New Labour, new assimilationism

Ali Rattansi
6 October 2004

Assimilationism – the expectation that newcomers to a country will, over time, assimiliate the norms of that society and blend in with those already there – has in Britain usually been a project of the right. The left establishment, especially since the influential interventions of Roy Jenkins, labour home secretary from 1965–67 in the Harold Wilson government, has – officially at least – long espoused multiculturalism.

Yet British multiculturalist policy, as distinct from the fact of an increasingly diverse culture, has always been composed of a variety of strands; from the “equal opportunities” version advocated by Jenkins to the militant antiracism of the hard left – with the 1980s municipal antiracism of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC) trying to hold a sort of middle way between the two.

Also in openDemocracy’s multiculturalism debate:

  • Neal Ascherson, “From multiculturalism to where?” (August 2004) – on what comes after
  • David Theo Goldberg, “The space of multiculturalism” (September 2004) – on race, place, and space
  • Alana Lentin, “Multiculturalism or anti–racism?” (September 2004) – on a better way
  • Vron Ware, “The man with odd socks” (September 2004) – on the fear of difference

None of these varieties of cultural pluralism had thought through what a new multicultural national identity would consist of. Indeed, the left versions held a post–nationalist stance and therefore tended to regard thinking about national identity as anachronistic. But four broad forces – the pressures of globalisation; the processes of devolution and regionalism within Britain; the development of a more militant Muslim presence; and the impact of “people flow” (refugees, asylum–seekers and new sorts of economic migrants) – have led to a revival of the project to create a strong national identity.

This is something that sections of the British left, too, have found attractive. In the process, arguably, older versions of assimilationism are being repackaged as a new common sense.

The Prospect from the left

Nowhere is this more evident than in a debate in the pages of the intellectual centre–left British magazine Prospect, launched by its editor, David Goodhart. The articles it has published – including a variety of responses and challenges to the editor’s position – follow a current of opinion in the journal historically more associated with the political right; specifically Alan Wolfe and Jytte Klausen’s critical response (December 2000; subscription only) to the Runnymede Trust’s report, The Future of Multi–Ethnic Britain) and Paul Ormerod’s attempt to use economic models to cast a benign eye over the phenomenon usually referred to as “white flight” (subscription only).

The latter issue also contains an editorial in support of the proposals of Britain’s Home Secretary, David Blunkett, on asylum and immigration, Secure Borders, Safe Haven.

Prospect approves of Blunkett’s version of assimilationism (though the proposals, in a government “white paper”, are a little more circumspect –describing its stance as “integrationist”). But the magazine – which defines a position that at least some of the prominent politicians and thinkers behind the New Labour project subscribe to – articulates views that seem to be little more than attempts to recuperate the once–derailed project of assimilation.

Also in openDemocracy’s multiculturalism debate:

  • Paul Gilroy, “Multiculture and Melancholia”, who argues that “the problem of assimilation specified in the 1960s should be laid to rest forever”

Diversity – a threat to solidarity?

Beneath the arguments in Prospect and Secure Borders, Safe Haven is a new anxiety about the fate of the national culture and cherished British institutions in the face of increasing diversity. Immigrants, it implies, have a duty to adapt. This means not only learning the language but, along the way, losing some traditional beliefs and customs that the British (we are told) are just not prepared to tolerate. Traditions such as forced marriages and genital mutilation are presumably high on the agenda here, as they were in the public debate fuelled by Blunkett’s remarks and supported in Prospect’s editorial stance.

The Blunkett approach falls into a number of traps. To begin with one of the main aspirations for immigrants to Britain is to secure a good British education for their children. Adaptation has thus always been part of the migrant project, indeed has been vital to it. The urge to move to gain a better life with more opportunities is nothing if not an urge to adapt. It is a wilful misapprehension to suggest that the majority of migrants do not wish to adapt.

The timing of David Blunkett’s speech in late 2001, to which the Prospect editorial was a response, was significant. Coming a few days before the release of the report into the racialised violence in Britain’s northern towns of Oldham, Bradford and Burnley, it suggested a clear desire to deflect as much of the blame as possible on to immigrants and their supposed refusal to learn English and acquire decent British habits, rather than any failing on the part of the authorities or the social deprivation and economic disadvantage highlighted in the reports. It thus fed a backlash that had already begun on 11 September of that year.

But it was not non–English–speaking Pakistani and Bangladeshi grannies who were out on the streets of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, rioting to hold on to the freedom to speak Urdu, not to adapt, or to force marriages on their daughters and granddaughters. Rather, those involved were second– and third–generation youth who spoke in broad Lancashire and Yorkshire accents and wore the same trainers, Calvin Klein jeans and Tommy Hilfiger jumpers as their white contemporaries.

The real question that Blunkett ignores is: what experiences had so alienated young people who regarded Britain as home (a sentiment so many of them expressed in media interviews)? Moreover in defining Britishness by, in effect, counterposing it to forced marriages and genital mutilation, Blunkett and those who uncritically supported him served only to stigmatise whole communities, the majority of whose members abhor these customs as much as anybody else.

