How a twenty-year-old report started the culture wars
The Parekh report argued that ‘Britishness’ as previously understood was now defunct
Twenty years ago, a report was published that would profoundly change the national self-image. The Runnymede Trust’s “The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain” – commonly referred to as the Parekh report – argued that “Britishness” as previously understood was defunct. From now on Britain was no longer a nation but “a community of communities”.
The Parekh report argued that Britishness had racial connotations that needed completely re-shaping
According to the report, globalisation, technological change and mass migration were the engines of the future, but progress was being held back by an “island story” that hardwired conceptions of gradualism and continuity into the national consciousness. The problem with Britain was that it was too unified. That no one thinks this is a “problem” anymore might be a testament to the success of the administrative and legal changes that the report set in train. “We are proposing a major cultural change,” the report boasted, “indeed, a cultural revolution.”
Howls of journalistic outrage greeted the publication of the report, which according to reporters described the term “British” as racist. The “hypocritical”, “illiterate and politically-loaded” report was dismissed as an example of “the deeply discriminatory attitudes of the anti-discrimination lobbies”. The likes of Michael Gove cheered from the comment sections as then Home Secretary Jack Straw appeared to roll back from endorsing the “revolution”.
In the resulting high political panic, the political scientist who had chaired the report, Bhikhu Parekh, was wheeled out to defend its findings. His explanation of the commission’s thinking went like this: in policy terms Britain was trapped in a majority-minority mindset. This had led to well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate policies such as race-blindness.
To break out of this paradigm the Parekh report suggested linking funding for research projects, museums and cultural institutes to projects that both promoted African, Asian, Caribbean and Irish cultures and aggressively focused on “memories and experiences of colonialization, oppression, marginalisation”.
Conversely, the existing tensions in “British” identity needed to be expanded on and amplified. The Parekh report was not saying that “British” identity was racist, it argued that Britishness had racial connotations that needed completely re-shaping.
Taken together these measures would kill off the old majority-minority mindset and replace it with a multiplicity of different minority sects. While the stated intention of the report was to increase empathy and understandings of difference, it was an act administrative iconoclasm: from the rubble of British national identity a thousand activist groupuscules would bloom.
While the media frenzy excited by the report’s release quickly faded away, many of the report’s guidelines, quotas and recommendations were eventually legislated into existence.
Twenty years on and commentators across the political spectrum bemoan the fact that American-style “culture wars” have been imported into Britain. Yet recent controversies arguably owe less to the spread of Anglophone social media activism than changes to the ways in which officialdom has been programmed to imagine the populace. The current crisis of “Britishness” leapt on by everyone from Sir Keir Starmer to Lawrence Fox, has dowdy bureaucratic roots and was born out of a very specific historical moment. We can’t blame everything on America.
The Brexit referendum opened up a space to revitalise the national sense of self
The work of Parekh’s commission had been given urgency by two contemporary crises. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie in 1989, Professor Bhikhu Parekh (now Baron Parekh) had been Deputy Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. Parekh denounced the fatwa while also bemoaning Britain’s “lack of sensitivity and imagination” in dealing with Islamic fundamentalism. “The notorious book burning incident in Bradford was automatically equated with the Nazi acts of book burning,” he wrote. “No one paused to inquire if book-burning had the same meaning and significance in Islamic tradition.”
This anti-majoritarianism was given further impetus by the Macpherson inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. Indeed, the unambiguously valuable aspects of the Parekh report advocated the need for some kind of independent mechanism for investigating police misconduct.
More widely, the report picked up on the spectre of “institutional racism” that had been hung across the entirety of British officialdom. In the commission’s view Rushdie and Macpherson were the tip of the iceberg. Parekh hoped that Macpherson would “create the right kind of climate for change”.
These demands for change merged with an influential strand of historical analysis popularised by scholars like Linda Colley, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, who argued that national identities had been conjured into existence relatively recently.
