Identity, opportunity, community, pluralism, cohesion and Britishness

November 12, 2016 5:01 PM

Lord DholakiaThe history of immigration and race relations is comparatively short, Liberal Democrat peer Navnit Dholakia said recently in Newcastle.

There is also a confused debate about identity and this has surfaced again and again about what it is to be British, he went on.

Gordon Brown's British jobs for British people is no different than that of Amber Rudd who soon backtracked about recording numbers of foreign workers in British employment.

A while ago one of the British national newspapers asked its readers "What it means to be British?"

I read the response in some of the e-mails that followed and one from a chap in Switzerland caught my eye.

"Being British is about driving a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry and watching American shows on a Japanese TV.

And the most British thing of all - suspicion of anything foreign."

This arguably sums up the confused debate about identity.

For several years we have seen a debate in the press and magazines about what has been called by my Parliamentary colleague Vince Cable, among others, the politics of identity.

Commentators have pointed to the impact of globalisation, devolution, asylum and immigration issues and concerns about the growth of fundamentalism be it Christian, Muslim, Hindus, Jewish or other faiths.

The old political certainties of "left" and "right" are less clear cut in modern Britain, with politicians competing to be toughest on crime and best at promoting concepts such as "community cohesion" - a concept which to my mind lacks strategic thought. As Malik Kenen has commented, this too often leads to tired consultation documents on integration and endless committees.

Many of these gathering dust on Home Office shelves for the past 50 years.

There is now a search on shared values of what it is might be to be British or English.

Add to this mix the war in Iraq and the growth of terrorism, and the alleged 'death of multiculturalism' which, according to Trevor Phillips formerly of the CRE, leads to separateness and "ghettoes" of different communities,

It seems at times as if the search for shared values and notions of 'citizenship' is becoming a mask of acceptable language in which to discuss what to do about the "problem" of the ethnic communities in Britain.

Writing in the Guardian some time ago, Jonathan Freedland noted "a kind of drumbeat of hysteria in which both politicians and media have turned again and again on a single, small minority, first prodding them, and then pounding them as if they represent the single biggest problem in national life".

So post BREXIT this is a difficult time in which to have the kind of calm and reasoned discussion about identity.

There is confusion not only about identity but about terminology: race, religion, identity and an ill-defined multiculturalism are all mixed in the pot.

So let us think back a little.

In September 1965 the Government proclaimed that Britain is a multi-racial society.

It is now forty years since the 1976 Race Relations Act and the establishment of the Commission for Racial Equality.

We have reached another important anniversary - the bicentenary of the passage of the 1807 Abolition of Slave Trade Act in the British Empire.

Britain has been at the forefront of legislative and other machinery to establish equality of opportunity for all its citizens, with strong, new legislation on race, disability, gender, age, faith and sexual orientation which puts a new emphasis on "promoting" good relations between different groups.

(It is worth remembering at this point that much of the impetus for the new race legislation came from the bottom up, through the efforts of the family of Stephen Lawrence.)

However, confusion still remains about whether legislation has helped to strengthen society towards a common identity.

So what are the obstacles?

For this we need to analyse the current state of multi-ethnic Britain. We need to examine changing patterns within all communities. We also need to take into account post-war migration and the process of globalisation which crosses the geographical boundaries of all nations.

Unfortunately, much of the public debate on multiculturalism and 'Britishness' has been on shallow grounds.

As Sivanandan of the Institute of Race Relations comments, "multiculturalism has become the "whipping boy": "the road to assimilation, as opposed to integration, is already being cleared by scrubbing out multiculturalism" - a state which many would argue, has never truly been either defined or achieved. It is about more than a vague well-meaning tolerance of difference and rumours of its death are taking us on a confusing circle of debate.

Immigration policies have played a crucial role in successive governments over the last 50 years. As a Parliamentarian I am privileged to look at past documents about how such policies are evolved.

Let me give you an example.

The Labour Government in 1950 set out an interdepartmental committee to consider the possibility of legislation and administrative methods to deal with the matter of 'immigrants'.

So preoccupied were the Ministers with the numbers entering the United Kingdom that the welfare and integration of the newcomers was not even discussed.

In fact the key policy recommendation was that "any solution depending on an apparent or concealed colour test would be so invidious as to be impossible for adoption.

Nevertheless it has to be recognised that the use of any powers taken to restrict the free entry of British subjects to this country would as a general rule be more or less confined to coloured persons."

This approach has been at the heart of control policy based on colour. Each of the legislative measures since 1962 will confirm this.

