What now for the M-word?

Today, many slam the Blairites for enforcing divisive multiculturalism policies – but the critics’ solutions are no better.

Tony Blair’s New Labour party did not invent the concept of multiculturalism. But it did place it at the heart of its project and it has pushed for the institutionalisation of multiculturalism in various areas of British society.

Since the 1960s, state and civic institutions were under recurrent pressure to grapple with ethnic unrest in urban areas like Notting Hill, Southall and Brixton in London and Toxteth in Liverpool. The escalation of riots in the 1980s led to a shift from a predominantly legislative approach towards more direct policies of community relations work, race equality action in local government, and racial monitoring.

The Scarman Report, following the Brixton riots of April 1981, highlighted the exacerbating factors of racial discrimination in areas such as policing, housing and employment. At this point, official anti-racism began tentatively to adopt the tone of multiculturalism, advocating greater awareness and sensitivity to cultural differences among groups. The 1985 Swann Report ushered in an era of multicultural education, usually decried in the tabloid press for its ‘politically correct’ approach to language (most famously, there were rumours that teachers were banned from saying ‘blackboard’ and singing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’). Many local authorities in areas with a large ethnic population, such as Bradford and Birmingham, began to develop race equality action plans.

These early multicultural policies in the 1980s were relatively marginal and often attacked as policies of the ‘loony left’. In the 1990s, under the Major government, the political importance of multiculturalism began to gain ground, especially as many involved in the anti-racism movement began to move into official positions of employment in councils and public sector work, developing relations with local community groups. But it was under New Labour - a political party and project that lacked any clear ideological vision of its own – that multiculturalism truly acquired institutional backing and force.

The appeal of multicultural ideology to Tony Blair was clear from the start. With all its talk of inclusiveness and difference, multiculturalism offered New Labour a break from divisive political ideologies of the past. The colourful emphasis on Britain’s diversity became part of an attempt to rebrand British identity around ‘tolerance’, away from older national virtues of empire and tradition. Under New Labour, multiculturalism was also a strategic tactic to win new alliances with ethnic and cultural groups, particularly in areas where Labour’s old working-class support was dwindling.

The struggle for equality, which had proved so difficult to win, gave way to an emphasis on cultural difference and identity, which could be managed comfortably alongside a new managerial approach to public life.

Official anti-racism

Perhaps most importantly, multiculturalism offered a clear moral consensus around the notion of tolerance and official anti-racism. At a point when systematic and popular forms of racism were actually in decline, the authorities began to fix upon anti-racism as a moral mission. The watershed moment was the publication of the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, which first charged the police with ‘institutional racism’, a previously unknown academic term that had been rejected by successive government reports in the 1980s.

The term, which was originally intended to point to structural factors in the causes of racism, acquired a new meaning under New Labour. Instead of racism being accountable to individuals or clear policies, the term was deployed to introduce an element of ambiguity about cause and effect, structure and agency. Racism, previously an ideology driven by inequality and state sanction, now emanated from the murky depths of ‘canteen culture’ and deep-rooted psychology where unwitting prejudices reigned free. At the same time, racism was so pernicious that it could float freely in the structures of institutions, beyond the culpability of any single individual. This moving target meant that an entire institution was eligible for moral reform, giving New Labour a sense of mission in its early years.

The effect of official anti-racism on the police is notable. Following the introduction of a raft of positive action policies – ethnic monitoring and targets, race-awareness training courses, and anti-racism mission statements - the police have been transformed from being nasty, racist bully-boys who arrested people on a whim, into oversensitive, race-aware bully-boys who still arrest people on a whim. In the 1980s, they were rounding up black youths in Brixton, whereas today they are more likely to be making trips to the local school playground to arrest a young child for using the word ‘gay’.

Since Macpherson, few institutions in British society have escaped the charge of institutional racism, with some even revelling in the charge as a kind of mea culpa. The former head of the BBC, Greg Dyke, famously declared the BBC to be ‘hideously white’. New Labour arts minister, David Lammy MP, has accused museums and galleries of being ‘too white’. Lord Patel recently accused the mental health sector of institutional racism, while the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) is currently investigating the Department of Health to see whether it is institutionally racist.