With New Labour embarking on a programme of Europeanisation, national devolution and regionalisation, a new type of narrative was needed. The Parekh report was a fellow-travelling elite’s stab at a new vision. Among the commission’s members were Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (awarded an MBE in 2001), Kate Gavron (married to the publisher and Labour peer) and Trevor Phillips (awarded an OBE in 1999). Andrew Marr apparently provided the report with editorial polish.
You can make an argument that as an academic exercise, plenty of the Parekh report is interesting enough on its own terms. Parekh was a left-wing thinker critical of the idea of Britishness, but wary of advocating its complete abolition less it destroyed a bedrock of shared values. He rejected the conservative idea that national culture was bequeathed or inherited, but equally saw liberal conceptions of national identity as prizing politico-institutional coherence over ethno-cultural sensitivity.
But this kind of reasoned deconstruction is one thing, putting something in its place is much harder.
More than £350,000-worth of Lottery funding later, the Parekh report ended up floating the idea of Britishness as a “post-national” national identity. This is the sort of exquisite scholarly pin dancing that, in the unlikely event that it survives contact with reality, can only be flattened by the blunderbuss of policy implementation.
There is very little symbolism left to express collective national feeling
Ultimately, the report’s vision was unrealisable because it imagined British identity as an endlessly extendable phenomenon. It was Britain understood as a consumer experience: different shapes, sizes, genders and races strutting down a somewhat chi-chi shopping arcade. It made most sense against the backdrop of big cities with decent nightlife, international tourists and plenty of civic pride. It made less sense in Swindon. Or in the countryside. Or to anyone able to see through the delusion that people can keep all their options open all of the time.
The post-modern idea was to encourage individuals to make imaginative sense of the possibilities of the globalised world opening up in front of them. The prosaic reality was that this thinking would eventually be turned into quotas, guidelines and recommendations that paradoxically all manner of racist, communalist and fundamentalist arguments could hide behind.
It was far from the intention, but the report ultimately made it easier for extremists of all stripes to torch the moral integrity of political moderation. From the vantage point of today, where online shopping is in the process of obliterating “the high street” as the nation’s universalising experience, it also seems a distinctly twentieth-century vision of the future.
Of course, this is exactly what the Parekh report was. Beneficiaries of the welfare state and mass education, the report’s authors were part of a generation that expected the visible trends of their own lifetime to extend into the future, when in fact the slow expiry of the post-war contract was resulting in a larger role for philanthropic organisations and religion.
Equally, the Parekh report belonged to a type of “new-left” thinking that the collapse of the Soviet Union had inflated to its highest point of influence. Across the West, left-wing intellectuals would begin to shy away from placing class at the centre of a unifying political struggle. The proletarian struggle of old was given a make-over and put to work on an entirely different goal.
In that sense the report was a piece with a larger trend that would see the near erasure of complex media portraits of working-class life during New Labour’s time in office. Worse, the sensitive explorations of everyday Britain that had been central to the national consciousness were often pushed aside by exploitative, lowest-common-denominator reality shows. Post-industrial economic inequalities were bad enough, programmatically encouraging even more cultural demoralisation was unlikely to end well.
Many of the report’s assumptions would be shattered almost immediately after it was published. From 2004, Eastern Europeans began moving to the UK in enormous numbers. One of the effects of this was to break the link between race and immigration that had underpinned the Parekh report’s understanding of “the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain”.
Even more profoundly, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on terror, reversed easy assumptions about the inevitable triumph of “openness, cultural heterogeneity and social liberalism”. Inter-ethnic rioting in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001, and in Birmingham in 2005, further bought anxieties about racial segregation into political focus.
The mechanics for constructing a British national identity were also impacted by major changes in the media industry. The Parekh report developed during the expansion of satellite television. This increase in capacity led to more American imports, 24 hour rolling news and the development of “specialist” channels. The commission appeared to suggest that in a globalised world cultural homogeneity might hold back demand for Britain’s creative industries.
