Over the last century minority ethnic groups have contributed greatly to the UK economy. They have enriched our lives and culture through cuisine, the arts, sport, multi-media, music and style. Britain has become a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-faith and multi-cultural nation. Yet for some on the radical right this hasn’t been welcomed.
What does multi-culturalism add up to? A contested concept, even Tony Blair as PM conceded that he didn’t know what the term meant. For the political theorist Lord Parekh each citizen should be valued along with cultural differences in our society coupled with a robust attempt to stamp out racism and hatred. The UK, he argued, should become a ‘’community of citizens’’ at both a local and national level with a stress on dual cultural identities.
In our core cities ranging from London, Newcastle to Manchester there’s proof that different communities intermingle in a genuinely multi-cultural society. In northern urban towns, however, there remains mutual misunderstanding, suspicion and residential segregation. The former PM David Cameron took the view that though the doctrine of multiculturalism was well intentioned the focus should have been on integration. People he stated needed a shared British identity.
To those who believe that multi-culturalism has failed present the following arguments. Segregated neighbourhoods are a feature of several northern mill towns like Oldham, Bradford and Burnley which ended in race riots in 2001. The Cantle Report reported a year later that these towns were fragmented and polarised in terms of ethnicity. Residents were leading ‘’parallel lives’’ which was reflected in schooling, housing, shopping and in day to encounters with others. Ted Cantle noted: ‘’Multi-culturalism was little more than a consenting form of apartheid.’’
His report recommended the development of more cohesive communities which would heal divisions. Yet the government social inclusion Czar, Dame Louise Casey, noted 15 years later that too many of our large towns have become more ethnically segregated as migration has risen. She wrote: ‘’ to help bind Britain together and tackle the divisions in our society, we need more opportunities for those from disadvantaged communities, particularly women, and more mixing between people from different backgrounds.’’
Others have pointed to the sharp rise in radical Islamic home-grown terrorism in London and Manchester alongside far-right white supremist violence resulting in the untimely death of the anti-racism campaigner Jo Cox MP. Last summer millions of dispossessed white working-class voters from the council estates across the north backed Brexit: some driven by UKIP’s racist message. Others expressed a legitimate concern over the impact of uncontrolled immigration and free movement of labour.
Of-course all this needs to be put in a wider context. Some scholars believe that multi-culturalism hasn’t failed in much of the urban landscape. Eight of 10 council wards are 90% white British. But there are 500 odd varied wards where minorities are in the majority. As the political scientist Eric Kaufmann says ‘’there’s a diverse Britain and a white Britain’’. Gradually some better-off BME groups are moving in mixed neighbourhoods – a good example being Hackney in London and Fenham in Newcastle.
Our major cities like Newcastle and Leeds have undergone economic regeneration, civic renewal and a cultural renaissance. There’s little contradiction between multi-culturalism and integration. Calls for a ban of the veil by Ukip’s former leader Paul Nuttall (though he excluded nuns and bee-keepers) is illiberal. It only helps to promote religious fundamentalism and right-wing extremism in economically marginalised communities which leads to more separatism, not integration.
Race riots – rare in the UK and even violent extremism, it’s argued is partly the result of not enough multi-culturalism rather than too much. That’s why the Citizenship Foundation is calling for a national citizenship programme to be rolled out across schools to explore difference and diversity. Since 2015 all public bodies have a legal duty to promote British values such as parliamentary democracy.
It’s short sighted to appease the radical right like Ukip or the far-right BNP. With a strong anti-racist message more could be done to educate people while at the same time public agencies need to listen to grievances over migration.
In the North East all civic, faith and business leaders accept that community relations works well, are harmonious and based on mutual tolerance and respect. Newcastle is a safe city. The Muslim community is moderate. It’s on record for condemning violent extremism, ISIS, and supporting the government’s ‘war on terror’.
On Tyneside residents mix with one another. They enjoy the cultural variety of foodstuffs, drink, music, art while taking advantage of the vast array of restaurants and cafes which are international in scope. Some east European groups are running thriving enterprises which have value added the rich tapestry that is Newcastle city centre. Most pupils drawn from a range of social backgrounds attend local schools with little evidence of racism or bullying while retaining their own language, customs, religion and cultural identity.
Hours after the tragic fire in a 400 resident tower-block in Kensington hundreds of Londoners from all social and ethnic backgrounds came together to provide mutual emotional and practical support to both victims and those who had lost loved ones: an excellent example of strong community spirit where multi-culturalism is alive and well.
Racist fringe groups are small in number. Even UKIP, which polled 4m votes in 2015, has been reduced to a racialized rump with no MPs and a loss of 3.5m votes both to the Conservative and Labour Party in the 2017 general election.
Although latent racism is a problem in some areas, hate crime is comparatively low. Most Geordies are warm, kind and welcoming to people of different nationalities and people of colour. Over two-thirds of young people hold liberal values being pro-European in outlook.
But issues around EU immigration in urban and deprived coastal towns do need to be addressed by the political class. As Cantle warns large scale immigration could undermine community cohesion where migrant groups and host communities lead separate rather than inter-connected lives.
Government and civil society have a role to play. Communities undergoing fast demographic and cultural change need more help such as public service investment and affordable homes in ‘migration hot-spots’. New housing developments could shape local communities making it easier for people to foster closer ties with neighbours. As people talk, mix and get to know one another mutual understanding and trust grows.
To facilitate a more integrated nation there’s a need to revive the notion of ‘active citizenship’ or the ‘big society’. There’s route map to navigate and morph our parallel lives. As Jo Cox noted it just takes commitment, will and a bit more money to make it happen.
As the Journal’s parent paper the Mirror rightly says: ‘‘The Great Get Together this weekend, inspired by Jo Cox, is a golden chance for all of us all to prove that there are more things that unite us than divide us.’’