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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
So what exactly is multiculturalism?
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality has called for multiculturalism to be scrapped. But does anybody actually agree what multiculturalism means - and is it a good or bad thing? BBC News Online asked a range of thinkers for a short definition.

Chair of the 'Life in the UK' report which led to the new citizenship tests

Sir Bernard Crick
I see no incompatibility between multiculturalism and Britishness. Britishness must be part of multiculturalism.

In the report I chaired advocating language and citizenship education for immigrants, The New and the Old (2003), we said:

"Who are we British? For a long time the UK has been a multicultural state composed of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and also a multicultural society... made up of a diverse range of cultures and identities, and one that emphasises the need for a continuous process of mutual engagement and learning about each other with respect, understanding and tolerance."

In other words, dual identities have been common, even before large scale immigration.

We further wrote: "To be British means that we respect the laws, the parliamentary and democratic political structures, traditional values of mutual tolerance, respect for equal rights..."

But Britishness does not mean a single culture. Integration is the co-existence of communities and unimpeded movement between them, it is not assimilation.

Britishness is a strong concept but not all embracing.

Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a centre-right think tank

Ruth Lea
There are two ways in which people interpret multiculturalism.

The first one is the more common way and that is every culture has the right to exist and there is no over-arching thread that holds them together.

That is the multiculturalism we think is so destructive because there's no thread to hold society together. It is that multiculturalism that Trevor Phillips has condemned and, of course, we are totally supportive.

There is another way to define multiculturalism which I would call diversity where people have their own cultural beliefs and they happily coexist - but there is a common thread of Britishness or whatever you want to call it to hold society together.

And that is clearly what I would support because you do accept that people have different cultures and you accept them.

It a positive acceptance not a negative tolerance.

LORD PAREKH, professor of political philosophy
Chair of the 2000 report, 'The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain'

Lord Parekh
Multiculturalism is sometimes taken to mean that different cultural communities should live their own ways of life in a self-contained manner.

This is not its only meaning and in fact it has long been obsolete.

Multiculturalism basically means that no culture is perfect or represents the best life and that it can therefore benefit from a critical dialogue with other cultures.

In this sense multiculturalism requires that all cultures should be open, self-critical, and interactive in their relations with other each other.

This was the basic message of my report on multi-ethnic Britain (The Future of Multi Ethnic Britain, Runnymede Trust 2000). As we argued in the report, Britain is and should remain a vibrant and democratic multicultural society that must combine respect for diversity with shared common values.

Chief Executive of The 1990 Trust, a black-led human rights organisation

Karen Chouhan
Multiculturalism is not dead, in fact it has been reasserted by government policy in the form of 'valuing diversity'.

Neither is it incompatible with an appreciation or knowledge of British cultures. To suggest otherwise is to turn back the clock on race debates thirty years.

To understand multiculturalism is to appreciate that it means many different things.

To some it is merely sampling different cultures, such as a carnival or a mela [South Asian festival]. To others, it is the road to challenging structural inequalities.

One of Britain's strengths is its diversity. Our political system is founded on different values. White British culture itself is incredibly diverse. But we cannot have cultural diversity without tackling inequalities.

We need to do is move forward with a serious debate about how far we have to go in tackling race discrimination in every corner of society, not move it back by forcing everyone to be more (white) British.

Most minority ethnic communities have made substantial contributions to the making of Britain and have made huge efforts to learn British history and language, and engage in civic society despite encountering social exclusion and racism in practically every area of public policy and practice.

Let's not lose sight of this, or how far we have to go. Tackling racial disadvantage is the best way to engender a sense of belonging, being valued is a two-way street.

Interviews by Cindi John

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05 Apr 04  |  Politics
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