Almost 60 years ago the steam ship Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks carrying with it the hopes and dreams of hundreds of young men and women from the Caribbean. Nothing like this had happened before. Here was an event when people from the margins of the Empire were coming to build a new life in the Metropolitan Centre itself.

We need to look back to that period. There was the devastation in Britain inflicted by the war. The grip to hold on to the former colonies was gradually weakening. The country was trapped in the old idea of itself.

Add to this the emergence of independent Commonwealth countries, and the end of the master-servant relationship that Britain enjoyed - a new way to think of ourselves had to be evolved, and it is still in that process - this current debate is not new.

There was little policy consideration of a genuine migration policy and the settlement of new arrivals.

The assumptions that were made in those early days have not been realised. The first arrivals were greeted with the optimistic assumption that Britain, shedding its colonial legacy was a true melting pot.

Commonwealth citizens were British subjects. It was generally assumed that all the many racial, cultural and religious groups would be assimilated into a new whole - a single people with similar ideals, attitudes and values. The policy makers never thought that 'identity' would be an issue. But the reality was different. The assumptions that were made in those early days have not been realised.

The unrest involving white and Asian Youths in the summer of 2001 in the Northern English towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford and the resurgence of the extreme right have demonstrated that the process was not automatic, or inevitable.

Among those of European ancestry there has been considerable assimilation into the economic and political life of the community. Black and Asian groups, to a great extent have retained their identities.

So what is the future? We now see a cultural pluralism that has emerged. Never before had Britain seen such pluralism supplemented by the visual identity of the individuals.

This is to be welcomed, valued and promoted, not regarded as a source of fear: Achieving the "community of communities" described by the Runnymede report on Multi-ethnic Britain (2000) is a reflection of values of which we should be proud.

Few other political issues raise the same tensions and emotions as immigration and "Britishness"

There are at least four factors responsible for this.

  • First, there are the unending discussions about numbers - now focussed on the "others" coming from Eastern Europe and the media panics about "bogus asylum seekers".
  • Second, we worry about our national borders and our borders within what has been called "Fortress Europe".
  • Third, there are questions around our role in the international community - do we face towards Europe, or the United States or both?
  • And last, we worry about what is our national identity, which a focus on immigration leads us to believe is insecure and therefore must be better defined - what it is, and who can be members within this single identity.

BREXIT has thrown this issue wide open.

Just over 30 years ago Enoch Powell made his controversial and inflammatory comments about immigration. Let me pick up two quotes from his infamous speech, delivered in 1968.

"All about me I hear as you do, in your town, in mine, in Wolverhampton, in Smethwick, in Birmingham, people see with their own eyes what they dread, the transformation during their own life time, or if they are already old, during their children's, of towns and cities and areas they know into alien territory".

"It is no more true to say that England is their country than it would be to say that the West Indies or Pakistan or India are our country. In these great numbers they are, and remain here."

No one disputes that immigration policies must protect and promote our national interest. Nor can it remain static when substantial changes are taking place throughout the world.

Global economy is just one aspect of these changes. Increasingly the global economy relies on the skills of people wherever it is available. International migration is a key feature of this phenomenon.

Immigration has been a political battle ground for over 50 years. Every General Election has shown that the combined issues of race, religion, asylum and immigration increased in importance and again the BREXIT Referendum was no exception. However, the leadership is at unease when confronted with the issues of multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism.

The confusion is even more evident in the UK's Government Select Committees Report where we pay lip service towards the objective of an integrated society without qualifying or often blurring our stance on important values of multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity. There is a kind of schizophrenia in the state responses to immigration on the one hand and community cohesion and a pluralist society on the other.

The concept of multiculturalism in 1965 was qualified by a number of consensuses. One report said, "It must be recognised that the presence in this country of immigrants from the Commonwealth with different social and cultural backgrounds raises a number of problems and various social tensions in those areas where they have concentrated."

The UK Government does have a difficult task striking a balance between rights and responsibilities for minorities and members of the host community. There is an increased emphasis placed on minorities to adapt or as some view it, to assimilate rather than to integrate. Ongoing debates on citizenship are a case in point.

The progress we have made in achieving some sort of multiculturalism is too valuable to be played in such a cynical manner by politicians with an eye to a perceived perception of the majority population that, despite all our history and our pride in tolerance, the majority is somehow not able to live as part of a community of communities.

Perhaps there is a need for a bottom up approach here too so that the debate is not fuelled to such a degree by media scare stories and hurried political responses.

