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Has multiculturalism failed in the UK?


Posted 3 May 2015

On 5 March 2015 I received an unsolicited email from an undergraduate student studying Media and Politics at the University of East Anglia.

She invited me to contribute to a new research project being run out of UEA in conjunction with Australian National University and Oxford Brookes University.

The project is titled "Talking Shop" and represents an attempt to bridge the gap between politics as a real world activity and politics as an academic discipline. To do this the project team are collecting brief responses to the ‘big questions’ studied in Political Science and International Relations from people "who have had access to the inside of British politics."

Responses and more information can be found at the "Talking Shop" website.

When checked today, there was a page where many responses could be seen below each other. A number of past and immediately prior Members of Parliament have contributed, so I feel I am keeping good company!

I agreed to supply a contribution and from the choices offered picked "Has multiculturalism failed in the UK?" A maximum length of 500 words specified, which accounts for the brevity of the piece I submitted on 7 March 2015 which is reproduced below. It is also on the project website.

As with many such questions, it is essential to define the terms being used before attempting to communicate.

For additional background, I recommend also reading The difference between “multiculturalism” and “state multiculturalism”

TALKING SHOP - UK: Has multiculturalism failed in the UK?

The answer depends on which of two very different definitions of “multiculturalism” you are using.

  1. You see British society as comprised of groups which, as groups, negotiate their relationships with other groups.
  2. You see British society as comprised of individuals who come from many different cultural, religious and racial backgrounds, but who share essentially identical civic rights and responsibilities.

Society is comprised of groups

This has never been the legal model in the UK.

However it has occasionally been adopted by local politicians seeking votes by promising favours to particular groups to assemble an electoral majority. It leads to outcomes such as Group B seeking public sector funding to build a community centre primarily for the use of Group B because public funding has previously been given to Group A to build a community centre primarily for the use of Group A.

However this model is sometimes found elsewhere. The best illustration is Lebanon, a society left divided after many years of bitter civil war. Since 1990 there has been an uneasy modus vivendi. [See the 1989 Taif Agreement.] Seats in the Lebanese parliament are allocated 50% each to Christians and Muslims, and by convention the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim.

The fundamental flaw with organising society in this manner is that individuals are deprived of personal freedom, being essentially captive members of the groups they are born into. It also encourages such groups to concentrate on maximising group cohesion at the expense of inter-group cooperation.

Society is comprised of individuals

This is the UK’s legal model.

A citizen is free to practice any religion, and to change their religion as they wish. They are also free to live in whatever cultural manner they wish, including changing their cultural practices, provided that at all times they obey the law.

The law itself applies to everyone equally, with minor legislative accommodations for cultural and religious needs such as Sikhs’ freedom to not wear motorcycle helmets and Jews and Muslims being free to practice religious slaughter of food animals without stunning.

The United Kingdom has been very successful with this model in developing a relatively cohesive society inhabited by people from many different cultural backgrounds and practicing different religions.

There are some tensions. These arise both from some white Britons wanting to revert to a mythical mono-cultural past, and from some immigrant communities shutting themselves off and seeking to exercise group control over their members and to establish group rights.

However it is very wrong for some commentators to say that multiculturalism of the legal form practiced in Britain, with its limited religious and cultural accommodations as outlined above, has failed. It has instead enabled a diverse society to grow and largely thrive.

Mohammed Amin, website is the Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He is writing in a personal capacity.


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