Cultural politics (as opposed to political culture) was already beginning to taint left thinking – attracting, in particular, young black people in universities and removing them from the anti-racist struggle. And the feminist movement was now into identity politics and “the personal is the political”. Who you were (female, black, disabled, gay, single mother) was itself a political statement, not what you did. Racism, accordingly, was removed from its institutional context and made personal. All of which undermined the anti-racist struggle and gave a fillip to culturalism.

Culturalism, disguised as multiculturalism, is now being used by European governments as a whipping boy to enforce assimilation, by law if necessary. The events of 9/11 and 7/7, among others, provided the excuse; the politics of fear provided the mandate.

In Britain, the signs were already there in the official reaction to the 2001 riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford – when the disaffection between Asians and whites was blamed on Asian self-separatism, without even an acknowledgement that successive government policies of culturalism, combined with their neglect of the inner cities, had created the enclaves that had turned Asians against whites and vice versa. Thus, the government’s thinking this time was not on the lines of “ethnic disadvantage”, as Scarman had it, but of too much ethnic advantage, too much “multiculturalism”, and not enough integration (read assimilation) or the more euphemistic term, “community cohesion”.

Now, after 7/7, despite the discovery that the suicide bombers were homegrown and wholly British, the thinking in the UK is to embrace the backward and undoubtedly Islamophobic discourse issuing from mainland Europe. Cultural pluralism has gone too far; it threatens our values and our national safety. A line has to be drawn on difference. Ethnic minorities have now, in the domestic context of the war on terror, effectively to subsume their cultural heritage within Britishness.

Going against the grain of its history, the UK has taken a leaf out of Europe’s monoculturalist book and descended into nativism – conflating multiculturalism with culturalism and ethnicism, assimilation with integration, and extolling British values to the exclusion of all others – foreshadowing a monolithic society and a centralised state.