Has multiculturalism failed? Last month Suella Braverman was lambasted for suggesting so when she argued:
Multiculturalism makes no demands of the incomer to integrate. It has failed because it allowed people to come to our society and live parallel lives in it. They could be in the society but not of the society.
Braverman’s comments were unusual. A frontline politician was making a coherent political and moral case — a “civic argument”, in her words — about the effects of “Uncontrolled immigration, inadequate integration and a misguided dogma of multiculturalism”.
The reception was predictable. Like every speech that suggests immigration policy isn’t coming along just fine thank you very much, it was greeted by the usual attacks from opponents. They imply it would be an act of monstrous inhumanity to reduce immigration to the levels the electorate have voted for, consistently, since levels first rose under Tony Blair.
As events abroad once again cause a spike in ethnic tension on Britain’s streets, we should be reminded that Braverman is right that multiculturalism has failed — even if she is 20 years behind the curve.
In 2004, David Goodhart wrote an essay for Prospect called “Too Diverse?”. He suggested that Britain might become too diverse “to sustain the mutual obligations behind a good society and the welfare state” because, as he put it, “sharing and solidarity can conflict with diversity”. This is something Goodhart called “the progressive dilemma” after hearing then-MP David Willetts describe the impact immigration might have on welfare reform:
The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties which they themselves could face. If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state.
The main thrust of Goodhart’s argument was that modern liberal states had replaced a sense of citizenship based around ethnicity, with one based around values. “But,” as Goodhart put it, “citizenship is not just an abstract idea about rights and duties; for most of us it is something we do not choose but are born into — it arises out of a shared history, shared experiences, and, often, shared suffering.”
The progressive dilemma plays out in many fields, but immigration has long been the major source of tension. That’s because, as Goodhart put it, “the visibility of ethnic difference means that it often overshadows other forms of diversity … The different appearance of many immigrants is an outward reminder that they are, at least initially, strangers”. Whilst modern political rhetoric had largely swept away the idea of an intrinsic national community, rapid and large-scale immigration would still have consequences for “identity and mutual obligation”. In an effort to define community widely enough that it could include many people from many backgrounds, it became stretched so thin as to become meaningless.
Goodhart was right in that diversity has costs. Willets was wrong, however, in thinking that cost would erode support for the welfare state. Although only half of the public thinks the NHS provides a good service nationally, commitment to the principles underpinning it are almost universal — 90 per cent are committed to the NHS being free at the point of service, whole, and 89 per cent believe it should provide a comprehensive service.
The commitment to values of diversity over solidarity has, however, cost us our relationship with Europe. The debate around the EU became a cipher for the progressive dilemma, with the values of solidarity (and its tendency to draw boundaries) on one side and the value of diversity (and its tendency to cross them) on the other. Immigration was just one aspect of a wider campaign that spoke to a desire for solidarity, as the prominence of European courts, judges and Parliaments overruling their British equivalents showed. Even the famous bus promise spoke to a desire for solidarity, with the open-ended suggestion that the £350m sent to the EU would be better spent on the NHS making the choice between allocating resources to British citizens or to Brussels.
A spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes is not a sign of a healthy democracy
The dilemma between solidarity and diversity is still at the heart of British politics, even if it is wilfully ignored by both sides. Progressives are willing to disregard it largely because they cherish diversity as an end unto itself, and they regard hostility to diversity as a form of false consciousness. The right has similarly avoided the debate, both because it is less interested in solidarity as a concept, but also because it, as Goodhart wrote, “is still trying to prove that it is comfortable with diversity”.
A spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes in support of Hamas rocket strikes is not a sign of a functioning, healthy democracy, however, and the dilemma is growing increasingly hard to ignore. Braverman’s speech wasn’t “dog-whistling to the far right”. It was a recognition of a concrete political reality that progressives refuse to recognise and Capital-C Conservatives have endlessly sidestepped — that, as Britain has become more diverse, it is growing increasingly difficult to sustain the common values that underpin a good society.
Braverman’s civic argument goes something like this: a cohesive society is based on a sense that each citizen owes — and is owed — rights and responsibilities, both to each other and to the common good. Those mutual bonds and obligations are far stronger when the society has a set of common values and assumptions, because that shared commonality provides an understanding of acceptable practices and interactions. These then form a framework inside which a cohesive society can operate with minimal friction. This is Goodhart’s “solidarity”.
However, as immigration into Britain began to rise, the prioritisation of diversity undermined that commonality. As the rate of immigration increases, it is eroded even further. That’s because of our embrace of multiculturalism, a policy derived from the values of Goodhart’s “diversity”. Multiculturalism meant embracing a multiplicity of cultures, all of equal value. In practice, this meant that, in an attempt to assimilate immigrants, Britain’s common values were diluted in order to apply to the maximum number of people possible. As Johanna Möhring writes:
Multiculturalism neither encourages integration, for fear of upsetting cultural sensitivities, nor does much to foster social cohesion, as it leaves the host Society without a clear understanding of what it actually stands for.
The common culture that is the framework of a cohesive society, therefore, was eroded in order to assimilate immigrants with minimal friction. Denigrating common culture to twee nonsense like fish and chips, and our common values to vague platitudes like “responsibility” and “tolerance”, makes it easier to absorb large rates of demographic change.
The problem is that these common values underpin not only our laws and welfare systems of the state, but the acceptable behaviours governing society. When we see a trebling in antisemitic incidents, schools closed in order to protect children and cricket-induced ethnic violence, we are seeing the erosion of the common values and assumptions that underpin our society.
These acts are not acceptable in Britain. However, our failure to meaningfully integrate new arrivals into the framework of our existing values means they have no notion of what the receiving society expected from them. They are enabled, not just to live parallel lives in our society, as Braverman pointed out, but to “pursue lives aimed at undermining the stability and threatening the security of society”.
It is a question of whether assimilation and integration policies can work at all, when faced with the sheer number of new citizens we have accepted since mass immigration began. It’s noticeable that the most celebrated example of a well-integrated immigrant community — West Indians — arrived in small numbers into a nation that, pre-multiculturalism, had a strong common culture and sense of shared values. As Goodhart argues, “Britain in the 1950s was a country stratified by class and region. But in most of its cities, suburbs, towns and villages there was a good chance of predicting the attitudes, even the behaviour, of the people living in your immediate neighbourhood.”
Braverman’s civic argument, like public dissatisfaction around the rate of immigration, isn’t the result of racism. It’s an expression of unease around the erosion of that limited set of common values and assumptions that form the basis of life in a modern liberal state. Only the language of solidarity can help us restore them.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe