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Cameron attacks multiculturalism

The UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron attacked multiculturalism in a speech in Munich recently, David Stockton looks at the racism behind the row over multiculturalism

In a recent speech in Munich, David Cameron delivered a frontal attack on what he called “state multiculturalism”. The Tory leader was joining with centre-right parties in Europe, who over the past two years have been busy stealing the clothes of growing far right movements.

Why debate multiculturalism?

The global capitalist crisis that broke out in 2008 is the backdrop for this growth in racism across the continent. As unemployment sky-rockets migrants and ethnic minorities become a convenient ‘enemy within’, a scapegoat for the abject failures of the capitalist system to deliver a decent life for all.

On the one hand, racist feeling will often grow spontaneously in this situation if it isn’t challenged by a united working class fightback that takes a clear anti-racist stance. On the other hand, the right wing media, the far right and conservative parties all seek to use race to make political capital.

The result is a growing, concerted offensive on the ethnic minorities of the EU. Islam is a particular target, being attacked for its “non-European” religion and culture and so-called refusal to integrate. But the whole campaign is a cover for outright racism. It is the anti-Semitism of the 21st century.

Racist populist parties, such as the Lega Nord in Italy, Freedom Party in Austria and the semi-fascist Front National in France, spread hysteria about mosques supposedly replacing churches, the ‘alien cry’ of the muezzin supplanting the pealing of church bells.

Now Cameron, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are picking up the same themes to divide a popular resistance to cuts.

Its purpose is quite simply to poison the minds of lower middle class and working class people, hard pressed by the crisis, and divert their anger away from the bankers and job-cutting governments, to scapegoat the Muslims, black people, migrants, and ‘potential terrorists’.
No wonder Marine Le Pen, successor to father Jean Marie Le Pen as leader of the Front National, immediately congratulated Cameron on his speech, pointing out her father had criticised multiculturalism for years.

Racist attack on multiculturalism

Cameron defined multiculturalism as “the idea that we should respect different cultures within Britain to the point of allowing them – indeed encouraging them – to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.”

In fact ‘state multiculturalism’, as Cameron defines, it is a completely bogus target. It is much like his related demagogic theme that we have to “re-establish control over our borders”, as if any Tom, Dick or Harry could just turn up at Heathrow or Dover and stroll in.

Now leaving aside whether there ever was a policy that encouraged religious or ethnic communities ‘to live apart’ (which governments did this? Thatcher’s, Major’s, Tony Blair’s?), the policy of governments over the past 10 years has been most decidedly integrationist – emphasising the urgent need to ‘build social cohesion’, launching and funding numerous inter-community projects, and urging migrants to assimilate to existing British culture.

As Arun Kundnani, a senior researcher at the Institute of Race Relations, wrote after Cameron’s Munich speech: “Remember, community cohesion is the official race relations policy of this country. The earlier agenda that came out of the Macpherson Report into the racist murder of black youth Stephen Lawrence has been largely abandoned, even as Muslim communities are besieged by anti-terrorist policing. Racism is no longer recognised as ‘institutional’. It is defined, instead, as a fear of the unknown. Thus, Muslims need to make themselves less strange to others, both by becoming more British and through more mixing with other groups.”

And indeed Cameron’s speech targeted the Muslim communities in Britain. He accused them of stubbornly refusing to integrate in to British society and adopt “our values”, and of bringing up extremist children who then resort to terrorism like the 7/7 London bombs. He said he and his generation of Tories did not have “the hang-ups of the past” and that “people today don’t worry that criticising multiculturalism is coded racism.”
On the same day the fascist English Defence League (EDL) marched in Luton “against Islamic extremism”.

Cameron began his attacks this autumn in a debate, hosted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where he brazenly picked up the whole range of racist lies that are being pushed by the British National Party (BNP) and EDL. This even included the utter bogeyman of Sharia law being implemented in UK, claiming this was “the logical endpoint of state multiculturalism”.

