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How multiculturalism fuels hate

Long-read

How multiculturalism fuels hate

This elite ideology has cultivated and inflamed ethnic tensions.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Politics UK

Speaking in Washington, DC, in September, British home secretary Suella Braverman declared that multiculturalism has ‘failed in Europe’. To illustrate her point, she highlighted the numerous violent clashes, involving distinct ethnic groups, that have erupted ‘on the streets’ of Malmo, Paris, Brussels and Leicester. Had Braverman delivered the speech a few weeks later, she would no doubt have also drawn attention to the Islamist-dominated anti-Israel protests that have taken over European capitals on a weekly basis, following Hamas’s pogrom in southern Israel on 7 October.

She argued that multicultural policies have fuelled this fracturing of society into sometimes antagonistic identity groups. ‘Multiculturalism makes no demands of the incomer to integrate’, she said. ‘It has failed because it allowed people to come to our society and live parallel lives in it.’ She added that, in some extreme cases, certain groups of people can ‘pursue lives aimed at undermining the stability and threatening the security of society’.

To our cultural and political elites, criticising multiculturalism is now tantamount to heresy. Predictably, Braverman was swiftly denounced as a racist and her speech presented as a threat to migrant communities. One commentator went so far as to claim that ‘Braverman’s dangerous rhetoric puts pupils [from migrant backgrounds] at risk’ in British schools.

Even senior members of her own party have distanced themselves from her speech. Braverman’s boss, prime minister Rishi Sunak, responded to a journalist’s question about Braverman’s views by praising Britain’s ‘fantastic multicultural democracy’. Sunak then, in a retort to Braverman, claimed that ‘we have done an incredible job of integrating people into society’.

Of course, as we have seen again this week, following Braverman’s call for the police to ban the pro-Palestine march scheduled for Armistice Day, she frequently courts controversy. Her every statement, almost regardless of its content, seems to provide an occasion for liberal hand-wringing. Yet the response to her criticism of multiculturalism was particularly over the top. It seems that anyone who draws attention to its failures is likely to provoke the hostility of the great and the good – and to be accused of xenophobia and racism.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the recent past, the failure of multiculturalism was highlighted on numerous occasions by mainstream political leaders. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel – an enthusiastic advocate of mass migration – declared in October 2010 that Germany’s multiculturalism had ‘utterly failed’. Her criticism was echoed in February 2011 by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron. The latter identified ‘state multiculturalism’ as one of the causes of terrorism.

Cameron’s statement was certainly milder in tone to Braverman’s speech. But the content was strikingly similar. He said that the ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’ had encouraged people of different cultures to live separate lives, and had ‘failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong’. As a result, Cameron argued, ‘we have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values’. In response to the failure of state multiculturalism, Cameron called for the cultivation of a stronger national identity that could ‘prevent people turning to all kinds of extremism’.

At the time, Cameron was responding to the growth of Islamist radicalisation within European societies after al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. Criticism of multiculturalism was more permissible a decade ago because the threat posed by global jihadism was still fresh in the minds of European elites.

Suella Braverman speaks on the third day of the Conservative Party Conference on October 03, 2023.
Suella Braverman speaks on the third day of the Conservative Party Conference on October 03, 2023.

Yet, as Braverman has discovered, making a similar speech today is far more difficult. Advocates of multiculturalism try to silence their critics, chucking out accusations of racism. And as they do so, they consciously avert their eyes to the profound social tensions in our midst, from gangs of Muslim and Hindu youths fighting each other on the streets of Leicester last year to the anti-Israel protesters marching through European cities this year.

Invariably, supporters of multiculturalism point to examples of people from different communities working side by side, getting along and even intermarrying. That people from different cultures get on with each other, interact, flourish and learn from each other is obviously a positive development. But these developments have little to do with the doctrine of multiculturalism.

Indeed, people from all sorts of ethnic and religious backgrounds have interacted and forged common bonds in societies long before the advent of multiculturalism as an official doctrine. America’s ‘melting pot’, in which different groups of migrants cohere around a common American way of life, proved remarkably successful over many decades. In fact, it was only when multiculturalism was institutionalised in the 1970s that the US started to splinter into different, often competing, identity groups, which has fuelled today’s disunity and polarisation.

In short, the fragmentation of many Western and especially European societies is not because they are multiethnic – it is because they have come to be dominated by the ideology of multiculturalism. Multiculturalists have consciously divided society into self-standing ethnic-identity groups. And this has accentuated, cultivated and inflamed differences between people. In this way, multiculturalism has undermined and impeded the development of any genuine sense of solidarity among citizens.