Official anti-racism has been implemented with full legal force. The Race Relations Act 1976 outlawed direct and indirect discrimination and victimisation in a range of areas such as education, housing and employment. Over 20 years later, the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, which extended the law to cover 43,000 public authorities, was significant in that it placed a general duty on them to ‘have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, and to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups’. The main significance is that the duty requires bodies to take action to prevent acts of racial discrimination before they occur, meaning pre-emptive measures or racialisation have proliferated throughout public life.

Under New Labour, diversity management has flourished to become an effective strategy of behaviour management. The seemingly innocuous injunction to ‘respect diversity’ has become common in workplaces, schools and hospitals, voluntary organisations and civic venues such as churches, charities and local neighbourhood associations. Most organisations in the public sector have a diversity manager in place, as do large private sector firms. Targets for making workforces more ‘diverse’ have become accepted norms, despite the obvious drawbacks of positive discrimination. At the micro-level of workplace interaction, people have acquiesced to the regulation of their speech and behaviour towards others with little resistance, because it has been done in the name of tolerance. Diversity training – once viewed as a bizarre and probably inappropriate import from America – has now become a growth industry.

Identity politics

The thrust of identity politics was already strong prior to New Labour taking power in 1997, coming as it did off the back of social fragmentation and the weakening of older political and collective identities. Lobby groups and ‘community leaders’ representing religious, ethnic and minority communities were already entering the political domain and vying against each other for resources. In 2001, the Cantle report into the northern mill town riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley pointed to the way in which local authorities’ policies had deepened segregation in parts of Britain.

New Labour further institutionalised this trend and turned identity into the cornerstone of political engagement. Local and national state institutions developed ‘partnerships’ with community groups and leaders, offering recognition of their supposedly different needs. This process has encouraged a demand amongst groups for recognition of their difference, and in some cases, the protection of difference.

The most obvious case is that of the Muslim lobby in the guise of the Muslim Council of Britain, which gained significant encouragement by New Labour in its early years and particularly after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. From being marginal players, the MCB leaders began to assert their importance, claiming to hold the votes of Muslims in the palm of their hands. MCB head Iqbal Sacranie was rumoured to have turned down requests to meet with lower level ministers, insisting instead on meeting with the prime minister himself.

The MCB has since fallen out of favour, but its shortlived success reflected the strategic importance of ‘community leaders’ under New Labour, as a way to engage the citizenry. In the case of Muslims, this engagement has not led to a rise in political engagement but an exacerbation of their political alienation. Like most young people, Muslims are disillusioned with the political elite. But their cynicism has grown exponentially due to the government’s engagement with unelected, and largely irrelevant community leaders who are themselves out of touch. This cynicism no doubt fuels the aggressive anti-politics of some younger Muslims.

Of course, identity politics is something that exists far beyond young Muslims – most other ethnic groups have joined the fray and demanded their own recognition and protection. New Labour’s Religious Hatred Bill was supported by an alliance of religious groups who share only their sense of vulnerability and victimhood in common. These momentary alliances coexist with the moments of heated conflict, most recently between gay groups and the Catholic Church over the sexual orientation law and adoption agencies – begging the question of whose identity required the greatest protection. As the state has gradually intervened into the private world of belief and identity, so now it is called in to manage those differences and act as the arbiter.

The future

Many of the trends discussed so far will no doubt inform the work of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (as the CRE is renaming itself), which starts operating this autumn. Its extended powers to bring cases and enforce anti-discrimination measures will encourage even greater regulation between individuals and groups, possibly exacerbating rather than ameliorating tensions.

More broadly, recent criticisms of multiculturalism and fears of social fragmentation have led to a new phase in New Labour’s approach, already being nurtured by prime-minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown - the call for a new national identity. But lacking any political vision and burdened with the obligation to protect its own cherished diversity policies, New Labour has struggled to show what this identity might look like. No doubt we can look forward in the coming years to various contrived measures such as ‘Britishness Day’, the rebranding of bank notes, or the celebrations for the 2012 Olympics, in the hope of bringing national identity to life.

The word ‘multiculturalism’ may be increasingly unpopular these days but all the things it gave rise to - as outlined above - are still in place. They need to be tackled with a more universalist approach.

Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London and a co-founder of the Manifesto Club.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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