On a bad day it seems that everything has been politicised apart from the nitty-gritty of actual politics
This is an argument that the popularity of Nordic noir and myriad forms of South Korean pop culture have subsequently debunked. Now that we live in an era dominated by social media bubbles, the assumption that “diversity” is the same as pluralism has become even more questionable. Twenty-first century Britain is closer to being the kind of “global village” anticipated by Marshall McLuhan. New media is not an expanding universe, it’s a place where new tribal formations aggressively and impatiently antagonise each other. What emerged as a rhetoric of liberation has at times ended up reducing nearly everything it touches to biology or biography.
Since he was elevated to the House of Lords in 2000, Parekh has complained about both the short-sightedness as well as the short-termism of British political life. Lacking the courage, honesty or intellectual capacity to address deep political problems, our elected representatives lurch from crisis to crisis. Well, yes, but the ways in which the Parekh report have been codified by the state illustrates the opposite danger. The naivety of well-meaning intellectuals, bureaucrats and “opinion formers” who work through charities and NGOs and are to all intents and purposes insulated from the consequences of their interventions.
More recently, Parekh has defended the principles of his report while admitting aspects of its implementation are open to criticism. But it is not easy to see how the results could ever have been different. One of the examples it offers as a successful plural society is Malaysia. It is just about conceivable we will end up there, but a British equivalent of UNMO will not be ushering in the progressive future Parekh dreamt of. Only someone very clever would have been unable to foresee this.
Following 7/7 the Brown government belatedly came to understand the need for a more concrete idea of “Britishness”, but having already begun to institutionalise ideas about the nation as a “community of communities”, the result was predictably underwhelming. National identity had become a check list of abstract behaviours such as “tolerance, mutual respect, dialogue and the peaceful resolution of differences”. Official attempts to entrench Britain’s cultural identity are now either expressed in the robotic language of corporate social responsibility or through ever greater attempts at social engineering.
While the performance of ornate and complex personal identities has become a marker of elite status, those that cling to core religious beliefs or refuse to erase existing cultural affiliations are pushed into “Brexit communities” and other elite constructed tenement blocks for the housing of unacceptable opinions. There are signs of new imaginative worlds coalescing in digital media, but officialdom is no longer unable to imagine any sort of popular feeling that isn’t base, vulgar or loud.
For two decades a mistrust of majoritarian institutions and an insistence on a founding separateness have been hardwired into public administration. At some level the baleful consequences of this are understood. Trevor Phillips who was involved in the genesis of the report, now warns of the dangers of “a nation within a nation”. Yet it remains an extremely difficult mindset to break out of. Heroic levels of charm, empathy and courage are needed.
Anyone who wades into “Britishness”, whether High Tories, patriotic Labour, or the artist formerly known as DS Hathaway, will quickly end up mired in a never-ending quagmire of cultural arbitration. Nothing can be claimed beyond partiality, and any attempts at expansiveness will be inevitably be shot down as “exclusionary”, no matter how well-meaning or carefully expressed they are. On a bad day it seems that everything has been politicised apart from the nitty-gritty of actual politics.
It shouldn’t have been like this. In theory, the Brexit referendum opened up a space to revitalise the national sense of self as well as its political economy. But even disregarding the polarising legacies of the referendum, without revisiting the assumptions of the Parekh report this will be extremely difficult to do.
During the current pandemic several commentators have drawn a distinction between the public information campaigns developed in the heyday of the COI and the current reliance on behavioural psychology. One of the deeper reasons the government has come to rely on behavioural science is that beyond the monarchy, and the institutional relics of 1945, there is very little symbolism left to express collective national feeling. In the persuasive armoury of the British state, emotional blackmail and legal compulsion are among the few functioning weapons left.
It is a policy outcome that has served the ordinary, quotidian and mundane shared realities of life in Britain extremely poorly.
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