Karolina Czerska-Shaw reassesses the overarching strategies that have developed over the last 50 years in relation to the integration of immigrants in Britain. She explains how the country has come to adopt a more civic integration approach over the last decade, in the form of a citizenship and language test.
The impact of immigration has, for long, been at the heart of public debate in Britain. But what is evident is the difficulty of grasping the concept of multiculturalism and the ways it has permeated British politics and society. For this reason, there is a need to critically analyse immigration and integration policies in their historical and socio-political complexity.
The philosophy behind multiculturalism is to allow for plurality in the public sphere, to acknowledge ethnic diversity and support it, all while breaking down the underlying discriminatory barriers through race relations policies. To this end, a series of anti-discrimination measures were adopted in the 1960s, outlawing ostentatious forms of exclusion based on race in Britain. By the end of the 1990s, they applied to tacit, informal forms of discrimination.
But race relations policies alone weren’t working: although multiculturalism programmes helped certain groups or communities meet their goals, they failed to make cross-cultural encounters and community cohesion part of the end goal. The result was that ethno-cultural groups were leading ‘parallel lives’ within their own communities. And so the New Labour government started changing the rhetoric at the turn of the century, launching a decade-long debate on citizenship, social cohesion, and national identity. Citizenship education was implemented into the national curriculum; a handbook for newcomers to Britain was published; and the Knowledge of Language and Life citizenship test for those who wanted to ‘earn’ British citizenship was introduced.
This period marked what would have been a momentous step for the British approach to integration, moving the focus from ‘good subject’ to ‘good citizen’. The intention was to shift the focus of Britain’s core political culture from that on individual freedom, protection of liberty, and respect for difference towards an emphasis on active citizenship. A more robust sense of Britishness and integration was taking shape from the top down.
Yet this ‘civic’ turn in itself did not, in any fundamental way, veer away from the core of multiculturalism theory. Strong national unity does not presuppose that one dominant culture undermines the rest – it is the sphere of consensus amongst differing voices that are granted, through multiculturalism policies, access to the political sphere. But what was meant to be a momentous change in the civic realm and what could have been a strengthening of multiculturalism policies turned into a fact-remembering multiple choice test – a cumbersome, expensive hurdle to practical integration. With the changes in the handbook for newcomers and the accompanying citizenship test under David Cameron, there has been a clear shift away from the integrative aim of ‘citizenship education’ and towards a test of British history and culture.
What follows is that the two-way process of integration integral to the multiculturalism approach has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, with strict immigration rules, tougher language, and ‘civic’ criteria for integration without the support of the state to meet them. This has effectively pushed integration into the hands of an immigration policy disposed to pre-select migrants who already have the desired qualities of Britishness.
In the meantime, there was another momentous change in the anti-discrimination policies that were the backbone of the Race Relations framework since the 1960s: the overarching Equality Act in 2010 subsumed all anti-discrimination laws under one umbrella. When the Equality Strategy came out and hailed the ‘new way of doing things’ by creating equal opportunities for all citizens and residents, and not just for particular groups as before, one could have deduced that the era of multiculturalism and ‘group’ protected status was definitively over. However, the Equality Act did not abolish group status; it enlarged this type of categorisation to nine protected characteristics.
In fact, the extension of these protected characteristics could be interpreted on one hand as a reflection of the success of multiculturalism policies. The fact that race has been relegated to a rank amongst eight other protected groups is, at least in part, a reflection of the changing needs of society: it may mean that it has become a normal part of everyday life, evident in the legal framework of anti-discrimination, as well as changing social attitudes towards diversity. What is puzzling is that only the term multiculturalism and its connotations have been erased from the picture.
On the other hand, while strong anti-discrimination foundations have been paved, attitudes towards ethnic minorities have softened, and indicators of their successful integration have increased since the 1960s, this is not a linear, one-way street to harmonious integration. Dame Casey’s review into opportunity and integration in 2016 painfully revealed the ethnic segregation within British society. The merger of Race Relations in the Equality Act may have thus been a way of diffusing the tensions caused by ‘race’ by relegating it to a secondary status, sweeping the issue under the carpet.
As it turns out, multiculturalism in its British form had the potential to strengthen its image at every stage in the game: the reinforcement of civic participation, education, and testing could have claimed more multiculturalism, not less; the progress to an overarching Equality Act and extension of group rights could have been viewed as the success of multiculturalism, as progress towards new human-rights-based forms of recognition.
Instead, the civic citizenship schemes appear to have wanted to shed the stigma of ‘difference’ in favour of community cohesion and essentialized culture. The Equality Act then eschewed ‘the old way of doing things’, but failed to admit that the ‘new way of doing things’ was, in fact, holding on to the same notion of group recognition – the cornerstone of multiculturalism. And thus multiculturalism died because the belief in it dwindled, largely through the public and political rejection of the term multiculturalism, whilst its spirit was allowed to linger on, lost between the lines.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in the Central European Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities.
Karolina Czerska-Shaw is Assistant Lecturer in the Institute of European Studies at Jagiellonian University.