Integration and terrorism have nothing to do with each other

By Madeleine Bunting (THE GUARDIAN, 04/12/06):

Tony Blair has an important speech to make later this week. It will probably be his last opportunity to influence decisively the public debate on integration and diversity that has so dominated his time in office. Since 1997, race and immigration have steadily climbed the list of voters' priorities. They have now, according to Mori polls, arrived in the top slot, of more concern even than health or education.Tangled up in this debate is a string of emotive issues, from racism and extremist terrorism to veils and the role of faith in a secular society. Over the past near-decade, New Labour has zigzagged its way through the territory; early achievements such as the Macpherson inquiry have been lost from view in a wave of anxiety and fear that followed 9/11. Many of Blair's colleagues have opportunistically surfed the latter; indeed, he's not been above that himself. But if the succession of Downing Street meetings with different participants in this debate is anything to go by - from young Muslims earlier in the autumn to a group of academics last week who helped him on the coming speech - he's been looking for new inspiration. And it's sorely needed. The debate has become freighted with muddle-headed assumptions. So here are a few pointers for his speechwriter.

1. Reassure and uplift. Without being complacent, Britain can point to considerable success over the past few decades in absorbing mass immigration, with polls showing much lower resistance to diversity than in many other European countries. Two-thirds of Britons say that multiculturalism makes Britain a better place to live. This is the basis for optimism - that Britain is remarkably well placed to deal with a future in which ethnic minorities play an ever bigger role (as they will given the age structure of their populations). A resourcefulness and adaptability will ease the adaptation of several major cities, including Birmingham, to becoming majority non-white in the next two decades. Stop the panic-mongering.

2. It is crucial to delink terrorism from the integration and diversity agenda. They have nothing to do with each other, so nail the myth - perpetrated by politicians and commentators - that integration is an anti-terrorism strategy. The least integrated are isolated, non-English-speaking mothers and grandmothers - hardly bomb-making material. Conversely, integration measured in education, employment or social life is no immunisation from the appeal of Islamist extremism - as the CVs of last year's London bombers showed.

So go back to basics and reiterate that integration is about equality of opportunity, breaking down intergenerational cycles of poverty, and harmonious social relations. These goals may - or may not, depending on international affairs - reduce the appeal of terrorism in the long run, but any serious government should be interested in them in their own right, not simply as a means to the end of defeating terrorism.

3. Adapt a phrase of Clinton's: "mend not end" multiculturalism. Ditching the concept has been one of the most egregious of recent government zigzags. Roy Jenkins's concept of multiculturalism - equality of opportunity, tolerance of diversity - provided a mental map that has facilitated accommodation with Britain's increasing diversity since the 60s. It has become popular to caricature multiculturalism as a system of static, discrete communities. Recent criticism by Trevor Phillips and Ruth Kelly has served little purpose, doing more to disorientate than provide a compelling alternative.

Of course, the reality is much more fluid: ethnic groups influence each other culturally, politically and economically. They have children together: by 2010 there will be nearly a million mixed-race children. But the state has a vital role to recognise communities and identify their needs if it is to realise that founding principle of multiculturalism - equality of opportunity.

4. Identity has become a major preoccupation in this country during your leadership and what's badly needed is to summon up a plausible, hopeful future. First, ignore the bogus theory that there is a trade-off between diversity and solidarity - the idea that people are happy to pay taxes only when they share the same ethnic background with beneficiaries of the welfare state. One of the key indicators used is the fact that in areas of high diversity, there are low levels of trust, but the leap to a causal connection is false - low trust is related to poverty not diversity.

Some (including your neighbour, Gordon Brown) believe that the most effective way to generate mutual commitment is by reinvigorating a sense of national identity: elaborate Britishness, and this flag-waving will bind us together. Be wary. Studies by the Economic and Social Research Council's identities programme indicate that it doesn't work. Big narratives of nation don't make much sense to young people muddling through lots of possible identities. Plus, this government has put much emphasis on individual choice and personal freedom, so it's a bit odd to start trying to impose something as personal as identity - let alone corralling us all into one as uniform and statist as nationalism.

5. Instead, government policy needs to be orientated around two facts. First, identity is increasingly hybrid: British-Asian, British Muslim, British Hindu, Scottish Asian, perhaps also British Pole. Cheap flights and phones sustain transnational identities, and where those identities are secure and affirmed, research shows that children flourish. There is no problem with multiple identities as the US history of Irish or Iranian Americans showed. British has to be a very baggy idea with plenty of room for other affiliations.

Second, identity is often at its strongest when it's local. This is where the most positive future lies. It is in the local community that there is most possibility of building connections across class and ethnicity. Ask young people from all kinds of backgrounds about belonging and they will say home is Bradford or Birmingham or Bolton or London. Policy should be around building up and strengthening local identities. Encouragingly, this is the direction that the new government-appointed Commission for Integration and Cohesion is planning.

6. Final advice is to pick your words carefully and leave out the following terms. Cohesion is just too plain sticky, and reveals that diversity has become a blank screen on which to project unconnected anxieties about individualisation and the decline of community. Segregation is too controversial to be useful because the word's emotive US history brings with it a charge sheet of people to blame. Communalism, a new derogatory term imported from the Indian sub-continent, is being applied particularly to the tendency for young Muslims to define themselves by their religious identity. Representation - who is representing who, and why - is a sterile inquisition that is in danger of bringing all debate about race relations in this country to a standstill.

Your job is to get the national conversation going again - in a more positive direction than the threatening detour it has taken in recent months.