Multiculturalism: facing both ways

Tony Blair's December 8 speech on multiculturalism shows that his government has no coherent programme to deal with the fact that the majority of British muslims oppose his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and are in general deeply alienated. Jim Moody reports

Of course, Blair puts it down to 'radical islam', 'fanatical outsiders', not his special alliance with US imperialism. Indeed his 'Our nation' speech could be seen as a way of turning attention away from the Iraq study group and its controversial report.

Following in the footsteps of Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, John Reid and Ruth Kelly, Blair declared that "no distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom". He listed "respect for this country and its shared heritage", along with "belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all", as the things that "we hold in common" and give us "the right to call ourselves British".

To illustrate his tolerance, he announced that the government would block funds going to certain mosques, such as those that have a men-only policy. Naturally such a policy is not to be extended to the catholic church, despite its insistence on men-only priests and denigrating homosexuals. Government money will only go to those mosques which promote so-called British values - which he contradictorily defined as respect for "both our right to differ and the duty to express any difference in a way fully consistent with the values that bind us together ... The right to be different. The duty to integrate."

Blair also promised to impose restrictions on incoming imams who do not speak English and insisted that education should have a "broadly" christian dimension. He declared that the wearing of the full veil in public by muslim women was unBritish.

Some commentators have suggested that Blair's speech amounted to reading the last rites over the multiculturalism project: "Tony Blair formally declared Britain's multicultural experiment over yesterday, as he told immigrants they had 'a duty' to integrate with the mainstream of society" (The Sunday Telegraph December 10). There is more than an element of wishful thinking here from this rightwing opponent of multiculturalism and upholder of British chauvinism.

Blair is in fact attempting to face both ways, as he tries to bridge the gap between, on the one hand, those who have identified the barrier that multiculturalism represents to a post-empire redefinition of a single, unifying British nationalist ideology and, on the other, those who see it as a useful tool for preventing the development of an anti-establishment unity from below.

Blair wants to retain this aspect of multiculturalism, which keeps workers from different ethnic backgrounds from joining with others to oppose the state. But he wants to have his cake and eat it. Simultaneously he demands their allegiance to the UK constitutional monarchy, in total contradistinction to loyalty to their own class.

This is what Blair's emphasis on integration represents. An integration that sees the individual and every ethnic minority group 'being British' by embracing all that the British state stands for. Then maybe each 'community', or at least its misleaders, shall receive crumbs from the state's table.

Well, as communists we want to see assimilation. But we want a voluntary assimilation from below, in the way that those who bring something new to any host majority culture enrich it, changing those from without and those from within in an energetic, dynamic and humanly inspiring manner. Just as no culture is the property of anyone or any group (least of all any nation and especially not any state), all cultures are everyone's, are humanity's. They are the product of human society and humankind as a whole. This is why cultures change in keeping with the interaction of human beings throughout our world.

Blair underlined in his speech how the government wanted an English language test for all those desiring British citizenship. This has gradually become a stricter requirement over the last four years: "The Immigration, Nationality and Asylum Act 2002 introduced a citizenship test with a language component for people wishing to settle in the UK. More recently, the home office has confirmed that candidates for citizenship have to be able to show that their spoken English is at least at entry level 3" (The Guardian October 24).

What an irony, then, that funding for teaching English as a second language is being cut. Only two months ago, on October 18, the Learning and Skills Council announced that it will no longer fund basic Esol (English as a Second Language) classes for asylum-seekers and others. From next year only the unemployed and people receiving income-based benefits will have their fees waived if they want to learn English.

As an aside, Blair was also eager to counter the positions of those such as Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (and soon to head a much more powerful watchdog). In his typical top-down manner, Blair's 'answer' to the integration/difference dilemma for the ruling class was intended to take this debate into safer waters, ensuring continuing state control not only of the situation concretely, but of the terms of the debate.

Phillips had, after all, taken issue with an important strand of the government's expression of official anti-racism and newly fashioned British identity soon after he took over at the CRE. He had asserted that multiculturalism, previously advocated by this body, actually encouraged divisions in British society.

Phillips's objections to multiculturalism have some weight in the ruling class - and not only from its conservative wing - as can be seen by the fact that he was named in September as the first head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. This is the "non-departmental public body" that from autumn 2007 "will champion equality, diversity, and human rights as defining values of our society, encouraging all our institutions to operate for the benefit of every individual," to quote the new body's website (www.cehr.org.uk). The CEHR will have a remit that goes well beyond the scope of the CRE - aiming "to promote equality and tackle discrimination in relation to gender, gender reassignment, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, age, race and human rights".

At the time Phillips made his objections known, a large section of the left was outraged that he could make such an attack on their beloved multicultural icon. London mayor Ken Livingstone became quite apoplectic, suggesting that his old rival had moved so far to the right he would soon "be joining the British National Party".

Even if Livingstone's silly words were not drafted by members of the shadowy and unaccountable Socialist Action group that staff his office, they represent the gut reaction of much of the left towards multiculturalism and any attack on it. So much so that multiculturalism has been raised to a higher order of essential left belief, becoming one of that rare breed of 'shibboleths' that the Socialist Workers Party would never dream of failing to support (unlike abortion or gay rights, of course).

As communists we oppose the compulsion to speak English: it must be voluntary. Of course, we encourage those who can to learn English, but there is no reason why the overwhelming majority of migrants would not wish to do so in any case - they know as well as anyone that in order to take full advantage of employment, social and other benefits English is a necessity. Full citizenship rights must be accorded to all after three months' residency, not on the basis of various tests of 'Britishness'. We are concerned only with what strengthens the working class, after all, enabling it more fully to act unitedly as a class.

This is how our CPGB Draft programme puts it:

"It is in the interests of all workers that migrant workers are integrated. Assimilation is progressive as long as if is not based upon force. In order to encourage integration and strengthen the unity of the working class the following demands are put forward:

l The right to speak and be educated in one's own language. The right to conduct correspondence with the state in one's own language.

l The right to learn English for all migrant workers and their families. Employers must provide language courses.

l The right to become citizens with full social and political rights of the country they have emigrated to for all workers who have resided in the country for three months."

This surely provides the basis for a principled Marxist approach to bring workers together, sharing experiences and building solidarity. Multiculturalism, whether in the official government version or its left variant, sets up barriers between us. It is anathema to the working class becoming a united class for itself, ready to challenge those who would keep us in slavery.

We reject divisiveness - however it is dressed up and whoever does the dressing.