he real value of diversity
, winter 2002
What does it mean to live in a multicultural society? Few questions have been posed
more sharply by the events of the past year from the riots in Bradford, Burnley and
Oldham to the aftermath of the events of September 11.
There have, in recent months, been two broad responses to this question. For some the
violence between whites and Asians in the northern mill towns, and the seeming rejection
by some British Muslims of the core values of their chosen country, all reveal the failure
of the liberal dream of cohesive, tolerant multicultural society. Writing in the
Enoch Powell's biographer Simon Heffer suggested that Powell's forebodings about the
future of Britain have been borne out. Powell's infamous 'rivers of blood' speech, Heffer
wrote, 'can, and should, be seen as the first blast of the trumpet against the dangers of
Despite Heffer's advocacy, Powell's little Englander attitudes carry little currency these
days. The dominant view is that the events of the past year reveal even more clearly the
need for a tolerant multiculturalism, in which all people can enjoy their own culture,
while respecting those of others.
Both these responses are, I believe, flawed. One embodies a vision of British (or, more
usually, English) identity pickled in aspic. It is a notion of identity rooted in John Major's
bucolic vision of 'old maids on bicycles and cricketers playing on the village green'. The
other response has abandoned the very notion of a common identity or of shared values
except at a most minimal level. Britishness is simply the toleration of cultural diversity.
What both sides in the debate fail to recognise is that shared values and common
identities can only emerge through a process of political dialogue and struggle, a process
whereby different values are put to the test, and a collective language of citizenship
emerges. Shared values cannot, as Heffer believes, be rooted in a mythical past, in an
England that does not exist and probably never did. But the wrongness of the Powellite
argument does not make the proponents of multiculturalism right. A cohesive notion of
citizenship cannot be based simply on the idea that we should respect other people's
values. It requires a positive articulation of the values to which we should all aspire.
In December both the home secretary David Blunkett, and a raft of reports on the inner
city riots, attempted to address this problem of 'Britishness'. Blunkett suggested that
immigrants should be required to speak English and urged ethnic minorities to become
'more British'. The Home Office-sponsored report into the riots, chaired by Ted Cantle,
recommended that all immigrants be required to swear an 'oath of allegiance' to Britain.
David Ritchie, author of the independent report on the Oldham riots, criticised the 'self-