Cohesion: prevention, action and vision

Political discourse around cohesion in the UK has come down to a simplistic juxtaposition between those “who obey our laws” and those who don’t. The government needs to re-think its laissez-faire policy on cohesion, says Phoebe Griffith
Phoebe Griffith
24 August 2011

David Cameron’s coalition government in Britain has made no secret of its dislike of the previous Labour government’s cohesion policy. Their portrayal is of a government which dictated values from the centre, accommodated groups which were not in line with the 'British way of life' and poured money into inner city areas irresponsibly. Their deep-seated hostility towards such measures was fore-grounded in a speech in Munich last February where Cameron condemned the “doctrine of state multiculturalism”.

Motivations are of course partly financial. Last year the coalition government department charged with communities, Communities and Local Government, announced cuts of over 30 per cent to its cohesion budget. But the motives have also been strongly ideological. In the words of Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, “The failure of ‘multiculturalism’ is an article of faith among resurgent far-right parties, centrist politicians and liberal commentators.”

Ideological reservations on the right have been coupled with an increasingly widespread perception that efforts to promote cohesion have been largely ineffective. Some leftwingers such as Matthew Goodwin also point out that during a period of unprecedented investment into promoting cohesion, fears of migration and support for far right parties have both increased. The recent riots in London and other English cities will no doubt be used as further evidence that the previous policy approach didn’t work.

But opposition to past policies has been distorted by a large dose of misinterpretation. Most announcements so far, not least the Prime Minister’s rejection of multiculturalism in Munich, echo cries from those responsible under Labour. Early calls for more flag waving and national days, and for the re-direction of funds away from translation services towards English teaching - one of the core and most controversial proposals of the Commission on Cohesion and Integration which reported in 2007 - are a ready sign that those in power across the board are struggling to find new answers.

Efforts to articulate a new direction haven’t amounted to much. Most of the initiatives announced so far have been little more than an ad hoc, patchwork of ideas. For example, much has been made of the fact that the new National Citizen Service will deliberately mix young people from different social backgrounds and ethnicities. This endeavour, we are told, will be led by among others one of Cameron’s favoured youth organisations, the Challenge, which claims to bring young people from different backgrounds together by “throwing them in at the deep end” with team activities such as kayaking and rock climbing. The decision to abolish the requirement for schools to report on their efforts to promote cohesion was also taken with the intention of signalling a new approach. But nothing in all this amounts to a coherent strategy to promote effective interaction between our increasingly diverse communities.

Insiders indicate that a government cohesion policy is currently in the works and likely to be published in the autumn. Following the riots two weeks ago, this area of policy is likely to be given heightened priority. Given that there have been few public statements on the issue, little is known about the likely substance of what will be proposed. However, three likely scenarios present themselves.

The first is the possibility of a continuation of the laissez-faire approach which has dominated policy so far. The aim could be to replace what is perceived as a failed centralised and top down strategy with something much more organic and devolved. The large, government-investment projects of a profligate and controlling Labour would give way to a new age of community-led programmes, tailored to local needs, which respond directly to the demands of local people. While this option is likely to be both ideologically attractive to many Tories and Liberal Democrats as well as financially appealing -  the riots make it much less probable.

At the other end is a much more explicit and heavy-handed approach. Even before the events of the last fortnight there were already plenty of signs that many in the coalition government favour a policy which prioritises terrorism prevention and enforced integration for new citizens - in other words, a ratcheting up of the many policies, such as banning Islamist preachers from entering the UK and clamping down on Islamist organisations, that have dominated this policy response since the terrorist attacks of 7/7 - at the expense of any other more positive steps. Announcements so far reflect the extent to which compulsion is much closer to the comfort zone of many in the government. Political discourse around cohesion, under this pressure, has been reduced to a simplistic juxtaposition between those “who obey our laws” and those who don’t.  

The third is a potential muddle-through option. In this scenario government, true to its devolutionary Big Society programme, would seek at one level to devolve responsibility to local actors and inspire greater community action. However, paradoxically it will also seek to ensure that this process is strongly guided from the centre, with control and law and order at its heart.

Two factors make this the most likely scenario. On the one hand, lack of funding will inevitably make it more cost-effective to put the onus on local or charitable endeavours. Government simply doesn’t have the liquidity to sponsor a centralised programme on the scale of Labour’s regeneration programmes of the late 1990s, for example. On the other hand, recent riots and the government’s ensuing commitment to tackling moral issues, such as absent fathers or youth incivility, will make it much less prepared to devolve power.

But muddling through is likely to fail. A devolutionary strategy relies on the need for strong local institutions and on a painstakingly built relationship of trust with communities – two things which will inevitably be undermined by heavy-handed interventions or attempts at defining 'British values' in a way which inevitably becomes exclusionary.

In Leicester and Toronto, two of the most diverse cities in the world which have remained relatively free from ethnic conflict, local experience in dissimilar contexts nevertheless shows that good race relations materialise in places where the commitment to cohesion is explicit yet collaborative. Cities like these prioritise positive steps such as ensuring that public servants are sensitive to the needs of more diverse communities, building up representative leadership or investing in public spaces which can facilitate interaction, rather than exclusionary measures which often simply exacerbate the sense of entitlement of the more prejudiced members of those communities.

Whether it is investment in public events, redoubling of efforts to make frontline services more inclusive, or mediation in areas where conflict begins to bubble up, good community relations require prevention, action and vision. 

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