Indeed, the ideology of multiculturalism thrives in the absence of a vision for society to which everyone feels they can belong. The absence of such a vision is not accidental. It is due to multiculturalism’s insistence that no set of values can be regarded as superior to any other, or looked upon as the desirable norm. The absence of a cohering national vision for society, of a coherent sense of a nation’s shared values and traditions, should therefore be regarded as a direct achievement of multiculturalism.

The rise of multiculturalism

The ideology of multiculturalism did not develop in response to the arrival of large groups of immigrants into European societies during the 20th century. Rather, it is a product of the European political establishments’ growing crisis of legitimacy after the Second World War.

Two catastrophic world wars, imperial decline and the collapse of laissez-faire liberal capitalism had left the postwar elites bereft of any real sense of purpose. But it was the emergence of the so-called counterculture in the 1950s and especially the 1960s that proved pivotal. This challenged mainstream norms and values and, by politicising certain identities, began to give rise to what we now know as identity politics. And in doing so, the counterculture exposed European elites’ loss of belief, their depletion of moral and political capital. They effectively found themselves unable to respond to the challenge posed by the counterculture and provide a persuasive account of their nations’ way of life. The question of what it is to be British, German or Dutch had become very difficult for them to answer.

In many ways, however, the Cold War postponed a reckoning with this profound crisis of legitimacy. Western elites may not have been able to say with any confidence what their societies were for, or identify their unifying, national values. But they were able to say what they were against. In that sense, opposing Communism at least provided a semblance of national purpose and coherence in the West.

With the ebb of the Cold War, however, Western elites could no longer rely on this anti-Communist crutch. It was at this point, during the late 1980s and 1990s, that they started to embrace and promote the ideology of multiculturalism. This ideology seemed to do two things simultaneously. It provided Western political elites with something that looked like a purpose. And it gave them a means to manage and contain the conflicts fuelled by the growth of identity politics since the 1960s. In short, they had a new slogan and mission: ‘Let’s celebrate difference.’

The loss of British identity

Multiculturalism has allowed Western and particularly European elites to evade the question of what it is their societies stand for – of what coheres these societies as nations. Britain provides a particularly acute case study of this development. Its political and cultural elites cleave to a multicultural ideology, celebrating ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’ at every possible opportunity. At the same time, they distance themselves from questions of national identity.

Indeed, it is the British establishment’s estrangement from its own nation’s historical legacy, traditions and values that has created the cultural terrain on which the divisive politics of identity and multiculturalism can flourish. As a result, multiculturalism and identity politics have faced very few obstacles in their rise to become today’s ruling ideologies.

Britain’s main public institutions now seem embarrassed by any display of patriotism. The arrogant imperial attitudes of the past have given way to a sense of shame about Britain’s history and its present. Those still given to displays of patriotism are marginalised as relics or, worse still, condemned as racists and xenophobes.

An incident involving Emily Thornberry, Labour MP for Islington South, in November 2014 captures well the contempt that significant sections of the British political class have towards displays of patriotism. During a by-election campaign in Rochester, she tweeted a photo of a house displaying three St George’s flags, with a white van parked outside, and accompanied it with the arch caption, ‘Image from #Rochester’. The snobbery was too much for many and, following a public backlash, she was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet. Few believed Labour leader Ed Miliband’s subsequent claims that ‘people should fly the England flag with pride’.

Thornberry’s contemptuous attitude towards people who fly the English or Union flag reflects a broader elite cynicism towards national identity. This has gone hand in hand with the corrosion of common values like duty and loyalty. Feeling an attachment to one’s wider national community is now treated as something to be ashamed of. These sentiments have flourished in higher education, schools and cultural institutions like the BBC. Sneering at the Union flag has become de rigueur for members of the British cultural elites.

You could see this clearly back in March 2021, in a widely watched interview on BBC Breakfast. The two presenters, Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty, made fun of Conservative minister Robert Jenrick for displaying the Union flag in his office. In the middle of the interview, which was supposed to be about the coronavirus-vaccination programme, Stayt sarcastically said: ‘I think your flag is not up to standard-size, government-interview measurements. I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really.’ In the background, Munchetty could be seen laughing into her hand.

The two presenters were forced to apologise following thousands of complaints from the public. But no one was left in any doubt that a significant section of Britain’s cultural establishment regards symbols of national identity with a sense of amused contempt.

