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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 16:04 GMT
What does multiculturalism mean?
By Brian Walden

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Multiculturalism: Is it as defined by Tony Blair?

The meaning of multiculturalism can seem unclear. As a result, are we making a fetish of integration?

One of the characters in a play by Moliere is astonished and delighted to discover that for 40 years he had been speaking prose without knowing it.

Rather like the waiter who told Joe Chamberlain that he had just found out he lived through the Age of Reform and was very proud of it. All of us have difficulty in recognising something familiar when it is couched in unfamiliar terms.

For instance, politicians and the media talk about multiculturalism, but I have never been sure exactly what multiculturalism means.

Understanding lifestyles

Britain has always been, in one way or another, a multicultural society. In 1900, or 1950, some people lived in a city and caught a bus, or tram, which took them to a job that paid a wage.

Others lived in the country and were awakened by a servant who handed them a cup of tea, the start of a day managing a large estate.

These different lifestyles were well-understood, as were another dozen or so, including such important details as whether one's time was spent on land or at sea.

But our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did not know they were living in a multicultural society, because nobody used the expression.

Not many do now. And even fewer use the term multiculturalism.

That "ism" is very suspicious. Any unusual word that has "ism" stuck on the end of it has not been invented in a pub. It has been cooked up by some pressure group or by politicians.

This is not necessarily for sinister reasons. There is a genuine fear in contemporary society of saying what one means in a straightforward and unambiguous way in case this offends somebody.

And the subject most likely to give offence is race. So even if we knew nothing else about it, we could guess that multiculturalism has something to do with race.

Indeed it does. It is a vague term which can be defined in several ways. Collins dictionary offers this one. "The policy of maintaining a diversity of ethnic cultures within a community." Even that leaves some crucial issues in doubt.

But the cumbersome word "multiculturalism" was not meant to be precise. Some ambiguity was thought to be desirable.

Humpty Dumpty approach

I used to think it was an endorsement of a society free from racial and religious discrimination. I'm sure the prime minister meant it in that sense when he said in 1998 we must welcome "a multiracial and multicultural society."

But I remember the outlook of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty. When talking to him Alice expected his words to have a clear and obvious meaning. Humpty Dumpty soon put her right.

He said: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean." He had an agenda and he wasn't going to let Alice spoil it.

Shoppers in the UK
Britain is a multi-racial society

The same thing happened with multiculturalism. Some people wanted it to mean that any set of values, or lifestyle, was just as good as any other. So that is what they said it meant.

For a time the Home Office was willing to go along with this definition if it kept everybody happy.

But not for long, because the extremism of a minority of Muslims became a regular front page story. With the head of MI5 telling us about 1,600 terrorist suspects and 30 major terrorist plots, the time had come for some fresh thinking.

So Tony Blair, in language Winston Churchill would have enjoyed, has now made it clear that multiculturalism is not what we thought it was.

To make sure the significance of his remarks was not missed, the Prime Minister laid it on with a trowel.

He declared that tolerance was a must. "Conform to it," he said, "or don't come here."

I have never heard tolerance commended in quite those terms. He also had some guidance for immigrants about our funny British ways. He said. "The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means."

Is it indeed?

If I catch Tony Blair's meaning I think I agree with him. But I am uneasy about the way he puts it. Why is it so difficult to be relaxed about human difference?

After all it hardly comes as a surprise does it? We've spotted the differences all our lives. Male or female, straight or gay, black or white - it matters of course, but not that much.

Do we need to stress these differences at all times and in every situation? Are we unfeeling bigots if we do not?

Integration fetish?

I approve of integration, but not of the loose way we use the word. Though I find it hard to explain, I have a feeling we have not got it quite right.

Instead of groping for an explanation I offer an example. I first went to the United States of America in the 1950s and got to know some Americans.

I recall one Greek family on the west side of Chicago. The mother loved all things Greek from food to religion.

Because of that, she delicately explained to me why I could not become the boyfriend of one of the Greek girls who used to come in and out of the house.

Shoppers in the UK
And a post-Christian society?
I noticed that everybody who came and went, except me, was Greek.

But what the whole family adored was America. "Only in America" they said with misty eyes. They had voted for Eisenhower as President and were ardent patriots.