Another issue he raised is the supposed major threat of Muslim men sexually exploiting young white women – based on one court case. He talked of “girls under 16 in Bradford disappearing from school, being drugged, imprisoned, kidnapped and forced into an unwanted marriage on the other side of the world” as if this were a mass phenomenon.
This has been a stock in trade of racists and brought to a crescendo of hate by the Nazis. Then it was “the Jews who preyed upon white women” in more recent times in the UK it was African-Caribbean males preying on white females.

Cameron even mocked public service information, “endlessly translated into numerous languages, to cater for numerous people, who can then continue to go about their daily lives without ever having to learn English.” He insisted that all immigrants to Britain must speak English and schools will be obliged to teach Britain’s common culture, while at the same time cutting funding to programmes that teach English to migrants.

Labour’s reactionary role

Unfortunately Cameron has models for this closer to home – and on the ‘left’, not the right. There is a long and dishonourable tradition of Labour MPs and party leaders playing the racist card for electoral gain, especially when a Labour government’s right wing policies have damaged their position amongst their core support.

Ann Cryer, MP for Keighley, Bradford, once a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, swung sharply to the right after the Bradford riots were directly provoked by the BNP and racist police. Responding to a claim that the riots’ root cause was poverty, Cryer said: “A great deal of the poverty … is down to the fact that many of our Asian community do not speak English”. She then went on to link this to “arranged marriages” and to demand English tests for migrants.

Jack Straw MP for Blackburn, and holder of a series of the highest cabinet posts, quite deliberately “started a debate” by writing in a local paper that the Muslim women who came to his surgery wearing the niqab “made him feel uncomfortable” and that in future he might refuse to see them. Labour MP Phil Woolas added that the niqab was “frightening and intimidating”. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, chimed in to say it would be “better for Britain” if fewer Muslim women wore the veil, and that he supported “what Jack Straw has said”.

Brown went on to claim that “core British values” were being neglected in schools, and should become a compulsory part of the curriculum for 11 to 16-year olds. He set up a commission under Lord Goldsmith that again came up with the idea of oaths of allegiance to the Queen in school-leaving ceremonies and citizenship tests, where new migrants would have to recount all the so-called great achievements of Britain. “We should stop apologising for the British Empire and start recording its achievements,” he had the audacity to say on a visit to Africa.

This verbal racism went hand in hand with the introduction of a succession of asylum and immigration acts, detention centres, snatch squads, vouchers and other punitive measures against asylum seekers and migrant workers. It was Labour that built up from 1997 the whole edifice of state repression towards migrants.

And it wasn’t just migrants that suffered. For example, one in two black youth aged 16-24 was unemployed last year compared with one in five white youth. Black people make up only 2.2 per cent of the population but about 15 per cent of prisoners are black. The numbers of black and Asian people stopped by police rose by 70% in the five years up to 2008-9. Of the 1,142,763 stop and searches in 2008-9, 15 per cent were of black peopel and 9 per cent Asian, according to Ministry of Justice figures last year.

New racism and capitalism

Socialists should resist these various new forms of racism, whatever the ideological doctrines they take as justification, from pseudo-feminist grounds for banning the niqab to authoritarian liberal promotion of ‘community cohesion’.

Capitalism extends across the world to search out the greatest profits and cheap labour, and this process drives inward and outward migration. Cheap labour from parts of Europe, for example, was a central feature of the last long boom in Britain that accumulated the contradictions exploding in the recent crisis.

On the other hand, capitalism also has to rest on nationalism and the nation state. Since the nation state guards their capital against foreign business rivals and the working class, it can’t be dispensed with. Also nationalism conveniently stops workers from seeing their own class interests, and asks them to forsake them ‘for the sake of the country’. Racism in turn justifies a whole world order in which ‘civilised’ (mainly white, imperialist) countries dominate more ‘backward’ (mainly non-white, semi-colonial) ones.

The contradiction between the free flow of capital and the nation state is what makes the capitalists’ policy on migration and culture so unstable and incoherent. Many capitalists, for example, have condemned Tory proposals to restrict student and skilled migration because it will be bad for business. Yet increasingly Cameron and the Tories – with the Lib Dems meekly falling in behind them – are opting for hardnosed racism, dressed up in new language, to help divert attention from their attacks on British workers.

