One of the questions raised by the UK’s decision to leave the EU is the extent to which national identity is becoming a stronger factor in British politics. Tariq Modood writes that the rise of Scottish and English nationalism poses a potential threat to British identity, but that a new conception of multiculturalism could revive feelings of Britishness among UK citizens.
The Brexit referendum result was a shock. Especially surprising – given that the whole exercise was a result of the divisions within the Conservative Party – was the fact that about 30% of those who voted Labour in 2015 voted Leave. It is clear that the Leave vote disproportionately consisted of those without a degree and over the age of 45. Equally over-represented in the Leave vote in England were those who say they are more English than British or only English and not British.
There is some reason to suppose that this new and rising English nationalism is anti-immigration in its orientation, and even worse – given that England is a highly diverse country – anti-multiculturalist. While it is worrying that the Brexit result seems to have led to an uptick in racial abuse and harassment, there is no reason to suppose that English nationalism and multiculturalism must be opposed to each other.
To many, multiculturalism as a political idea in Britain suffered a body blow in 2001. In the shock of 9/11 terrorism and after race riots in some northern English towns, many forecast that its days were numbered. If these blows were not fatal, multiculturalism was then surely believed to have been killed off by the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 and the terrorism and hawkish response to it that followed. But this is far too simplistic. And today, a multicultural identity among some ethnic minorities could help to create more of a sense of a “British identity” among the English.
Multiculturalism in Britain grew out of an initial commitment to racial equality in the 1960s and 1970s into one of positive self-definition for minorities. One of the most significant pivots in this transition was The Satanic Verses affair of 1988-89, following the fatwa against its author Salman Rushdie, which mobilised Muslim identity in a way that ultimately grew to overshadow much other multiculturalist and anti-racist politics.
It is significant that multiculturalism in Britain has long had this bottom-up character, unlike say Canada and Australia, where the federal government has been the key initiator. Nevertheless, anti-racism and multiculturalism in Britain still required governmental support and commitment. The first New Labour term between 1997 and 2001 has probably been the most multiculturalist national government in Britain – or indeed Europe.
Its initiatives included the funding of Muslim and other faith schools, the MacPherson Inquiry into institutional racism in the London Metropolitan Police and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which strengthened previous equality legislation. This agenda continued to some extent in the second and third New Labour governments, primarily with the extension of religious equality in law.
Yet, after 2001, and especially after the 2005 London bombings, there were significant departures from the earlier multiculturalism. But it is inaccurate to understand those developments as the end of multiculturalism. They mark its “rebalancing” in order to give due emphasis to what we have in common as well as respect for difference.
At a local level, this consisted of programmes of community cohesion. This was premised on the idea of plural communities but was designed to cultivate interaction and co-operation, both at the micro level of people’s lives and at the level of towns, cities and local government.
At a macro level, it consisted of emphasising national citizenship. Not in an anti-multiculturalist way as in France – where difference is regarded as unrepublican – but as a way of bringing the plurality into a better relationship with its parts. Definitions of Britishness offered under new Labour, for example, in the 2003 Crick report, emphasised that modern Britain was a multi-national, multicultural society, that there were many ways of being British and these were changing. As ethnic minorities became more woven into the life of the country they were redefining what it meant to be British.
The idea that an emphasis on citizenship or Britishness was a substitute for multiculturalism is quite misleading. The 2000 report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain – known as the Parekh Report, after its chair the Labour peer, Bhikhu Parekh – made national identity and “re-telling the national story”, central to its understanding of equality, diversity and cohesion. It was the first public document to advocate the idea of citizenship ceremonies, arguing that citizenship and especially the acquisition of citizenship through naturalisation was – in contrast to countries like the United States and Canada – undervalued in Britain.
Questions of Englishness
Yet over the last couple of decades a new set of challenges have become apparent, initially in Scotland but increasingly throughout the UK. In none of the nations of the union does the majority of the population consider themselves British, without also considering themselves English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish first.
