Cameron on multiculturalism: Blaming the victims. The shallowness of the prime minister’s speech merely showed how much more work he and his colleagues have to do
David Cameron had an opportunity this weekend to say something interesting and relevant about a subject important to anyone who lives in Britain: how hyper-diverse societies can not only cohere, but thrive. He flunked it. What the prime minister offered instead was a mix of cliches, tired thinking and some downright offensive terminology. Nor did Mr Cameron’s straw man of multiculturalism bear much likeness to the realities of life, both good and bad, in multi-ethnic Britain. His remarks may have been meant as a summary of the latest thinking on race relations from a new-look, socially liberal Conservative party; but through their shallowness, they merely showed how much more work Mr Cameron and his colleagues have to do.
It is worth underlining that serious contributions to a debate on multiculturalism, whatever their perspective, should be welcomed. That is part of what living in a diverse society is all about. By the same token, however, they should be made with due consideration of context – how such remarks might be interpreted and what impact they might have. Race relations in this country have moved on since the bad old days of Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood and Margaret Thatcher’s talk of “swamping” – but innocent people are still harassed, harmed and even killed for the simple fact of where they or their parents or grandparents come from.
Mr Cameron made his speech on the same day as 3,000 supporters of the English Defence League marched through Luton chanting such slogans as “Allah, Allah who the fuck is Allah”. For the prime minister to talk about community cohesion right before one of the biggest anti-Islamic rallies Britain has ever seen, and not to have made even a passing criticism of the EDL – instead confining his remarks to “Islamist extremism” – is irresponsible. The fact that Nick Griffin hailed Mr Cameron’s remarks as “a further huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream” should be taken seriously by the prime minister’s team as a sign that his remarks were not sufficiently clear. This is surely not the sort of company any mainstream politician wants to keep.
Timing aside, Mr Cameron’s speech was also flawed in structure and details. Terrorism, the nominal subject of his talk, is a completely different subject from racial integration – yet the prime minister rolled the two into one. He directed his fire at “state multiculturalism”, where “we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives” – but stopped short of his argument’s logical conclusion, which would be to call a halt to faith schools. The argument that much of what is wrong with race in Britain today is the failure of ethnic minorities to integrate has been gaining currency for years. Nor is the prime minister’s call for “a new vision of society” original (remember Gordon Brown and his Britishness); although his “muscular liberalism”, a phrase redolent of muscular Christianity, that term of British imperial self-congratulation, is poorly chosen.
What this view ignores is the numerous ways in which ethnic minorities are still discriminated against – whether it is being stopped and searched by the police or in the jobs market. As Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, rightly pointed out yesterday: “If people can’t get jobs, you can’t expect them to integrate.” To exhort the disadvantaged to pull up their socks – without giving them sufficient means to do so – is a spectacular example of blaming the victims.
One other qualm about the prime minister’s speech is what it says about his own standing. Governments normally bring out such dog whistles when they are faltering, just as New Labour did after Iraq. After only nine months at No 10, and with his approval ratings on the slide, Mr Cameron is already resorting to such tactics. He surely has a serious contribution to this debate, but this reads like the speech of an anxious politician.
From The Guardian editorial, 07.02.11.