Don't sleepwalk into simplification: what the Commission on Integration and Cohesion really said

Michael Keith
12 August 2007

I was one of 14 commissioners who worked to produce the Commission on Integration and Cohesion (CIC) that was set up by Ruth Kelly in August 2006 when Secretary of State at the Department of Communitites and Local Government.

I stand by the collective responsibility that informs such an enterprise. Each of us fought in good faith for those things we thought correct. A consensus, generated through the scrupulous chairing of Darra Singh, produced a final list of recommendations for the future conduct and government of relations between majorities and minorities in Britain. None of us agreed unanimously with all of them, but all of us could live with the list as a whole. As with all of us, I could pick my favourite recommendations and those I was less keen on but that would not really be the point.

More important our report has a structure: an analysis, an argument and a narrative. It suggests why this is a good time to address cohesion and integration across the UK, it proposes four principles on which we should base our deliberations, and the substantive content and research of the Report sets out why it is imperative to translate each of these principles into actions.


Before the report was even released Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian had already characterised the commission as brain dead; failing to address the key concepts of segregation and multiculturalism that were for her the most fraught issues that faced today’s Britain.

For others, the key messages were either reassuringly xenophobic or predictably politically correct. Overwhelmingly it was only seen to be about a sense of ‘Britishness’ now supposedly being overwhelmed by migration. London’s Evening Standard highlighted migrants spitting. The Daily Telegraph furiously rejected the Commission’s suggestion that political parties standing for election in the UK should voluntarily abide by the terms of the Race Relations Amendment Act and should strive to become more representative of the diversity of the communities they serve. Meanwhile, on the prime 8.10 morning slot on the Radio 4 Today programme the BBC decided that the commission celebrated Belfast and found there a ‘community’ with ‘perfect social capital scores’.

Perhaps the Corporation should add another B to its initials to stand for Bizarre. We visited all the regions in the UK. It never occurred to any of us that the ossified social relations of the new Ulster exemplify the standards we looked for. The brutal ‘interfaces’ that mark Belfast’s cartography of ‘peace lines’ are a reminder of history stalled rather than sins forgiven, a living testimony to Amos Oz’s axiom that “A tension runs between peace and justice; peace requires compromises; justice detests them”.

On principles

The report sets out four principles for debating our future together.

The first principle is for “shared futures” which will give value to a sense of becoming, i.e. that look to the future, but that do not erase the imprint of and feeling for history and memory.

The second principle argues for a framework of rights and responsibilities that recognises the incommensurabilities of the global, national and local senses of the citizen.

The third principle argues for an “ethics of hospitality” that acknowledges the moral place of the stranger in the rapidly changing landscapes of today’s Britain.

The fourth argues that these forms of recognition need to be geared with the visible delivery of social justice grounded on equality and institutional transparency.

On multiculturalism and segregation

As Bunting has suggested the current moment in the ‘race relations debate’ has tended to be viewed through the bifocal lenses of geographical separation and multiculturalism. These are important debates. Those around multiculturalism in particular involves complex and contradictory philosophical and political takes and the term is a high contested term as any reader of the recent openDemocracy debate triggered by Tariq Madood can see for themselves.

But are these different perspectives helpful? Has the call for and response to public debate around the ‘death of multiculturalism’ been analytically or politically insightful? It was precisely in order to think differently, rather than in the terms of received wisdoms, that the CIC report stresses that a serious debate about integration and cohesion cannot be a pretext for a focus on contemporary Islam. Instead, it must address all parts of the country and not the metonyms of multiculture that lists of inner city place names tend to constitute.

The report argues that contemporary British debates about both multiculturalism and segregation tend to ‘sleepwalk into simplification’. The complexity it offers provides a choice that is neither the multiculturalism of Tariq Madood or Trevor Phillips’ wholesale rejection of multiculturalism. I personally disagree with them both.