Surely that Greek family was living as the Prime Minister wants incomers to Britain to live? And doing it without making a fetish of integration.

I rejoice when I hear of the Muslim girl whose closest friend is the Jewish boy. But I do not expect that to be commonplace.

Minority groups in British society often have strong family and religious identities. To put them aside in order to further the cause of integration is not going to be easy.

Integration is a noble cause, which has the aim of eventually producing a unified society. But it requires subtlety and honesty in presentation.

Let us admit that the changed definition of multiculturalism has arisen not because, for instance, we have suddenly become more concerned about the opportunities available to black youth, but because within Islam there has arisen a small but dangerous death cult.

It is the suicide bombers, eager to murder thousands in order to restore the medieval Caliphate, who are our enemies, not the peaceful majority of Muslims.

Problems 'underrated'

Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality new Commission for Equality and Human Rights speaks of our failure to find a civilised way of talking about our diversity.

One notes that those most committed to integration believe that some diversity must be accepted. Mr Phillips' warning is timely, because I think the problem of integrating sincere Muslims is being underrated.

Why? Well we live in a post-Christian society. The atheist, Richard Dawkins, has had an enormous sales success with his book, "The God Delusion".

Many people can't believe that anybody takes the Bible or the Koran seriously.

But Muslims take the Koran very seriously and regard it as the word of God. It lays down strict rules about human conduct, some of which are at odds with the civil liberties enjoyed in British society.

This is not a problem incapable of accommodation, but Muslims will have to be allowed to proclaim convictions opposite to those of the majority. That will call for goodwill on all sides.

Alice got fed up with talking to Humpty Dumpty and walked away. Whereupon he fell off the wall with a great crash. We've got to do better than that.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Call me an old cynic, but I've always suspected the 'multiculturalism' concept was invented by western governments alarmed to find that the new immigrants they'd invited in weren't assimilating in the easy way that earlier ones (mainly Christian and European) had done. Fearful of blame and electoral unpopularity, they tried to sell their failed experiment as intentional and desirable 'diversity' and 'enrichment'. This enabled them to hush critics up by accusations of being narrow, intolerant, insular etc. But, like I say, I'm probably too cynical. It takes an idealist to believe that having competing cultures, languages and religions in a society can make it more 'rich' and cohesive. I just hope all you idealists turn out to be right!
Janet Davis, Sydney, Australia

Pagan, Christian, Celts, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes Didn't King Arthur rule over a multicultural Society - what's changed today?
Gwilym Hall, Newcastle upon Tyne

The confusion seems to arise when we become bogged down in the misconception that cultures either integrate or they don't, which is a facile idea that bears no relation to the observable truth. Non-indigenous cultures integrate in certain ways - in business, education and so on - and maintain their integrity in others, such as religious and social traditions. This is a perfectly natural and acceptable situation for all concerned, but no-one who needs to be aware of this - politicians, so-called 'community leaders', media pundits - seems to realise that this is what actually happens.
Zax, Amersham

This country has been "officialy" multicultural for a long time. One thing I am absolutely sure of, that is that it does not work! It was imposed on us by a bunch of liberal do gooders. People resented it when it was ordered, we still do and we always will.
Mark Smith, Canada

Brian Walden has made good points. I believe that many ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims, are not taking advantage of what Britain offers, education, self-betterment, etc. They must enlighten themselves and this can be done only through education and exposure to an edvanced liberal society like Britain.
Zena Solomon, London

Multiculturalism is an oxymoron or 'new-speak'. If culture by definition is common set of values, customs, institutions, and achievements, then how can you have multiculture? for culture will cease to exist.
Richard Cartledge, Nottingham

Seems to me like the author has not lived in some of the more run-down areas of the country where large numbers of immigrants live in seperate communities and have no inclination to integrate with white British society - I would like to find out what some of these immigrants believe "Multi-culturalism" to mean
Jon, Nottingham

There seems a lot of stress on integration without recognising how long it takes for a distinct minority culture to blend with the majority. Fish and chips isn't of British origin but the dish was brought over by the Huguenots immigrants centuries ago! As a result, it seems people are too impatient and unwilling to bend the rules on both sides. It should be promoted by balancing both cultures right to exist by sensitive discussion and looking at potential consequences...not by PC terms but with common sense.
Tom, Leeds

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