The 2011 census is not a detailed study of identity, but it is striking that 70% of the people of England ticked the “English” box and the vast majority of them did not also tick the “British” box, even though they were invited to tick more than one. This was much more the case with white people than non-whites, who were more likely to be “British” only or combined with English. Multiculturalism, then, may actually have succeeded in fostering a British national identity among ethnic minorities.
Multiculturalism in this case, then, offers not only the plea that English national consciousness should be developed in a context of a broad, differentiated British identity. But also, ethnic minorities can be seen as an important bridging group between those who think of themselves as only English, and those who consider themselves English and British.
Paradoxically, a supposedly out-of-date political multiculturalism becomes a source of how to think about not just integration of minorities but about how to conceive of our plural nationality and of how to give expression to dual identities such as English-British. It is no small irony that minority groups who are all too often seen as harbingers of fragmentation could prove to be exemplars of the union.
The minimum I would wish to urge upon a centre-left that is taking English consciousness seriously is that it should not be simply nostalgic and should avoid ethnic nationalism, such as talk of Anglo-Saxonism. More positively, multiculturalism, with its central focus on equal citizenship and diverse identities and on the renewing and reforging of nationality to make it inclusive of contemporary diversity, can help strengthen an appreciation of the emotional charge of belonging together.
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Note: This article is based on an earlier piece published by the Conversation. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Tariq Modood – University of Bristol
Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol. He is the founding Director of the University of Bristol’s Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, and the author of Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea. He is actively engaged in public policy debates and is currently a member of the Commission on the Place of Religion and Belief in British Public Life. His website is tariqmodood.com
Yes, but ….. As one whose family comes from Berwick-upon-Tweed, (politically English after changing hands 13 times, but geographically and in many other ways Scottish) perhaps I have an atypical perspective. At least since 1066 we have always had a plurality of cultures in the nation – Norman French/Anglo-Saxon, Roman Catholic/Protestant, Christian/Jewish, many more resulting from immigrants from parts of the British Empire, and of course now many people subscribing to various, sometimes incompatible, forms of Islam. Though over time these have tended to be assimilated into the others, this has not necessarily led to the total elimination of any of them, and I would never suggest that it should.
Nevertheless, as I understand the term, a society does necessarily have to have a common culture, one that is accepted as the norm by all its members, for it to be a society at all. The danger of the notion that the UK is a “multi-cultural” society is that this may be understood to imply that the nation can exist effectively and peacefully with various groups in the population holding conflicting values and unwilling to integrate with the remainder. Such groups are liable to withdraw into themselves in an attempt to preserve their values, and cut themselves off from close relations with all others who they perceive as being different. .This is no more acceptable within a small community such as a village, a school or workplace as it is within an entire nation. The problem is how to define and get near unanimous support for those values that all should be sharing that in total amount to a common culture to which all belong.
From a public policy perspective, the concept of “multiculturism” should be one of many distinct mere subcategories within the larger category of “peaceful coexistence”, as opposed to having “peace” being one of many mere subcategories to the larger category of “multiculturism”. In other words, the primary societal focus should be peace and security in one’s own country/continent, as opposed to being a mere afterthought so to effectuate some miscellaneous utopian goal.
As part of the analysis, although multiculturism is but one small piece of the puzzle, nevertheless, too much of this one variable is enough to tip society into conflict (ex. Germany with the migration invasion). That being said, determining what is an acceptable level of peace and security, and determining what is an acceptable level of multiculturism is an unscientific balancing act in which there can never be a unanimous consensus within the population. So the inference should always tilt to peace and security, and any public policy (whether economic policy, military policy, immigration policy, etc…) should always be analyzed from the perspective of maintaining/achieving peace and security as being the prime duty of government (unlike the actions of Chancellor Merkel which created conflict within German society).