Indeed, while our elites tend to affirm and ‘celebrate’ most identities, in the name of the ideology of multiculturalism, national identity is the one identity that is wilfully and often joyously condemned.

Little wonder that there is more than a hint of triumphalism among champions of multiculturalism when they declare that the UK faces a crisis of identity. Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch wrote an entire book – Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging – devoted to de-legitimising the very idea of a British national identity. Through multiculturalist eyes, Britain’s culture and past are regarded as little more than a source of shame.

As George Orwell noted in 1941, ‘England is perhaps the only great country where intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality’. Were he alive today, even he would be surprised by the spread of such sentiments from intellectuals to the broader British establishment.

There are some among our elites who are aware that multiculturalism is a problem. They realise that the state-led promotion of difference is allowing a divisive identity politics to flourish. In fact, since the turn of the 21st century, members of successive British governments have been preoccupied with how to promote national values and define what they are.

This question haunted New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. By 2006, he clearly recognised that his proudly multicultural Britain was simultaneously fuelling the rise of radical Islamism. In response, he called for the promotion of national values. He said at the time that ‘We are not being bold enough, consistent enough, thorough enough, in fighting for the values we believe in’. Yet it was far from clear that the ‘values we believe in’ outlined by Blair carried any real conviction or meaning.

Typically, Blair avoided drawing on the legacy of Britain’s past. Instead, his values consisted of a list of fashionable global causes: support for development in Africa, fair migration, tackling climate change, and creating international institutions ‘fit for task’. These were never going to unite a nation and resist the fracturing, divisive tendencies unleashed by multiculturalism.

A pensioner celebrates Saint Georges's Day in Trafalgar Square, 23 April, 2008.
A pensioner celebrates Saint Georges's Day in Trafalgar Square, 23 April, 2008.

Blair’s then chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, also acknowledged the problems caused by a lack of national belonging. In 2006, he announced plans for a British Day to ‘focus on things that bring us together’. But he was unable to work out what the ‘things that bring us together’ might be. The government quietly dropped the idea in October 2008.

This is one of the main reasons why the ideology of multiculturalism is ascendent today. Even those who recognise its dangers lack the moral, intellectual and political resources to say what society should stand for instead. They reach for some semblance of national identity and purpose, but end up grasping at thin air.

The loss of a national purpose

In the 21st century, Britain is not only an island without a story; it is also a place that discourages debate about what kind of stories should be told. ‘The deep guarantee of real strength is our knowledge of who we are’, argue the authors of a 2008 study, Risk, Threat and Security. This is as true now as it was then. When the very meaning of what it means to be British is deeply contested, it is very difficult for society to know itself. We lack any belief in shared values and a sense of purpose.

Sections of the British elites had clearly hoped that multiculturalism could fill the void left by the loss of national purpose. And so they went out of their way to distance themselves from – and often even repudiate – their nation’s historical traditions in the name of multiculturalism. They have been complicit in redrafting Britain’s history as a tale of incessant wrongdoing. As Michael Fitzpatrick wrote on spiked almost 20 years ago, the elite advocates of the doctrine of multiculturalism have ‘expressed a spirit of national self-abasement’. The perverse consequence of this has been to ‘encourage attitudes of anger and resentment among Britain’s ethnic minorities… Instead of producing harmony, multiculturalism has nurtured hatred.’

The constant apologies from public institutions for Britain’s history, and politicians’ frequent, knee-taking acts of contrition, have merely fuelled the demand for more apologies and more denunciations of Britain. In such a climate, cultural entrepreneurs have been incentivised to flaunt their victim status and demand ever greater validation of their identity from the state. These demands are continually accompanied by claims that racism or xenophobia against certain identity groups is getting worse and worse. All the while, the surge in actual hatred against Jews has been effectively downplayed on account of their perceived ‘white privilege’.

The consequences of this grievance culture have been profound. By cultivating and politicising group identities, multiculturalism has estranged people from the nation they inhabit. Continually encouraged to celebrate their difference, members of identity groups have become psychically distant from other members of society. Little wonder some now seem to have more attachment to national and ethnic conflicts far away than they do to the communities in which they actually live.

Multiculturalism may have helped to relieve our elites from the responsibility of providing their society with a national purpose. But the price that society has paid for their act of evasion is deep division and growing conflict.

In response, we need to lay the ground for a renewed solidarity. A shared sense of who we are as a nation and what we stand for is now more necessary than ever.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

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Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Politics UK

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