We should oppose this racist agenda in its entirety. What would teaching ‘core British values’ in schools mean anyway? Ridiculous banalities like ‘tolerance’ or ‘fair play’, as though people of any other nationality would seriously disagree with them? Respect for an aristocratic royal family of scroungers? Admiration for the seizure and plundering of a sixth of the globe by the British Empire?

Migrants who come to live and work in Britain should not be subjected to this. They should be warmly welcomed, and encouraged to integrate voluntarily and on an equal basis with workers and their families. The political force that can do this is the working class and its movement.
From anti-racism to multiculturalism

In the 1970s, black and Asian movements, the far left and the Labour left all drew attention to the miserable conditions and discrimination facing immigrant communities, who were not being integrated but ghettoised in the poorest housing, with poor access to jobs and education. The response of the Labour government was the 1976 Race Relations Act, which banned discrimination and “incitement to racial hatred”.

In the early 1980s, we saw uprisings of the black inner city youth against police harassment. The left which had grown in the Labour party and captured strongholds in the inner cities adopted anti-racist policies to outlaw discrimination – particularly in the public services – and to hire larger numbers of workers from migrant communities.

Then the 1980s saw the emergence of identity politics originating in feminism, which emphasised not so much the fight against racism and inequality as promoting positive community identity.

Gradually a part of the reformist left in local government no longer stressed integration but creating a‘rainbow coalition of communities, each with their leaders. Marxists rejected this approach because

  • it militated against the unity of the working class on the basis of anti-racism and common struggle; and
  • it would lead to fostering property-owning ‘leaders’ from the churches, mosques and business communities, not working class militants.

Multiculturalism was a reformist policy which certainly sought to overcome the harsh conditions in which black and ethnic minority communities lived, but on the basis of community leaders. The Labour left aimed to assemble a ‘coalition’ of such forces, modelled on the US Democratic Party. Labour councils fostered this process by creating a series of commissions, officers, etc. There was in fact a very sharp clash between these forces and the militants of the black and Asian communities who had led the struggles against racism in the 1970s and early 1980s. They scornfully condemned it as “the race relations industry”.

But when the war against Iraq in 2003 massively alienated the Muslim communities, and the mosque ‘elders’ proved unable to prevent young Muslims from joining the antiwar movement, Labour and Tory alike began to denounce Muslim and Asian communities for “failing to integrate”.

Marxism and multiculturalism

Multiculturalism should be defended from right wing demands to assimilate into British culture. Its progressive element is that it promotes the idea of tolerance towards cultural and religious differences.

But we need not be uncritical of it. Multiculturalism has seen a selective integration, where middle class community leaders become integrated into official structures of local government and community policing, while the great majority suffer the double oppression of racism and exploitation as workers.

This is what makes multiculturalism as a doctrine intrinsically unstable.
The politics of socialism and class struggle are crucial to tackling racism. By uniting together on class lines, we can fight against inequality and oppression. We should not demand migrants give up or modify their customs, religion and use of languages from their original nation as long as they wish to retain them. Learning English is a good idea precisely because it will aid the unity of the working class and break down the social barriers that divide us, but this must be voluntary.

We do not believe that multiculturalism, if understood as a capitalist society which supposedly values equally all the national cultures of its inhabitants, can ever overcome racism. But the monoculturalism that Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy want is far more dangerous and reactionary, because it consciously creates a target out of those who cannot or will not adopt their ersatz nationalism.

It is only one step from demanding migrant communities assimilate to a British nationality to calling for their expulsion if they will not. It is no accident that the Tory campaign for a British monoculture takes place at a time when some of the best things won by the multinational working class movement in this country are under attack: health, education, libraries, care for the elderly, and services for youth and women.

Socialists do not want to artificially preserve any national cultures, let alone religions – we want humanity by its own free choice to incorporate all the riches and everything of value our cultures have to teach us, literature and music, and above all the traditions of struggle for freedom and against exploitation in every country of the globe. If these histories are not taught in schools, then it is up to the workers’ movement to keep the memory alive for future generations in the fight for a socialist world.

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