It is important to remember in this often rather dry and academic search to reach core defined identities - as Gordon Brown did in his speech on the Future of Britishness - that we all have multiple identities. As Amartya Sen said, "identities are robustly plural and the importance of one identity need not obliterate another".(2006)

In terms of "Britishness", just compare the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, clearly not feeling equal members of American society in those days. Compare this with images of Linford Christie draped in the union flag in 1992 and boxer Amir Khan in 2004 wearing flags of both Britain and Pakistan as small (perhaps over sentimental but nevertheless) examples of how comfortable many of us are with multiple identities which we value.

We do not all fit in single boxes which would easily allow a definition of core British values.This approach is a route to defining "otherness" and social exclusion rather than the community cohesion we aspire to. True multi-culturalism which values and respects diversity and difference and, importantly, champion's equality of access and outcomes has not yet been achieved - but it can be.

Over the last ten years we have had a steady development of the concept of human rights, including the very positive step of incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998. How are these rights translated into citizenship? Is all this work likely to be affected by the proposed "Bill of Rights" by the Government?

In the UK for too long we have assumed that our liberties are protected by a set of traditions and customary activities assisted by a general consensus within our society about the liberty of individuals.

We have no written constitution and very little guidance in the legal process and documentation. There is a danger here:

"Common values cannot and should not be assumed in a multicultural society.

As a result of different cultural and historic backgrounds we hold conflicting views about the value and purpose of life, the objectives we should follow, about relationships between parents and children, men and women.

The cosy assumptions of a homogenous consensus in which we rooted our liberties won't do. But the introduction of the Human Rights legislation opens up a new dimension.

Britain has been a country of habit, assumption and tradition. Now it has to confront the problems of turning into a country of the book, the law and the constitution. The Court of Human Rights for example, remains the only regional court in the world that has a right to try cases between an individual against a member state. That is why we should define what citizenship is all about rather than seek to narrowly define shared values based on assumptions and often stereotypes.

There is confusion about what citizenship should entail. No one should underestimate the values placed by the minorities on their ethnicity and in their belief in multiculturalism. Cultures do not remain static. Communities change. Conflict often occurs on matters of gender, generations, religion, language and the community's relationships with the wider society. There is nothing to be frightened about. We are already witnessing fusion in music, the arts and fashion. The new emerging culture will be exciting.

What is required is political wisdom appropriate to our multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious society.

The narrow (and currently, rather blurred) focus on race and religion undermines an approach which takes into account political and social identities and also the impact of social and economic factors in shaping all communities.

It is right that we should celebrate British Citizenship and the rights and responsibilities that come with it. If we build active participation of communities in our democratic process supplemented by a sense of a united community then ethnicity and multiculturalism would be less contentious.

We need now to identify not what we take out of our country but what we put in. That process of citizenship must encompass the rights of all people irrespective of their colour to live in peace, to get an education, to get a job and to raise a family.

But citizenship means much more than learning English. No one disputes that the process of communication helps towards an integrated society. But citizenship is so much more than that. It is a social contract encompassing the whole community. Its aim must be social inclusion, tolerance, equality and a diverse society where human rights flourish. It is also about balancing citizen's rights and responsibilities. Importantly citizenship must also entitle individuals to state protection, respect for the diversity of their culture, and freedom of expression.

These are all encompassed within the framework of the Human Rights Act. It is not for the Government to pick and choose which rights suit them. But take this to its logical conclusion; citizenship cannot be divorced from the needs of individuals. The social contract must also include decent public services and decent social support for the weak and infirm including those who fear persecution.

It must provide the community with a healthy and pollution free environment. If individuals feel that they are protected from crime, that there is less oppression and discrimination does not blight their lives then there will be respect towards a healthy, decent society. This is the way to achieve cohesion.

We have the framework. We have national and international instruments covering the whole range of civil, political, social and economic and above all human rights.

There is always a question of balance: this is also not new. Some human rights, such as the right to life, are absolute but others are subject to balancing different needs - of individuals, communities and the state.

I do not underestimate the difficulties of finding a balance which makes everyone happy. But mutual respect for each other's human rights does provide a framework within which we need to find a way to have a national discussion with ourselves without all the sound and the fury of recent months.

This is where politicians must lead, and be proactive, and not just react to media panics and the voices which can shout the loudest at a single point in time.

I had the privilege to work under former Home Secretary Roy Jenkins when he was leader of my Party in the House of Lords. He defined integration, not as a flattening process of assimilation but one of equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.

The definition is as true today as it was in 1967. On Equality of Opportunity we have a long way to go. Lord Dholakia at Northumbria University

This is and edited version of a lecture given as part of the Northumbria University Public Lecture Series on 20 October 2016. Lord Dholakia is Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. In the late sixties he was instrumental in setting up the Newcastle Community Relations Council, and has worked closely for many years with Dr Hari Shukla here