A group protests outside Batley Grammar School, after a teacher showed pupils an image of the Prophet Muhammad. Picture Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Diversity is not our strength

The Khan Review reveals a society needlessly splintered along ethno-religious lines

Artillery Row

The Khan Review, the government’s independent report into social cohesion published last month, begins with a ritual genuflection to multiculturalism. “Britain’s most precious asset is our diverse and cohesive democracy”, we are assured by Dame Sara Khan, social cohesion adviser to Michael Gove. Yet the report itself exposes this as mere liberal pablum: far from being an asset, a litany of grim evidence finds that “diverse” modern Britain is anything but cohesive. This may not be news to anyone with their eyes open, but it is significant that it is now implicitly the view of officialdom, too. Indeed, after decades of mass immigration and multiculturalism, Britain’s social cohesion problem is now so severe that a senior communities adviser believes we need a vast state and civil society programme to attempt to manage it.

According to Khan, nothing less than a “whole of society approach” to building a socially cohesive Britain is now required

The Khan Review paints a bleak picture of modern Britain. On each metric of social trust, be it trust in democracy, democratic participation, civic engagement or social capital, it finds that British society is in “decline”. One reason is what Khan calls “freedom-restricting harassment” (FRH): “threatening, intimidatory or abusive harassment online and/or offline which is intended to make people or institutions censor or self-censor out of fear”. A poll by the review found that three-quarters of Britons were self-censoring out of fear of FRH. 

The report investigates the shocking case of the Batley Grammar School teacher, an example of FRH. In March 2021, the religious studies teacher had shown pupils a picture of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as Jesus and the Pope, in a class on free speech and blasphemy (resources other teachers had used before). Local Muslims in Batley soon organised a protest outside the school gates, and an online campaign against him began, with his and his partner’s name and picture being published on social media. Fearing for his life — after the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty was beheaded following a similar incident just six months earlier — he and his family went into hiding, where they remain to this day. The report calls this “shocking and appalling” incident a clear failure of social cohesion. It castigates the school, local police and the council for having tried to “appease” Islamists in this shameful episode, rather than standing up for a blameless teacher.

The report is no outright assault on multiculturalism, however. Indeed, it often favours far more palatable diagnoses for Britain’s fraying social fabric. It cites the case of Eleanor Williams, who falsely claimed she had been tortured and raped by an “Asian grooming gang” in 2020, as evidence of the harmful impact of “disinformation”. Her fantasies, for which she has now been imprisoned, were no doubt the proximate cause of much civil strife. But framing this as a problem of “disinformation” is just a convenient way of missing the point. The real question a social-cohesion expert needs to answer here is why many in Barrow-in-Furness were prepared to believe her claims. Khan thus ignores the far bigger issue: the appalling extent of Pakistani-Muslim grooming across the UK, and the shameful way their crimes were ignored, downplayed or outright covered up by Britain’s authorities, supposedly for the sake of “community cohesion”.

But more than its case studies and social surveys, what’s most revealing about this report is its recommendations — the programme Khan deems necessary to manage our ailing multicultural society. According to Khan, nothing less than a “whole of society approach” to building a socially cohesive Britain is now required, such is Britain’s parlous state.

This being a report from the post-Blair political class, its first recommendation is a new quango: an “Office for Social Cohesion and Democratic Resilience”. An OSCDR national cohesion assessment framework will collect data from all local authorities for a yearly “State of Cohesion and Democratic Resilience in England” report. The office will also publish five-year plans for social cohesion, aiming to “build resilience”, “repair” fractured community relations and even “[i]dentify, pre-empt and prevent threats and activity that would undermine social cohesion”. Elsewhere in government, a cross-Whitehall Cohesion Response Unit will coordinate responses to “flashpoint incidents” in real time. If there is insufficient progress, a statutory duty to promote social cohesion is also in the pipeline.

If this is strength, I’d hate to see weakness

Britain’s cash-strapped local authorities, meanwhile, will be at the forefront of the social-cohesion crusade. Councils already shelling out millions on diversity staff under the Public Sector Equality Duty will be pushed to fulfil more actively its provision to ‘foster good relations’ between persons of different ethnicities. Hitherto tasked with bins, schools and roads, councils will now have to make social cohesion “foundational” to their operations. They will be expected to have an “in-depth understanding of the views, beliefs [and] grievances” of their local population, and even their “sense of belonging”. They may be asked to experiment with “deliberative democracy” and citizens’ assemblies to increase civic participation, and will be tasked with responding to conspiracy theories and “disinformation” to reduce extremism. Khan also wants more local money to be funnelled to civil society organisations, charities and academia in order to help with “vital social cohesion and conflict-resolution programmes”.

Britain’s school system will also be pressed into the social-cohesion drive. The Department for Education will be expected to establish its own Cohesion and Conflict Unit, the better to support teachers when they are threatened and harassed, to collect further data on social cohesion and to help schools teach “what it means to live in a diverse democracy” (a lesson the Batley Grammar teacher knows only too well). Indeed, after Islamist protests outside schoolgates in recent years, this review has seen fit to recommend 150m buffer zones around schools in which protests will be banned, to prevent an ‘intimidating and frightening environment’ that impacts pupils’ wellbeing. Not exactly a sign of a society in rude health.

The police will also be expected to pay more attention to social cohesion. Each force is to have a “safety officer”, Khan recommends, with a “comprehensive understanding of apostate and intra-faith hatred” including “theological narratives” that “incite hatred and cause harassment”. To police effectively, forces must also ensure they understand the “diversity among a local faith or minority community”, especially when there are “intra-faith and intra-minority diversity and tensions”, of which the Muslim-Hindu riots in Leicester in 2022 are a particularly “costly” example.

For forces already failing to solve the vast majority of crimes, one can only imagine how such initiatives drain police time, and are a headache to ordinary coppers who just want to enforce the law without fear or favour. Forces hoping to outsource their community relations duties to “community leaders”, however, must be wary. The report warns that in their attempts to ingratiate themselves with their local communities, police should also make sure they do not “inadvertently support hate preachers and extremist actors in the misguided belief that such activity supports social cohesion or diversity and inclusion principles”. Such an embarrassing misstep is, after all, far from unheard of today. 

Khan clearly views Britain’s social-cohesion problem as so grave that she will spare no part of society from her new duties to diversity. Social media companies will be asked to deliver zero-tolerance campaigns to discourage freedom-restricting harassment and OfCom will be expected to tackle it more aggressively. Professional bodies, unions, universities, charities and regulators are all to conduct annual surveys on FRH. And even the feted Nolan Principles of public life are to be reworked along the lines of social cohesion.

In the scope of its recommendations, the Khan review thus unwittingly reveals some uncomfortable truths about diverse modern Britain. Social cohesion in Britain’s multifaith democracy is now viewed as a major social problem by the government itself. Britain’s “community of communities” is thriving so well that every arm of the state must now constantly strive to keep a lid on the tensions between them. Typically, apologists for multiculturalism insist that Britain’s diversity is our “greatest strength”. If this is strength, I’d hate to see weakness.

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