In this area the report takes the terms and realities of integration and cohesion and defines them into a set of ethical principles which it then translates into chapters that focus on practical social policy.

On Britishness and empire

The report does not argue that the debate around Britishness is illegitimate. It does suggest that the new configurations of transnationalism, what is now known in the trade as “glocalism” and super diversity, should make us think carefully about how we measure the power of the term. Displacing a putatively European ethnic nationalism (bad) with an allegedly civic American nationalism (good) will not work (Gordon Brown and advisors, please note) and anyway may not be possible for an economy that has so completely embraced globalisation. The Humpty Dumpty of the 19th century nation state cannot be put together again, any more than its empire. However, a sense of Britishness that begins to share a reckoning with the past and an Orwellian notion of the patriotic national ‘becoming’ that looks to the future could be different.

For a sense of the national to work in the future it will need to acknowledge two things. First, that for many people identifications are stronger at the level of locality than at the level of the nation. Second, that networks, movements and cultures which cross borders now create sentimental communities of identity whose spatial scales are distinct from ground based realities. New forms of conviviality are coming into being that cross the conventional racial boundaries that characterise some parts of today’s city. The spaces of old and reproducing articulations of bigotry and racism remain. But they may be becoming residual as they are by-passed. Contemporary calls for new forms of transnational co-operation and a supra-national conversations about poverty or climate change are hardly radical. But they do nuance appeals to Britishness as they create powerful and visualised identification with humanity elsewhere.

To put it another way, appeals to Britishness can assume that there is a simple or at least basic way in which the individual, the cultural and the social are defined and connect. But today our sense of autonomy and freedom which stems from these goes well beyond the boundaries of the national. Twentieth-first century sovereignty is an essentially transactional category. It is a babushka doll nest of spatial scales of material and symbolic flows and institutional deliberations. The nation state continues to organise much of social and economic life. But not in the same ways as 100 years ago. The report considers this context and it asks about what should be the appropriate invented traditions that can speak to this politics of jumping scale – that can invoke the global, national and local simultaneously.

It is not evangelising for a naive cosmopolitanism nor for a sub-national parochialism. It recognises the social consequences of globalisation. There is a geography to this. It is not new to suggest that whilst the economic benefits of migration accrue nationally, the social costs are mediated locally (and impact disproportionately in some places). We might want to think slightly more carefully about both the historical and geographical narratives that make places visible in Britain’s changing social and economic landscape.

When Walter Benjamin suggested that ‘the future of the past is not safe in their hands’ he drew attention to the ways in which received wisdoms (of nationhood, of race, of power) should be regarded suspiciously. History is a contest of memories and remembering.

He might have added that we should be similarly cautious about the manner in which cartography conceals as much as it reveals: we are made to ‘know our place’ through what lies beyond us, the boundaries and borderlines of ‘the elsewhere of place’. There are spatial boundaries to today’s languages of rights which structure the calculus of citizenship. In London, for example, they need to speak to the new Rachmans that are wholesaling old right-to-buy properties in inner London; and to the white working class in Dagenham that face labour market competition from A8 migration as construction related wage rates are forced down (thanks in part to trans-EU migration) and housing competition intensified by new gentrifiers and eastwards migration of the Windrush generation.

In this contest, how do we go about the social policy intervention in housing, in health and in education? There are bound to be forms of welfare state rationing in any redistribution which tries to scale the local, national and global. This demands a new kind of debate, not one that returns us to simplicities turbo-driven by nostalgia. It means we can consider the idea of ‘the local’ with more imagination and a generous history. Whether we are listening to the stories of Barking fascists, mill town riots, rural migrant labour, the New East End or cosmopolitan London, there is a need now to recognise historical ghosts and also the ‘elsewhere’ that is now here and among us, the global-political of globalisation that means its embrace is much more than an economic policy and indeed that national politics will never be the same again .

This is a contribution to OurKingdom, openDemocracy's regular daily blog covering British constitutional politics.

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