Is the UK rapidly coming unstuck?

November 24, 2006

Michael North talks to Race Convention participants about patriotism, veil-wearing and what holds society together.

If you make immigrants feel good about themselves that is going to pay off," says Randall Hansen, professor of political studies at the University of Toronto. "Immigrants in Canada say they were made to feel welcome."

Hansen will be outlining the Canadian model of cultural integration at a headline event in London next week. It is one that academics widely view as successful and that could offer lessons for the UK where cultural integration is fast rising up the national agenda. The Race Convention 2006 brings together academics, politicians, actors, teachers and commentators for two days of debate organised by the Commission for Racial Equality. Speakers include Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, Azouz Begag, the French Minister for Equal Opportunities, Trevor Phillips, CRE chairman, Muhammad Abdul Bari, chair of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, and Tarique Ghaffur, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Hansen will take part in a session titled "Lessons from around the world". Asked what makes the immigration system work in Canada, he replies: "What makes any immigration system work is work."

He says that Canada's system is based on attracting skilled immigrants who can integrate quickly into the labour market, a policy Britain has begun to adopt. New entrants are encouraged to find work as the Cana-dian system is far less generous than that of, say, Germany or Britain. Hansen says:

"There is acceptance and support for immigration. Every year 250,000 immigrants come to Canada, close to 1 per cent of the population and every year the immigration minister says we must have more." Cana-dian politicians also have a tradition of promoting multiculturalism, and ethnic minorities meet broad public acceptance. "There is not much financial support for people maintaining their own cultures, but if they want to maintain their own cultures while becoming Canadian, that's fine."

Hansen is wary of coming to London "as just another sanctimonious Canadian" proclaiming where Britain and Europe are going wrong. He says that the Canadian model is not really exportable to Britain because British culture is so different - Canadian Muslims tend to be in the higher income brackets, for instance - "we don't have a Bangladeshi Mile End", he says.

But he adds that there are lessons that can be learnt from Canada's experience. "What is exportable is the idea that the political elite can lead on these issues. If you have a whole structure in which politicians extol immigration, it has a positive effect on public opinion." No Canadian politician would have criticised veil-wearing in the same way as Cabinet Minister Jack Straw, for example - although Hansen adds that Canada has not experienced a terrorist attack such as that experienced by London on July 7, 2005, and the subsequent political backlash.

Hansen says Canada has defined itself as a country of immigrants. "Multiculturalism policies are easier to adopt in the absence of a robust sense of one's own culture."

One session at the convention will discuss the importance, or otherwise, of "Britishness". Boris Johnson, Shadow Higher Education Secretary is a speaker. "It's very interesting that we find it so difficult to say what it is about Britain that we love and admire. If you are French or American, you have a clear sense of identity. The Americans have a fantastic sense of the ideals of America. We could not replicate that in this country; we would find it embarrassing," he says.

Johnson says that he recently asked some college students to define Britishness and was surprised by the downbeat responses. "They said things such as 'irony' and 'self-deprecation'. We don't have a clear strong sense of what it is that holds us together. In a way, the paradox is that this slight reluctance or inability to define what the national spirit is is quite a British thing."

Johnson worries about the lack of cohesion in British society that leads to disloyalty to the country among some Muslim groups, as witnessed in open support for the London Tube bombers. His prescription for improving our cultural sense of identity is a focus on education about the good things that Britain stands for. "This country has a fantastic history of democracy, of emancipating women, of stopping the slave trade. We did incredible things around the world. Places that have had British influence tend to be better for it," Johnson says.

Johnson's patriotism is accompanied by an acceptance of multiculturalism. Questioned about the wearing of the full veil, he comments: "We are banging on about this far too much. I think we do have a problem and we have to address it partly in schools. I have noticed, talking about it with Muslim students, that the more you harp on about what they are wearing, the more they feel, 'I'll do what I want to do'."

The question of how to stop Britain's immigrant groups becoming isolated will be discussed in "Sleepwalking to segregation: Are we stirring from our slumber?", its title taken from the CRE chair's infamous pronouncement in 2005. Among those debating the topic will be Ted Cantle, who wrote a report in 2001 examining the race riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley. One of the consequences of the Cantle report has been the introduction in schools of the citizenship curriculum, in which students discuss issues such as the veil debate and in which they learn to engage in democratic processes.

David Kerr, principal researcher at the National Foundation for Educational Research, who is studying the impact of the curriculum on students from 2001 to 2009, will be joined by Keith Ajegbo, headmaster of Deptford Green School, a pioneer of the citizenship curriculum, in a debate on whether citizenship can be taught. Kerr says that Deptford Green has been at the forefront of the initiative due to its efforts in involving students in decision-making - it has, for example, established youth forums with the local council.

Kerr says it is vital that democracy is not just a topic for debate. "Pupils must interact with the decision-making process and engage with the power structures in school [otherwise they become disengaged]."

He says citizenship requires a big effort on the part of schools - "they may have to take a few risks along the way. It works well if senior management believes in it" - and he says it needs staff with sensitivity who can interpret the issues on a local level. "It must be done sensibly with clear ground rules. There must be opportunities to discuss controversial issues in society, such as Britain's involvement in Iraq."

The Race Convention 2006, the first of its kind in the UK, will be a very public way of unpacking the pressing concerns that arise from Britain's increasingly diverse society.

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