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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 August 2005, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
Mixed messages on multiculturalism
By Cindi John
BBC News community affairs reporter

Most people polled supported multiculturalism

Last week Prime Minister Tony Blair said he did not know what people meant when they referred to 'multiculturalism' but a BBC poll appears to show a high level of acceptance of multicultural Britain.

Of the 1,000 people questioned, 62% said multiculturalism made Britain "a better place to live", however, almost the same proportion said people "should adopt the values and traditions of British culture."

The response in the BBC poll seems to suggest that although ethnic minorities are generally thought to enhance life in Britain, adopting the British way of life is a prerequisite to their acceptance by society at large.

That would seem to suggest a shift in the general public's perception of what multiculturalism is all about.

I never know, although I use the term myself occasionally, quite what people mean when they talk about multiculturalism
Tony Blair
In the 1980s and 1990s it was promoted enthusiastically as a means of enabling minority communities to retain their own culture and traditions while taking part in the life of mainstream society.

But in recent years concern has been expressed that multiculturalism is leading to segregation of some of Britain's ethnic minority communities.

Among those calling for the policy to be scrapped was the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), an organisation which was formerly a long-time champion of multiculturalism.

Last year Trevor Phillips said the term was no longer useful as it suggested "separateness" and called for all citizens to "assert a core of Britishness."

Former CRE chairman Herman Ouseley says after Mr Phillips remarks, the confusion about what multiculturalism means is not surprising.

"If you say multiculturalism has created an environment in which people from different minorities have come here and won't integrate then I think clearly what you're doing is putting in people's mind the fact they should believe people should integrate," Lord Ouseley said.

Irish heritage

And he admitted he no longer understood himself what multiculturalism meant.

"It's like racism, it's an overused word that's applied in so many ways it loses its value. Or it's misunderstood and people then become afraid to talk about it or they use it as a means of beating somebody over the head."

Race activist and diversity consultant Linda Bellos agrees multiculturalism is a word that's hard to define.

Multiculturalism: The policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within a society are maintained or supported
Oxford English Dictionary

"I've never personally used the word "multicultural" because I think it's very imprecise and so open to misinterpretation. My general feeling is that it's a portmanteau word which means anything to anyone who wants to define it," Ms Bellos said.

The implication that multicultural issues only concerned ethnic minorities was also wrong, she added.

"We have millions of people of Irish heritage in Britain who are actually rather proud of their Irish heritage, they could and should be part of the debate but it has become polarised as a black and white issue and that's part of the problem," Ms Bellos said.

According to Rhian Beynon of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, multiculturalism has fallen victim to a negative press.

"I think "multiculturalism" is like "asylum seeker", it's become tainted because of the way some individuals have used it and I think there is a school of thought that lumps multiculturalism in with political correctness and would jeer at it."

But Rob Berkeley of the race think tank the Runnymede Trust says whatever the debate about the meaning of the word, the policy remains sound.

"The key things are that we do pursue a shared national identity and some shared common values based on our shared humanity.

"And we need also to ensure people are treated fairly and their identities are not denigrated or subsumed into some sort of non-identity because that gets rid of all the benefits of diversity."




SEE ALSO:
Davis attacks UK multiculturalism
03 Aug 05 |  UK Politics


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