Additionally, respect of the customs, culture, mores of the local/indigenous population should also be ideal, instead of expecting/demanding them to adjust their lifestyles to accommodate new arrivals. Some of the rights we have in the West include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality of all people, etc… These values are imperative in our society, but when the population is introduced with those who not only disagree with these values, but who are also violently antagonistic to those values, then this creates a toxic mix within our society that otherwise must be prevented at all costs.
So I disagree with the narrative of this article, as its lack of reference to peaceful coexistence is visibly absent.
I second the two posts above that each in their way emphasise that certain common values (our British values of individual liberty, freedom of expression, right to dissent from a religion or leave it altogether, equal treatment of men and women, etc) must be accepted by all who live here. “Multi-Culturalism” if it is to strengthen not weaken our society must accept – EXPLICITLY – these ground rules we British have adopted over many centuries.
In practice we all know the problem is Islam. Our multi-cultural society hosts adherents of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism – none of these cause problems. To the contrary, most adherents are more courteous and better behaved than many British natives. Then Islam: major problems – economic, political, social, security. What is the difference? Islam is but secondarily a faith; primarily it is a political-military doctrine for conquest and for the detailed organisation of a society after conquest. While hundreds of millions of Muslims prefer not to look too closely at the dictates of their Holy Book, and thankfully just want to get on with their lives like the rest of us, the core who believe and practise stand in total opposition to many of our own deeply held values. The only solution I can see is for Muslims who wish to live here to abjure the jihadist doctrines of their faith and explicitly acknowledge that religion is a private matter and secular law has priority over Shariah law at all times, in all circumstances. Failing which they should not hold our passport.
Nothing I write here is new. We have known this for a thousand years. Ours is perhaps the first European generation that has not taken seriously the threat posed Islam to our societies. Will we be the last?
If I may add a post:
It happens that the FT ran a piece today on certain French mayors who have banned the ‘burkini’ on their beaches. Opinions are divided in France whether this is over reacting and infringing personal dress freedoms or whether this correctly addresses religious provocation (many French social media have taken to citing “provoc”as they call it: suspecting Muslim women from radical circles are being set up deliberately to provoke negative reactions).
I give below an entry I posted. (btw for those who can get behind the FT paywall, the comments are many and generally worthwhile reading)
It may seem OTT for French mayors to ban burkinis on the beach, but small encroachments lead to larger ones until a whole culture (ours!) is threatened. Islamification seems a ratchet-like process to me; it does not have a reverse mechanism.
A small but telling example recently made the news in a small Swiss town near Basel. Most Swiss schools, both state and private, follow a long established tradition whereby all the students shake hands with the teacher as they enter the classroom at the start of the day. It signifies mutual respect between teacher and students and helps set the tone for class. (A very good idea incidentally, worth considering in UK.)
Two Muslim youths refused to shake their teacher’s hand on the grounds that their religion does not allow bodily contact with a woman not a family member. Initially, not wishing to make a fuss, the school let this pass. But there was great indignation in the town. Parents quickly understood that more is at stake than courtesy in the handshake matter: it involves communal solidarity, respect for women as equals, an acceptance of our way of life. The local Board of Education then reinstated the requirement and added a fine to be paid by any student who disobeyed. A national Swiss Muslim council was displeased, objected vociferously and took the issue to court, where I am glad to say they lost.
The wedge has a thin edge, but the wedge itself is large. The pragmatic Swiss immediately understood what is involved in the ostensibly small matter of a handshake. With the proliferation of Sharia courts in UK, I hope we also wake up.
You said that “Two Muslim youths refused to shake their teacher’s hand on the grounds that their religion does not allow bodily contact with a woman not a family member.” How does that contradict Cologne on New Year’s Eve where 1,000+ males did have “bodily contact with a woman not a family member”?
Also, you state that wearing a burqua or burkini may infringe on the right to personal dress, but as a reminder, some countries do ban the wearing of an article of clothing bearing the swastika. The rationale being that symbols of violence and/or oppression must be banned; thus banning certain clothing is not without precedent in Europe.