The undercurrents of racism

What has become taboo in this new assimilationism, as in the previous versions, is the admission that racism is a strongly embedded– although not overwhelming or unchanging – part of British culture. Every effort is again being made to underplay its pernicious effects, and redirect the blame elsewhere.

Paul Ormerod’s piece in Prospect is a not untypical example. While official investigations of the ground–level realities in northern towns voice worries about residential segregation, new realists like Ormerod are on hand to debunk the suggestion that racism might be a serious issue in producing what the report on the Bradford disturbances called “parallel lives”. Using an economic model, he suggests that only a “mild preference” amongst individuals for living amongst their own kind can actually lead to a quite acute form of ethnic segregation in neighbourhoods. This is useful to know.

However, it is quite another thing to then imply that only this mild preference is involved in the emergence and continuation of these patterns. The racism of building societies and banks in their lending practices; the panic–inducing tactics of estate agents who alarm white residents by talking up the idea of falling property values whenever Asians moved into an area; the deliberate routing of ethnic minority families away from more desirable local authority housing; the contribution of employers to the disproportionately high levels of unemployment among ethnic minority youth; the role of the police (these examples are drawn from research undertaken in the area by Deborah Phillips); the well–documented, though invisible, routine and in many cases institutionalised racism that pervades British social life – all disappear from the analysis.

Ormerod’s lack of acquaintance with issues that involve Britain’s ethnic minorities, and the attitude that informs his working assumptions is embarrassingly clear in his view that Urdu, spoken by so many in the mill towns, not to mention the millions on the sub–continent, should be regarded as no more relevant to the British school curriculum than ancient Greek.

The real problem?

The real problem, for Ormerod, is not racism but the “ideology of multiculturalism”. Britain, he says in an oft–heard platitude, is a rather tolerant society, “placidly” accommodating immigration over the centuries: look how few “serious racial incidents” there have been over the years.

It all depends on what counts as a serious racial incident, of course (presumably the dozens of racist murders of which the high–profile case of Stephen Lawrence is emblematic, are not counted serious enough).

In any case, this betrays an all too familiar lack of understanding of racism. The bulk of the racism that disfigures British society consists of a chronic round of discriminatory decisions and behaviours, none of which in isolation might be a serious racial incident in most people’s typology, but which over time reproduces the kind of ethnic disadvantage and the institutional and street cultures of racism documented in hundreds of research studies, official reports and journalist’s accounts in the fields of housing, employment, policing, criminal justice, the NHS, sport.

It may be that ethnic minorities face less racism in Britain than in comparable European countries and that the general situation of the ethnic minorities in Britain is probably better too. A variety of struggles, investigative evidence and liberal sentiments have succeeded in putting in place race–relations legislation in Britain that is being taken as a model in many European debates. These are valuable achievements. But that acknowledgement is perhaps too mild an appreciation of the virtues of British tolerance for most of those who advocate the new assimilationism.

What assumptions underpin its call for “tough rules of membership”? In an earlier essay in Prospect, Wolfe and Klausen elaborate the sort of rationalisation involved. Citizens, they argue, will be more ready to support the less disadvantaged from taxes if they are able to recognise the recipients of welfare as people like themselves: “A sense of solidarity creates a readiness to share with strangers”. Cultural similarity provides a fertile ground for the welfare state; diversity inevitably weakens its foundations.

It is the ethnic homogeneity of the Scandinavian nations, we are told, that accounts for their strong welfare states. The relative cultural solidarity characterising Britain, produced by “a long process of national homogenisation which had begun in the late 18th century”, has also been at the root of support for the welfare state since its inception in the second half of the 20th century, according to Wolfe and Klausen.

Those who celebrate Britain’s increasing diversity, such as the authors of the Runnymede report The Future of Multi–Ethnic Britain, do so supposedly without cognisance of the strains imposed by multiculturalism on the solidaristic and collectivistic tendencies of (presumably white) citizens. The way issues of racism, ethnicity and identity are elided here is typical of the new assimilationism.

For an alternative view on assimilation see Ali Hossaini, “Beyond the multicultural ghetto”

Dispelling the myths

This argument specifically pivots around two myths: that a healthy welfare state requires national solidarity (which in turn rests on homogeneity), and that racism in itself is not a significant factor.

In relation to the first, Wolfe and Klausen’s proposition that America’s combination of ethnic diversity and weak welfare infrastructure is a causal link does not withstand close examination; it ignores the distinctiveness of the American case, the complex interplay between the health of welfare systems and the strength of labour movements, and the growth of neoliberal economics.

In the British context, Bhikhu Parekh has argued that the post–1945 expansion of the British welfare state actually coincided with and depended heavily on the arrival of black and Asian migrant workers; and that Margaret Thatcher’s attempted dismantling of the welfare state occurred at the same time as severe restrictions were imposed on further immigration.

