By Terry Eagleton, a John Edward Taylor professor of English literature at Manchester University (THE GUARDIAN, 21/02/07):
There is an insuperable problem about introducing immigrants to British values. There are no British values. Nor are there any Serbian or Peruvian values. No nation has a monopoly on fairness and decency, justice and humanity. Some cultures cherish one kind of value more than others do (Arabs and hospitality, for example, or the British and emotional self-discipline), but there is nothing inherently Arab about hospitality, or inherently British about not throwing a hysterical fit. Tolerance and compassion, like sadism and supremacism, can be found anywhere on the planet.
It was one of the mighty achievements of the radical Enlightenment to reject the idea that virtue or vice depend on your ethnic background. Nobody is morally better off because they were born in Boston rather than Bosnia. The postmodernists who deny universal values in the name of cultural difference are unwittingly in cahoots with the tub-thumpers for Trafalgar and the groupies of St George.
The basic moral values of the average Muslim dentist who migrates to Britain are much the same as those of a typical English-born plumber. Neither is likely to believe that lying and cheating are the best policy, or that they should beat their children. They may have different customs and beliefs, but what is striking is the vast extent of common ground between them on the issue of what it is for men and women to live well. As far as morality goes, it is hard to slide a cigarette paper between Allah and Jehovah.
So why are so many of our politicians getting steamed up about the supposed dangers of multiculturalism? Shouldn’t they just accept that shared moral values run very deep in human beings, and that cultural differences are accordingly irrelevant? Not in the least. From the viewpoint of political power, culture is absolutely vital. So vital, indeed, that power cannot operate without it. It is culture, in the sense of the everyday habits and beliefs of a people, which beds power down, makes it appear natural and inevitable, turns it into spontaneous reflex and response.
Unless authority entwines itself with the roots of people’s experience and identity, it will remain too abstract and aloof to win their loyalty. If it is to secure their allegiance, power must become the invisible colour of everyday life itself. And this is what we know as culture. Culture is what keeps power in business. When those for whom culture means Mansfield Park and The Magic Flute begin avidly debating culture as dress, language and religious faith, you can be reasonably sure that they feel their political interests to be under threat.
Thirty years ago, only a few leftist mavericks like Raymond Williams insisted that culture was ordinary. With immigration, however, culture has become ordinary in the eyes of our rulers, too. Today, even global capitalist corporations prate about the importance of local knowledge and distinctive ways of life. Almost everyone is now sensitively alert to cultural difference. It is just that some of them are alert to it in the way that a cat is to a mouse.
It is easy to see why a diversity of cultures should confront power with a problem. If culture is about plurality, power is about unity. How can it sell itself simultaneously to a whole range of life forms without being fatally diluted? Multiculturalism is not a threat because it might breed suicide bombers. It is a threat because the kind of political state we have depends upon a tight cultural consensus in order to implant its materially divisive policies.
So culture today means not just sonnets and string quartets, but history, origins, language, kinship and identity. As long as these things are fairly uniform, political power can afford to leave them alone. It is when they become too diverse to scoop into one rigid set of categories that the state risks being undermined, and thus seeks to override them. Culture then becomes part of the problem rather than the solution. It ceases to be a spiritual solvent of material conflicts, as it was in days of Matthew Arnold and TS Eliot, and becomes instead the very terms in which those conflicts are articulated.
Tony Blair believes in a common culture, just as early New Left writers like Raymond Williams and EP Thompson did. It is just that what Blair means by a common culture is that everyone should share his values so that they won’t bomb tube stations. In fact, no cultural value is ever extended to large groups of newcomers without being changed in the process. This is why the Blair project is wet behind the ears as well as culturally supremacist. There is no assumption in Downing Street that such values might be challenged or transformed in the process, which is what thinkers like Williams and Thompson had in mind.
A truly common culture is not one in which we all think alike, or in which we all believe that fairness is next to godliness, but one in which everyone is allowed to be in on the project of cooperatively shaping a common way of life. If this is to include those from different cultural traditions, and if our current society thrives on the exclusion of certain groups, then the culture we are likely to end up with will be nothing like the one we have now. And this is just what will be so valuable about it.