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Cameron calls for a strengthened sense of national identity instead of failed ‘state multiculturalism’

February 5, 2011

The UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron says ‘state multiculturalism’ has failed and in its place we need ‘muscular liberalism’ and a stronger sense of national identity.

I think he’s probably right about state sponsored multiculturalism, which is inclined to exaggerate difference and the homogeneity of various communities, while simultaneously aggrandizing self-appointed ‘community’ spokespeople. So the state should tread lightly here. Britain (and everywhere else, for that matter) manages to be multicultural without the intervention of the government. In that respect, saying that you’re in favour of multiculturalism or against it is akin to taking a political position on the Earth’s atmosphere.

In any case, what Cameron has in his sights isn’t really multiculturalism at all, it’s what he defines as Muslim extremism. Although quite where this begins and ends in the Prime Minister’s mind is hard to tell, since any manifestation of Muslim opposition to western foreign policy or assertion or Arab self-determination is likely to be labelled ‘militant’ or ‘extreme’ these days.

Cameron argues that young Muslims find it hard to identify with Britain and apparently this is because ‘we’ have weakened our sense of national identity. I can’t find where Cameron sets out how the British might strengthen their sense of national identity. Perhaps they could coalesce around a collective suspicion of Catholic Europe? Or build an empire? Or go to war with Germany? Or (God forbid) build a welfare state. All of these worked at various times in the past.

Or maybe the British could demonstrate their collective genius by espousing fair play and decency, while pretending that these values are somehow exclusive and distinguishing national characteristics. (Does anyone know of a country that prides itself on cheating and indecency?)

Or perhaps the PM knows a way to conjure a warm sense of horizontal comradeship from the socially divisive policies currently being implemented by his government. Certainly the quickest and most effective way to strengthen national identity in these straitened times is probably to identify some perilous threat to ‘our’ way of life… like… err… Muslim extremists, for instance. Identities, after all, are defined negatively, in relation to what they are not. That is to say, the most important thing about being woman is not being a man; the most important thing about being a Glasgow Celtic fan is not being a Glasgow Rangers fan; and the most important thing about being Tory is not having a soul.

So I can’t see how prescribing national identity will remedy Muslim alienation. National identities are by definition exclusive. Not everybody can belong. Not everybody would want to belong. And the angry young Muslim men, referred to by Cameron in his speech in Munich, have probably already encountered and witnessed some fairly robust versions of Britishness. It’s probably what alienated and disillusioned them in the first place.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 6, 2011 7:39 pm

    “I think he’s probably right about state sponsored multiculturalism, which is inclined to exaggerate difference and the homogeneity of various communities, while simultaneously aggrandizing self-appointed ‘community’ spokespeople.”

    Not sure I agree with this bit. It rather reduces what the state actually does on this front to one all purpose slurry of “Let’s pay the Muslims to keep quiet.”

    When I think of ‘state sponsored multiculturalism’, I think first of much lower level stuff, like Black History Month in schools, or anti racist campaign posters in, say, council housing offices. This is bread and butter, social democratic (in lower case) stuff, which hovers on the borders of straightforward good management and politics itself.

    I do wonder, however, if we’re all about promoting a sense of national cohesion, where the policies for ensuring the City prioritises investing capital in our national economic development might actually feature in government policy?

  2. Rab permalink*
    February 7, 2011 11:23 am

    Maybe it’s a Norn Iron-thing but state sponsored multiculturalism was always seems to encourage the most questionable aspects of identity politics. People with repugnant politics get redifined as a ‘tradition’ or cultural identity. Then they’re repugnant views and behaviour have to be tolerated; their ‘difference’ respected… and before you know it the government are offering to build them a heritage centre if only they’ll promise to behave themselves.

    It’s a pragmatic strategy, I understand, but it tends to suggest that there is some sort of equivalence between competing political views. The very term – English Defence League -suggests that even as the hate multiculturalism, it’s an organisation quite capable of presenting itself as a threatened cultural identity deserving state support.

    I know that the arguments around this are much more nuanced but I can’t help but feel that multiculturalism became away of pursing policies of recognition (cheap) at the expense of redistribution.

  3. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 7, 2011 12:40 pm

    I think the reference to your ‘own wee grantocracy’ is pretty spot on in some ways. Where else did the British State learn the key ‘opposition muffling’ techniques of buying off/ incorporation/ smothering with grant application forms ? I’m not quite accepting that the motivation for funding the MCB is akin to the rationale for funding the Ulster Scots Agency, but, yes, one can see similarities.

    But multiculturalism per se, in its’ ‘state sponsored’ form, is a far wider set of initiatives than this. Excuse me now, I’m off to find a website where one can feed in a strung together series of words about babies and bathwater and get back something in relatively fresh, non cliched prose that means the same thing.

  4. February 7, 2011 1:24 pm

    Integration is the way forward. The French have the right idea, but never followed through on it properly. It’s fine to respect people’s traditions, but the primary identity a state should seek to build is one of equal citizenship (obviously we seek to build class identity as well, but that’s different 😉 )

  5. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 7, 2011 7:47 pm

    ‘The French have the right idea’


    They have the worst idea possible: that everyone can be equal as long as everyone thinks and acts like an (ideal-type) French person. Give me ‘tea with a sympathetic liberal vicar’ as a mainstream state response to The Other every day of the week

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