Communities and Housing//

Rebuilding Britain

Written by: John Denham on 15 August, 2012
Filed under Communities and Housing, Identity and Immigration

In recent speeches Ed Miliband has made clear his determination to place Labour and values within a framework of national renewal. ‘Rebuilding Britain’ and rebuilding Britain’s economy, policies and society have been consistent themes in his speeches and conversations in the run up to Conference.

All politicians say their aims are in the national interest, but it’s significant that Ed Miliband is combining a sense of national purpose with his view that the current crisis means that profound changes are needed in the way Britain and its institutions are run.

Much of this radical thinking centres around the reshaping of the economy, with an active state promoting responsible capitalism. Alongside this, a focus on national purpose and identity proves a useful way of resolving one of the unsolved dilemmas of the past fifteen years – the competing claims of multiculturalism and integration as ways of responding to migration and community derived social tensions.

David Cameron recently echoed Angela Merkel in declaring that ‘the doctrine of state multiculturalism’ has failed. It hasn’t, of course, but it has been found wanting.

The positive influences of multiculturalism remain pervasive.

We routinely expect ethnic monitoring because we want to know about equal treatment.

Every local authority engages proactively with different faiths and ethnic groups.

In popular opinion, most people don’t think it unBritish for a migrant to support the sports teams of their home country. Non-white minorities are marginally more likely than the white majority to describe themselves as British. In many ways, British life is marked by a day to day acceptance of difference and ‘live and let live’. Popular culture is irreversibly multi-cultural.

To say this is failure is as good as saying it should never have happened. Our society would be so much less rich if it hadn’t.

But multiculturalism has its weaknesses. The policy makers who first promoted multiculturalism reassured the majority community that the country and their way of life would not change. This wasn’t true.

And while new communities properly took from multiculturalism a right to respect, it was less clear what else they were expected to do, if anything, beyond obeying the law. Multiculturalism itself had little to say to our divided towns. It proved a weak framework for working through the issues around terrorism and violent interpretations of Islam.

It did not help distinguish between positive action to help the disadvantaged and the divisive favouring of one poor community over another. It gave no role, other than acceptance, to the majority community. But that majority’s sense of identity was being challenged, particularly in an England that had also seen significant political devolution to Scotland and Wales.

But Cameron’s simplistic call for integration won’t meet the challenge either.

Some elements, like the need to learn English or to obey the law are not in doubt.

But ‘integration’ is heard, by everyone, to mean that there is an established order, an established culture, a way of doing things that newer communities have to take as read and join in with.

This doesn’t value the contribution from new communities from which all benefit. Multiculturalism’s great strength was its recognition of this contribution.

Second, it’s actually impossible to pin down what the established order is because it is always changing. The Britain I was born into was, without doubt, homophobic, casually racist and generally unconcerned with women’s rights. Few people – even on the Tory right – would today describe those as enduring British values.

There is a fundamental, inescapable reason why we feel we know our national identities but find it so hard to write them down. Whatever our country, our national identities and the stories we tell about ourselves are always changing. They are never fixed.

We tell and re-tell our stories in ways we choose. We reshape them in time and by the power of imagination. We drop the parts that no longer describe the way we feel ourselves to be; we stress the new that tells of how we want to be. Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony and the debate that ensued was a great example of this.

All migration changes nations. Migration at some level will always occur. Our national identity will change and develop. The issue is not whether we can halt or prevent it, but how we handle it.

I would argue that it is the act of national building that is missing from the narratives of both multiculturalism and integration.

This is not a matter of politicians telling new stories. (That has its part to play – the fact that the contribution of the Indian Army to the Second World War effort is almost unknown has left Britain facing migration from south Asia with no sense of connection or history). But we also need a style of politics which emphasises bringing people together to tackle common problems and issues. The best known example – the London Citizens Living Wage campaign – is only one of many potential issues on which we can bring people of different backgrounds and cultures together to find common cause.

The relevance of this to Ed Miliband’s desire to ‘rebuild Britain’ is that rebuilding Britain is a national story that does not start with a preoccupation with relations between communities, or the handling of migration. Instead it is about what it would take for all those making their living and those raising families here to live better lives in a fairer economy that can earn its way in the world and deliver security and good services. That makes a common cause of the contribution of every family and every school towards good education and skills. It means that fairness in the workplace and the opportunity to be innovators and entrepreneurs are rights to be enjoyed by all. It means valuing the contribution of every person, recognising the extraordinary advantages a diverse population gives us in a globalised world.

If we can combine a practical politics of cooperation with the mutual respect of multiculturalism within a strong story of national purpose, we surely have the best chance to succeed.