Challenge of unrest brings out Labour's true colours

June 14, 2002

Why is multiculturalism under attack? Experts in the field consider why ministers have turned away from heterogeneity and the absurdities that stoke racial fears.

Why has new Labour dumped 'diversity' and taken up 'integration', ask Les Back et al .

In the immediate aftermath of its massive election victory in May 1997, new Labour was keen to present a commitment to modernising Britain and reaffirming a sense of a modern national identity while at the same time embracing diversity and valuing cultural mix. Indeed, one of the leitmotivs of new Labour's political rhetoric since 1997 has been a celebration of the role of multiculturalism in British culture and society.

In the period leading up to the 2001 general election, we saw an interesting series of attempts by the party to link public debates concerning multiculturalism with issues of national identity. An interesting, if idiosyncratic, attempt to flesh out such a perspective was the statement by Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, that "chicken tikka masala is now Britain's true national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences".

In the debate that followed this statement, many commentators were exercised by whether chicken tikka masala had indeed replaced fish and chips as the national dish. Cook's statement, however, is best seen as an expression of new Labour's concern to popularise a new sense of British national identity that was capable of assimilating new cultural practices and identities.

At the same time, however, it has become more evident in the aftermath of the public debate about the race riots of 2001 that there is another face to new Labour's stance on race and immigration. The unrest in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford seems to have played an important role in shifting governmental thinking on this issue. The events in these towns have been the subject of a series of official reports that have attempted to explain the roots of the unrest. Perhaps the main theme running through all these reports is the argument that the underlying reason for unrest lies in an absence of social cohesion and an environment in which there is little contact between minority and majority communities.

It is perhaps not surprising in this context that David Blunkett, appointed home secretary after the 2001 election, has increasingly shifted his attention from multiculturalism to the need to develop strategies that help to bring about a more cohesive national identity. Taking his cue from the reports on the unrest and from popular concerns about "separatism" and "segregation", he has initiated a public debate about the need for strict controls on the numbers of migrants or refugees admitted, and on the need for them to go through a "British test" to assess their suitability to become part of the social and cultural fabric of British society. Ignoring the irony of the linkages between the British test and Norman Tebbit's notorious "cricket test", Blunkett has argued forcefully that it is necessary to combine a strong sense of identity with knowledge of the English language and cultural norms for social cohesion to result.

Since the unrest there has been a noticeable shift in public discourses about race, away from a celebration of multiculturalism towards a political rhetoric that is much more preoccupied with the need to integrate diverse cultural and religious identities into a common set of values. Such talk can best be seen as an attempt to reinvent a new kind of assimilationism. In his preface to the 2002 white paper on secure borders, Safe Haven : Integration and Diversity in Modern Britain , Blunkett reflects the shift in government thinking when he writes: "To enable integration to take place and to value the diversity it brings, we need to be secure within our sense of belonging and identity and therefore to be able to reach out and to embrace those who come to the UKI Having a clear, workable and robust nationality and asylum system is the prerequisite to building the security and trust that is needed. Without it, we cannot defeat those who would seek to stir up hate, intolerance and prejudice."

The recurrent theme in the white paper concerns the duty of newcomers to conform, to develop a sense of shared identity with the white majority community. Racism and discrimination are mentioned only in passing and without sustained discussion.

New Labour has produced a proliferation of "diversity talk", or what it has referred to as "managing diversity", but the white paper has also emphasised the extent to which it is increasingly trading on a rejuvenated national pride whose defining centre is allusively archaic. It is telling that Blunkett mentions in the quotation above the need for the British to be "secure within our sense of belonging". More recently, he has sought to justify the government's tough stance on immigration and asylum by warning of the need to avoid the "swamping" of schools and social services by migrants and refugees. At the same time another government minister, Peter Hain, felt moved to warn of the dangers of Muslim communities becoming more isolationist and helping to feed "both rightwing politics and their own extremists". Such pronouncements should not be read in isolation, since they are the product of a specific political environment, but they are perhaps a signal that new Labour's third way on race relations and immigration will lead us towards a strategy based on integration rather than multiculturalism.

In the context of debates about the shifting and evolving nature of national identity, there seems something odd about new Labour's search for a more secure basis of belonging and identity. Yet it is precisely by combining a forceful commitment to tough immigration controls, national identity and elements of multiculturalism that new Labour is seeking to reconfigure a new kind of assimilationism. Part of the rationale for this shift is the idea that a mixture of strong controls on immigration with measures aimed at promoting integration and cultural homogeneity can help to reduce the appeal of the extreme right.

It might be possible to suggest that the two faces of new Labour on the politics of race and nation are no more than a duplicitous attempt to please very different audiences by being all things to all people. At the heart of what has become the new Labour project lies an uncertainty about the challenge contemporary multiculturalism poses to the very constitution of the polity of the nation. This cannot be reduced to the sometimes simplistic binary narratives of political racism or its absence. Instead, ambivalence surrounding the melancholic desire for an imperial past sits alongside the contradictions that surface in liberal models of social inclusion and the attempt to define a social democratic model of national economic growth in a globalised economy.

In a relatively short period of time, the language of "assimilation" and "integration" has once again become part of our political culture. Such a language has an appeal in this period of change and uncertainty, but the danger is that in the long term it will prevent us from having a serious and honest debate about the needs of a multicultural nation such as Britain.

In the midst of the Queen's golden jubilee and the World Cup, new Labour has further hitched its political wagons to a conservative and backward-looking nationalism. On the one hand, there is the Queen who is presented like a fossil of former imperial greatness. On the other, there are the clean-cut boys with the three lions on their chests: Michael Owen, the boy next door, and David Beckham, the upwardly mobile new man with the designer mohican. These old and new icons of Englishness share at their core an implicit whiteness. This is the defining centre - whether in the form of imperial nationalism or today's Cool Britannia - into which both the fourth-generation racial minorities and the refugees at the border are expected to assimilate. There is an urgent need for a serious debate about the boundaries and limits of a multicultural democracy, the role of competing rights and obligations, the impact of racism and racial inequality and conditions that can allow us to live and thrive in a culturally diverse society. Such a debate will not develop if the fashion for a move back towards an assimilationist rhetoric is not challenged conceptually and politically.

Les Back is a reader in sociology and Michael Keith a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College. John Solomos is professor of sociology at City University. Kalbir Shukra is a lecturer in community and youth work at Goldsmiths Professional and Community Education Unit.

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