As part of a research project a couple of years ago, I spent some time in Northern Ireland interviewing members of the Orange Order about how they understood issues of citizenship, identity and community.
In a cold Orange Hall in Armagh one Saturday morning, I held a focus group with a group of brethren who clinically exposed the fault-lines of Gordon Brown’s Britishness narrative. One lodge member’s contribution stood out though, highlighting the pitfalls of political leaders’ attempts to promote a common citizenship and national identity within a plural, multi-national state. When asked to define Britishness, he responded:
“It’s like nailing jelly to the wall. It is an idea that’s out there – it’s not defined and that is part of its strength. And it is not defined because if you define it then people will find something that they will react against.”
David Cameron’s speech in Munich on the failure of multiculturalism showed that the Prime Minister has not yet learnt to master nailing jelly to the wall either. There was little new in a speech, which emphasised the muddled thinking within the coalition on this sensitive issue.
Cameron has consistently criticised the failure of the state to encourage integration of Muslims, in particular since becoming leader of the Conservative Party. It is ironic, however, that although Cameron derided Gordon Brown for promoting Britishness, he drew on a similar framework that prioritises British values to encourage specific communities to integrate.
Moreover, his denigration of state multiculturalism was out of date. Government policy has for some time sought to build social cohesion through the development of intra-community initiatives.
His critique also lacked any evidential foundations – most surveys suggest the majority of Muslims and other ethnic minority communities subscribe to some form of British identity and the values that inform our democracy. As Stuart Weir discusses in his recent post, social studies research shows the claim that multiculturalism leads to self-segregation lacks any evidence-base.
The Munich speech also highlighted the paucity of original thinking on such issues within the coalition. The few vague policy proposals posited were reheated from the previous Labour government. There is little new about “making sure that immigrants speak the language of their new home and ensuring that people are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum”. And there is certainly no new thinking on how this might be achieved.
The faith of politicians in the mercurial properties of school history to inculcate a common British identity and issues of extremism is misguided. There is little evidence to support the idea that school history alone effectively inculcates a common British national culture and identity in schools or that it will somehow preclude many of the global causes of extremism. All of the 7/7 bombers were taught some form of British history during their time at school but this did not stop them from turning to extremist violence.
Cameron clearly does not understand that identity politics in the UK are often divisive and politically unrewarding. Such speeches may be grounded in genuine concern about social cohesion and the potential of violent extremism. But they often merely feed bigotry for those who seek to conflate extremist Islam and Islam as a religion.
Focusing on the Islamic extremists (as well as others) on a day when the English Defence League was holding its largest ever demonstration was, at best, short-sighted.
His linking of extremism with immigration potentially re-demonises the Muslim community at a time when tensions were slowly subsiding. Support for the BNP has fragmented recently and the EDL remains peripheral to mainstream politics.
Moreover, Cameron appears to be contradicting Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory chairman, who argued recently that Islamophobia was still rife in British society. Conservative thinking on this important issue is clearly divided.
Cameron also overlooks the impact of the spending cuts. As the state withdraws, it is unlikely that the Big Society will provide opportunities for inter-community participation. With fewer common community resources such as libraries, many communities in all likelihood fall back on established networks that emphasise segregation.
The extent to which a two-month period of National Citizen Service will have the capacity to redress years of racism, segregation and other forms of social exclusion is unclear, particularly as the scheme will involve such small numbers of young people. Government cuts to other youth initiatives will have a much greater detrimental effect on the ability of young people from different communities to interact and thus foster understanding and shared appreciation of our multicultural society.
Perhaps the weakest element of Cameron’s argument is his claim that pro-democracy demonstrators in Tunis and Cairo were motivated by an ascription to Western values. This is deeply flawed and somewhat colonial, discarding the possibility that the actions of those seeking reform in either country were a product of their own national circumstances or values. It also highlights Cameron’s myopic view that the reformed democracies in the Middle East will be founded on Western liberal democracy.
Cameron’s concerns are genuine and there is a need for British society to continue to negotiate what are our shared values are and how we build connected multicultural communities. But his speech was ill-judged, poorly-timed and indicates a lack of political maturity.
Moreover, it ultimately contradicted his own thesis that a common Britishness is developmental, organic and should not be manipulated by the state. It will do little more than stimulate inter-community tensions without providing any sustainable solutions to the issues of violent extremism in this country.
This piece was originally published in the Yorkshire Post.