openDemocracyUK

Ethnic policy: reining in the mad horse

Jerome di Costanzo
21 December 2009

It is a real shock for a secular Frenchman like me to see how omnipresent ethnic policy is in the daily life of a British person. In France, I was never considered an Italian-French or a white French or even a Catholic by my boss or by the administration. The Republic, for historic reasons, doesn’t recognise race, religion, or behaviour as political, but as private and intimate, just like your sexual orientation. It was only when I started to live in the UK that I discovered I fitted the box of White other, even having to admit to being heterosexual in certain application forms – and no buts, just tick it!

It was in the early seventies that the first ethnic classifications appeared and were used by the UK police as information for security. But 20 years on it has become quasi-obsessional. Everywhere, for every daily routine, you must declare your background, you must constantly respect our multicultural society, and be made better by a magical multicultural or racial quota. Shazam! Better results for the police if they are more multicultural; fewer terrorists if they have better political representation; better children if the multicultural society is represented in school. Less racism? With the BNP now at 5% is the policy working?

The theory that in ethnic variety we find a universal remedy for all our problems has formed an absolute dogma – all communities must be represented in their singularity. An ethnic group can be defined not just on racial or religious criteria but also by history and behaviour, but where does this end? If you follow the logic, why not have cricketers and Morris dancers forming their own ethnic group if they can reproduce themselves? With more cultures and more and more communities pressing to be represented year on year, nothing seems to stop the course of this mad horse. No longer liberal or Marxist, our society is multicultural and the politics of the Greek ‘agora’ is substituted for a representative and codified working market.

Why do we need this dogma of multiculturalism? Hasn’t Britain always been a multi-ethnic society? Picts, Scots, Saxons, Normans, Vikings, Gauls, Danes, even the offspring of Sudanese legionaries from the garrisons on the northern border, are the genetic roots of today’s British. And hasn’t Britain been multicultural too: when continental Europe was fighting over which Christian doctrine would be supreme, John Locke in his Letters of Toleration defined a model for a multi-religious community united by law and the Crown. The genius of Locke’s proposition was to state that every individual is free to practise his own faith if he continues to obey national laws and recognise national values. (He did exclude Roman Catholics from his vision of religious tolerance, for the simple reason that they were perceived to be loyal to Rome first and then Britain, and atheists because they shared no common values with a Christian state.) With individual freedom the national identity of the British Isles was built, and it was one of the responsibilities of the state to preserve this freedom. So, always multicultural and always multiracial.

Today individual freedom is preserved; however, this no longer means being integrated into the Nation. Indeed in practice, we see the contrary. No longer a Nation of communities, but a community of Nations. Why has the political process been inverted?

The colonial experience has been a determining factor. When you look at ethnic classification, you’ll notice that ex-dominions have a more important place compared to the Polish, French or Australian white others. Somehow British ethnic policy is a direct continuation of the Imperial one, but now we don’t call it Indianisation or Africanisation. The colonial doctrine, which wanted to preserve cultures and give them representation in order to preserve peace in the Empire, is still present. But Britain is now a nation and not an empire. To confuse the two is a dramatic mistake for the simple reason that Imperial ethnic policy had to push and help communities to independence and not find their place in the Empire. Today’s communities in Britain aren’t invited to join and participate in the national identity, but are encouraged to cultivate their differences and gain more and more autonomy. Britain rules as a small, stretched Empire: where are the Nation’s values? With parliaments or assemblies in North Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, is England the last British colony?

Criticism of British imperialism inspired independence movements and the “colonial guilty memory” has hampered any chance of changing the relationship between the community and its nation. It is not the communities rejecting Britishness but the state itself saying that our imperial past was terrible and our history deplorable and so we must deny its reality. Britishness and its inherited values must be reduced, reformed, changed, criticised or erased to give more and more significance to the new individual communities. Locke’s ideal balance between Nation and personal belief is but a distant memory. The tendency to reject Britishness also explains why the multiplication of identities is so virulent. The alienation of a common set of values gives triumph to particularity and flies in the face of the fact that we live in the same country - these ‘sceptred Isles’.

The mad horse that is our ethnic policy continues its run, cheered on by the egotistical independent’s desire to destroy the common identity. Ego! Ego-warriors, self-styled leaders of communities, lead the charge against the “system”, hoping to emancipate an abstract ego-identity!

The policy, if there really is a clear one, must be reviewed or rebalanced for this reason, to preserve that which still exists and has worked for centuries, the British nation. It must be reformed because our multicultural obsession is expensive to maintain and gives what benefit? Are we better integrated? Or less racist? How can a group of representatives with no common or supreme set of values ever hope to reach consensus? If we don’t sort this mass culture out, the Ego-identity – in the name of any rediscovered ideology or mystic mythology – shall proliferate with no sense of concrete reality, but with an obstinate sense of eccentricity and sectarianism. Why continue to exalt the differences if they are not in the general interest? What makes us individual and where do we have things in common? Shouldn’t we aim to live peacefully by sharing the same supreme values? These were exactly Locke’s questions in the early 18th century.

This does not mean that the state should substitute mass culture with totalitarianism, but to find a balance between them. With this sensitive complexity, we can preserve the legitimate and necessary liberties of every individual. If we can’t find or restore common values, we should pray, not for the return of a Churchill, Gladstone, Disraeli, Thatcher or Cromwell or any other iron Duke or conqueror, but for the return of a Simon de Montfort to establish a new national parliament and rein in the mad horse of the ego-warriors. The point is that however a nation arranges its internal political system, with local government in whatever form, the importance of the nation itself is still valid. It is the testimony of centuries of shared history, language and culture. De Montfort for me was trying to bring back to a central parliament a shared law and therefore common values. The idea of nation was established to prevent civil war – on this peaceful basis our society built its system of values.

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