‘State’ multiculturalism – getting down to the nitty gritty

February 11, 2011 at 11:32 am 1 comment

by Raj Cheema

Have I missed something here? Was multiculturalism embedded in a statute, common law or political process making it part of the ‘state’ in some way in the last decade?

Yesterday evening, I was watching Newsnight (and the ITV equivalent at the same time) and the topic was David Cameron’s speech in Munich about the failure of ‘state’ multiculturalism. I haven’t heard the late-nineties buzz word ‘multiculturalism’ by a prominent political figure since – well, before 9/11. I remember the state promoting the notion – but I don’t recall it being part of the ‘state’ in any way.

For me, there was nothing new in the speech – yes, yes we know it plays a big part in our national identity (perhaps a little scared of it becoming synonymous with this in some circles) – and we understand that culture is not static but forever evolving so where Britain stands today on this issue needs to be addressed. I welcome this – it’s about time we started re-kindling this debate.

I suppose my concern is ‘who’ the dialogue is between and whether this dialogue will be ‘reinforcing the same notions’ we were talking about over a decade ago. The difference now is that the UK’s perception of ethnic minority communities is not the same as it was in the mid-nineties and the debate has become intertwined with extremism making it much more confusing.

Firstly, I want to know what multiculturalism means to people today. My guess is it means something else now compared to the late nineties. Is it still about curry being the UK’s number one dish and taking pride in this? Or Monty Panesar wearing the England cricket shirt on the international stage and ‘us’ telling the world ‘this is who we are’? Is it about communities living next door to each other and being tolerant of each other’s customs? From yesterday’s debates it seemed to be the last one but I’m not sure we’ve cracked what this means to us yet. We’ve not spoken about the subject for over a decade and arguably have been trying to avoid it – and here we are debating about whether it has failed us. When we don’t have shared understanding of ‘multiculturalism’ and don’t really understand its practical implications for our everyday lives and how best to use this, or what role we want this to play in the future – then aren’t we jumping the boat here?

Secondly, the government wants to open dialogue about this. And yes, we need to do this. We also need other dialogues to take place to really understand what multiculturalism looks like now and what it looks like in the UK in the future – in all communities. I’ll come back to this in my last paragraph.

Thirdly, it seems the government wants to look at what universal values are ingrained in all communities that can help bind us together to form a stronger national identity. But I think we already know this – otherwise, why sign up to conventions and treaties that are rights based and why keep talking about the importance of Liberal values in this country? We’re missing the point. We’re not debating about the values we don’t all share and how we approach this. It’s a question of not offending and trying to figure how we live with one another when this does happen. And we need to do this before we get tired of just tolerating each other.

We need to think about taking an intergenerational approach within communities and opening a dialogue between a father and son about what it means to them now and what they want it to mean to them in the future. And, unfortunately, it’s about dealing with the inevitable conflict that comes out of this conversation – we won’t share the same values between communities – but let’s not forget that we don’t all share the same values within communities either. What vision do we as individuals have of Britain in 50 years time and when can we started talking about this honestly with friends and family? Because if we can’t have this conversation, then how can we come to some shared understanding of what multiple cultures living next door and/or with each other means for the UK in the future. It’s not just about the state having this conversation with us – it’s also about us having this conversation with each other.


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