The twist in this tale is that declining birth rates in western democracies make the survival of their welfare states even more dependent on migrant labourers and their (younger and larger) families. Welfare states will thus necessarily have to be embedded in and supported by ever more diverse nations.

In relation to the second myth, the new assimilationist case is also considerably weakened by its neglect of issues of racism. It makes the all–too–easy assumption that greater acculturation on the part of black and Asian minorities will automatically entail a stronger sense of solidarity with them on the part of the white British. In that case, second– and third–generation black and Asian youth would hardly need to worry about racism in Britain, which they palpably do.

What the assimilationists miss is that although systematic conceptions as well as popular ideologies of race have always involved both biology and culture, in practice skin colour tends to trump culture in a depressingly consistent fashion. Whatever the degree of cultural assimilation achieved by members of the racialised minorities, their colour brands them as “pakis”, “niggers” and perpetual immigrants, and provides a basis for discrimination for as long as racism remains strongly entrenched.

In short, race as it is popularly perceived visually is fundamental to what antipathy there is among the white British towards black and Asian minorities. Fewer cases of forced marriage, more migrants speaking perfect English, more gratefulness from newcomers would not change this. In the context of racism it is indelible colour, rather than any aspect of behaviour, which is the unpardonable sin.

Islam – the new black?

Another aspect of culture has become critically important in the post–9/11 climate: religion, especially Islam. In the context of the “war on terror” as waged also in Iraq, there has been a rise in a kind of vocal militant Islam which is clearly inimical to the safety of British people and the dominant sense of cultural solidarity.

Prominent supporters of terrorist jihad, such as the cleric Abu Hamza – currently in custody under the anti–terror legislation of December 2001 – have undoubtedly stoked the flames of anxiety, but the existence of such radicals is not sufficient excuse to brand a British population of around 1.6 million as a threat to national cohesion.

The threat of terrorist violence hanging over us all does make it legitimate to debate how much cultural difference a liberal polity can allow before national solidarity and national security is seriously undermined. The problem arises when a knee–jerk racism that conflates all adherents of Islam into the figure of the “mad mullah with a hook” – as is depressingly common, and not just in the tabloid press – makes such a debate seriously skewed from the start.

The post–9/11 establishment discourse around religion and terrorism magnifies the ever–present tendency to treat minority (for which read “immigrant”, non–western, non–white) cultures both as seamless totalities and as singularly illiberal. This misses the important reality that within Britain’s Muslim community (and among other minority communities) a very active debate is being conducted about these very topics.

This debate addresses every issue of “multicultural” policy – from arranged marriages and faith schools, to attitudes to America, the Iraq war and al–Qaida. It is vibrant, passionate, intelligent, and in most cases democratic in character – not surprisingly, for most of those engaged in it in these minority communities are also British citizens with their own investment in the preservation of British traditions of tolerance and democracy.

If the return of “assimilationism” is seen in the light of this more hidden debate (or rather series of debates), it becomes less clear that actually existing multiculturalisms pose a serious threat to such traditions, and the wider social liberties and practices in which they are embodied. There are indeed knotty issues involving the relationship between group and individual rights and the status of women; but in the context of the liberal polities of the west, the best policies to address these issues remain the kind of human rights approach embodied in (for example) the Runnymede Trust’s report on The Future of Multiethnic Britain.

On the basis of human rights values, the report says, “it is legitimate to ban female circumcision, forced marriages, cruel punishment of children, and repressive and unequal treatment of women, even though these practices may enjoy cultural authority in certain communities.”

The British government’s promotion of a debate about the nature of British identity reflects present conditions of globalisation. Multiculturalism does require a broad framework of common values to allow the amicable settling of disputes stemming from cultural differences. However, the more narrowly the idea of Britishness is pitched, the more that Britain’s communities – whether defined by ethnicity, religion, preferred marriage pattern, sexual orientation, orpolitical ideology – will find themselves unjustly defined as the “aliens within”.

Many would argue that any attempt to define Britishness will run into insuperable difficulties because no framework, unless it becomes so bland as to be practically useless, can hope to repair fissures that are deeply embedded in the nation’s history and that animate its current preoccupations.

Towards a new consensus

In this context it was dispiriting to see Britain’s Chancellor, Gordon Brown, recycling platitudes about British tolerance and liberalism in a July 2004 speech, which ignored the obvious contrary examples of long–standing prejudice and violence against immigrants and newcomers of all kinds.

Brown “forgot” to mention that it was Elizabeth I who in 1576 had attempted to rid the country of “blackamoores”; and that the first Aliens Act, in 1905, had been passed to prevent Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe and Russia from entering Britain. All later immigration acts have been motivated by the desire to specifically restrict black and Asian immigration. Racism, in other words, is as embedded a part of British culture as “tolerance”.

In a rapidly globalising, post–national age the real task is to build and nurture an international consensus around tolerance, diversity, human rights and welfare while taking into account that sentiments of national belonging have to be both accommodated and reshaped. The creation of a national identity that can value cultural diversity, and transnational identifications will require bold, fresh, innovative thinking, not a restatement of selective and pious banalities about British history.

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