Oath of allegiance to what?
We do need a proper discussion about who we are and where we are going in Britain. But David Blunkett's phoney debate about race, culture and civic identity is not it.
Launching three heavy reports into the summer riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, UK home secretary David Blunkett has been offering brave words about the need to face up to the fragmentation of communities on ethnic and racial lines and the absence of a cohering civic identity in our society.
Speaking in Balsall Heath, Birmingham today (11 December 2001), Blunkett said that the three reports, which describe how different ethnic minority communities live divided lives in ‘parallel’ worlds, raise ‘profound issues for our society’ that cannot be ‘tip-toed around’. He called for a national debate on the rights and responsibilities of being a British citizen (1).
But going by the recommendations of the main report, and Blunkett’s behaviour since he first floated the issue a few days ago, truly facing up to these huge, and very real, problems is the last thing on the cards. In fact, the whole exercise has been a remarkable display of raising important questions about national identity, then immediately trivialising and evading them.
This evasion of the issues being raised was evident in the interview Blunkett did for the Independent on Sunday on 9 December.
In the interview, Blunkett stated his aim to ‘lay down challenges on the back of these reports in terms of where we are going’ as a country, and said that the reports seek to face the issues of social cohesion and national identity ‘head on’. Yet when it came down to it, Blunkett meant that it was ethnic minority communities themselves who had to face the issue head on. Their lack of engagement with mainstream British society, it seems, is their problem: ‘How do people in the Asian community help the second and third generation feel British, belong and identify with Britain..?’, asked Blunkett (2).
Yet the interview was notably lacking in any sense of what mainstream British society would ask ethnic minority communities to identify with. ‘We have norms of acceptability and those who come into our home…should accept these norms’, said Blunkett, also mentioning the ‘test we apply to future generations to make sure they are part of that solution’. So what are these ‘norms’, what is this ‘test’?
Well, one thing is that we don’t ‘tolerate the intolerable’ of ‘enforced marriages’ and ‘genital mutilation’. And another thing is that we speak English. Great – come to Britain: the land where we don’t force people to get married and we speak English.
In short, the interview exposed the lack of any powerful core values that contemporary British society could ask ethnic minority communities to buy into – but then Blunkett blamed these communities themselves for their isolation, and said that they needed to find their own solutions.
As many people have since pointed out, it is absurd to suggest, as Blunkett did, that by gaining a ‘modest grasp of the English tongue’ people will ‘feel and become English’. There was nothing wrong with the English of any of the summer’s rioters – their dissatisfaction went far deeper than that.
The reports on the problems in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, published on Tuesday 11 December, illustrate these problems in even starker forms. These (no doubt costly) reports amount to over 100 pages of big words indicating a national problem, followed by a plethora of piecemeal solutions, smacking of parish-pump politics.
The Cantle report – led by Ted Cantle, former chief executive of Nottingham City Council – announces the need to develop a ‘new compact, or understanding, between all sections of the community’, and to ‘agree some common elements of “nationhood”‘ (3). There is a handy table on page 13 of the Cantle report which outlines how ‘common values and a civic culture’ must include ‘common aims and objectives’ and ‘common moral principles and codes of behaviour’. On the issue of what these common values might be, the report provides no answers.
In the introduction to the list of recommendations, the Cantle report notes how working common values into an American-style statement of allegiance is a ‘huge task’. Which raises the question: allegiance to what?
It is astounding that such a huge task could be approached in such piecemeal ways. ‘Each local area should prepare a plan to improve community cohesion’, is one recommendation of the Cantle report; another suggests ‘extensive diversity education and training in all key agencies’; another, ‘reaching out to disaffected youth’ by using ‘peers, positive role models and individual capacity building programmes’. A number of recommendations mention the need to train community members to be better at communicating with other communities, or to be more aware of different cultures.
Indeed, there are 67 of these recommendations, which between them allot responsibility for creating community cohesion and civic identity to every part of these local communities: from schools to housing associations, from youth agencies to community leaders. There should be an expectation, says the report, that ‘both white and non-white communities will need to change both attitudes and behaviour’.
The only people who don’t have to take responsibility, it seems, are those in the institutions of mainstream British society. This amounts to a displacement of the problem of a lack of civic identity on to the members of marginalised communities.
In reality, civic identity is something that comes from the centre of society. It is compelling, attracts people and demands them to commit something of themselves. It is not made in inter-cultural community projects in northern cities, but in public life, in national debate. In – for example – the House of Commons, in the media.
Our problem is that our society lacks a force to pull it together. Ethnic minorities’ disengagement from British society is not the result of their inability to communicate or their cultural bloody-mindedness. It is a problem at the heart of Britain.
As such, this ‘national debate’ we have embarked upon can only serve to inflame the very sensitive issues at its heart. Blunkett has whipped up a controversy around a problem for which he has no solution, and is placing responsibility for finding solutions on to particular sections of marginalised communities.
Not only this – but many of the proposed solutions involve subjecting local communities to bureaucratic controls and procedures that are likely to increase their sense of disengagement from mainstream society. Recommendation 13 of the Cantle report, for example, involves scrutinising ‘the conduct and probity of those involved in local politics’ – others effectively involve teaching people how to behave towards other ethnic communities.
How, exactly, will assuming that local politicians are corrupt, and subjecting citizens to Maoist re-education sessions, improve community bonds or support for political institutions?
Blunkett is obviously aware that there is a problem of ethnic division and the absence of a common identity – an awareness driven home, not only by the summer’s riots, but by the varied reactions of different communities to events of 11 September and the increasing evidence of separatist extremism thriving within Western societies. But he is at the same time in denial, unable to face the vacuum of core values in our society.
It seems that the government is trying to build a common identity from the outside in – Blunkett was reported as saying that a sense of local community should be built into the idea of nationhood (4) – when it is obvious that common identity works from the inside out.
We do need a proper debate about civic values, and the common objectives that we should work towards in our society. This is not it.
Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik
Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill
Value-free Britain, by Josie Appleton
(1) Blunkett urges citizenship debate, BBC News Online, 11 December 2001
(2) Independent on Sunday, 9 December 2001
(3) Click here to download a copy of the Cantle report in .pdf format
(4) Blunkett urges citizenship debate, BBC News Online, 11 September 2001
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