Writing in the Observer yesterday David Cameron provided some clues on how his vision for a more cohesive Britain may shape up. You could say it was his response to Tony Blair’s speech in December on multiculturalism, with a promise he would “set out a clear and consistent path” with specific recommendations this week. I may bring you running commentary as they come, but it may be worth unpacking his article in the meantime.
First, we must not fall for the illusion that the problems of community cohesion can be solved simply through top-down, quick-fix state action. State action is certainly necessary today, but it is not sufficient. Second, it must be the right kind of action, expressed in a calm, thoughtful and reasonable way.
I’ll give the Conservatives that much – compared to Labour they have been much more reserved at hectoring, lecturing and generally making absurd statements regarding British Muslims (asking them to spy on their kids for example). Cameron may also be referring to Blair’s actions following 7/7 – when he invited a whole bunch of “community leaders” into his office to prepare a quick document on what needed to be done to sort out terrorism, and then ignored the whole thing. Just the kind of response we were all looking for Mr Blair.
But in seeking to atone for those mistakes, we should not lurch, with the zeal of the convert, into a simplistic promotion of ‘Britishness’ that is neither in keeping with our traditions, nor likely to bring our communities closer together.
Well fancy that: a Conservative Prime Minister backing away from the concept of a national identity. I disagree with him on this point since I believe in my own need for a version of ‘Britishness’ (more on that later this week). It seems Gordon Brown now has exclusive rights over this territory.
A number of the interventions we have seen from ministers recently have spectacularly failed to do that. Instructing Muslim parents to spy on their children. … These and similar clunking attempts to address the complexities of community cohesion show a serious misunderstanding of the scale of the challenge, and the shape of the solution.
A pie in the face for John Reid, and one that he deserved. I agree with this point.
Above all, we have seen a dangerous muddling of concerns: community cohesion, the threat of terrorism and the integration of British Muslims. Promoting community cohesion should indeed be part of our response to terrorism. But cohesion is not just about terrorism and it is certainly not just about Muslims. Similarly, promoting integration will help protect our security. But too mechanistic a connection between these objectives will make it harder to achieve both, by giving the impression that the state considers all Muslims to be a security risk.
I could almost kiss David Cameron on this point. I have long argued (and we made this point in the NGN manifesto too) that muddling all these issues was dangerous and counter-productive because it was seen as a stick merely to lecture Muslims with. Finally someone has got the message.
I will argue that questions of social cohesion are also questions of social justice and social inclusion. Cohesion is as much about rich and poor, included and left behind as it is about English and Scot or Muslim and Christian.
If DC is sincere about this point then it’s time to sing Hallelujah, because I’ve been making this point for a long time too. Social cohesion will never get anywhere if only Muslims are seen as a problem, rather than tackling the issue in its entirety to include disaffected whites, Christians, Sikhs and everyone else.
Fairness will be our most powerful weapon against fragmentation. In America, new immigrants feel part of something from the moment they arrive because they feel they have the opportunity to succeed. It is that belief in equal opportunity that we need in Britain today and it is why the denial of quality education to so many is such a vital part of the cohesion argument.
Agreed but easier said than done. America is indeed more successful in providing equality of opportunity because it is a business friendly country, but it is also a country where immigrants are encouraged to enter and make it big – that is the American dream. While the UK too has lots of opportunities, it doesn’t feel like it values successful immigrants as much since this has never really been an enthusiastic immigrant nation.
Rather than looking to the United States, as the Conservatives do a rather too much, they should look at Canada where the doctrine of multi-culturalism was born and which has managed to do a relatively good job of integrating minority communities despite its small (population) size.
In addition there are two side points. Firstly, this silly furore over using the c-word while saying “crusade for fairness”. Ohmygod Osama Saeed he just called you a Paki! Or maybe he’s going to dress up in medieval gear and start plundering and looting Muslim lands! Get a grip mate please. Why paint yourself as the ‘angry Muslim man’ caricature over nothing?
Secondly, Mr Cameron may be calling for an end to Muslim women being denied into further education, but I’m not sure where the evidence is. He would be better off calling for educated Muslim women to be offered more employment opportunities.
So all in all a positive speech, providing Cameron sticks to what he means and isn’t just churning out platitudes to impress the chatterati.
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