The unholy alliance that made multiculturalism a dirty word

by Atul Hatwal

In the Observer two weeks ago, Anushka Asthana posed an interesting question, “why did multiculturalism become a dirty word”?

Anushka’s article describes her personal experience. It gives a pointed example of how multiculturalism works. But, eloquent as the piece is, it doesn’t address her question.

When looking for answers, there can be a tendency to over-intellectualise. To retreat into a discussion of Britishness and think tank generalities about society. This misses the point.

Multiculturalism has become a dirty word because of the specific actions of individuals. To be more precise – one leading man and an unwitting supporting cast of so-called community leaders.

Top billing goes to Trevor Phillips, former chair of the commission for racial equality and current chief executive of the equality and human rights commission. In 2004 he made a deliberate calculation: to reposition himself as a New Labour-type race relations tsar. Someone to do for equalities what the best man at his wedding, Peter Mandelson, had done for Labour.

Phillips reached for his clause IV moment – and that is the critical point: it was his moment. It wasn’t about the facts or what might work in the country, but about the ambition of one man.

If Trevor Phillips had taken a balanced look at the situation, he would have seen that for every area struggling with radical Islam and communal tension there are others that show how multicultural society works. The part of Manchester that Anushka talks about in her article is one among many, up and down the country.

But balance didn’t come into it. Philips needed to slaughter his holy cow and so he took a knife to multiculturalism. In a series of speeches and interviews there was repeated talk of segregation, ghettoes and above all else, the need for the old ideal to be scrapped.

This new narrative of an increasingly segregated Britain was seized on by right-wing commentators still dreaming of Enoch. It gave them licence to muse publicly in a way that hadn’t happened since the 1970s. Overnight, the debate turned right.

Despite plaudits from his new admirers, the gap between Phillips’ headlines and the facts remained stubbornly wide. In 2006, he cited a study showing that Britain’s ghettoes were growing. Except they weren’t. The report made no such claim and he was forced to issue a public apology. Possibly the only time the person responsible for good race relations in the country will have been caught out wishing things were worse.

Trevor Phillips only managed to tarnish the idea of multiculturalism. For it to truly become a dirty word, there had to be more.

Step forward the pantomime chorus of minority community leaders. Each community has its own, but central to this debate are the biraderi – not the latest hidden menace from the pen of Dan Brown – but a network of leaders which still runs large parts of the British Pakistani community. Biraderi is an urdu word that means extended family or brotherhood. In most areas where radical Islam is an issue, its leaders hold sway.

The levers of power in the biraderi system are often still pulled in Pakistan and Kashmir; with tribal elders choosing who will receive the support of community vote banks in their pursuit of office. These range from ward selections for positions within individual parties, to council nominations and selection of prospective Parliamentary candidates. The defining criteria are rarely the issues of the day but bloodline, family relationships and a commitment to maintaining biraderi influence.

This is the reason that a political party simply picking a British Pakistani candidate, as a way of engaging the local community, is often pointless. The last thing the biraderi wants is someone from the community, but outside of their control, achieving any position of influence.

These leaders have nurtured communities in the image of the system that produced them. Places that are inward-looking islands of monoculturalism: where economic inactivity regularly runs at over 50%, unemployment is in double digits and where English is a distant second language for successive generations born and brought up in this country.

The fruits of biraderi leadership are as evident across the Pennines as they are in parts of Birmingham and London. They give life to the right’s myth of multicultural Britain. For every rebuttal of the criticisms of multiculturalism, all the right needs to do is point at any one of these communities. That the biraderi world view is as multicultural as Simon Heffer’s is a nuance missed in the debate.

More than anything, it is this improbable combination of biraderi self-interest and Trevor Phillips’ ambition that has made multiculturalism a dirty word. The missing piece of this discussion has always been the experience of the majority of minority communities in this country – people living in mixed communities with no terror raids, riots or unrest, just getting on with their lives. But the absence of news isn’t news. So nothing gets reported, the myths get rewritten and truth gets ever more distant.

Atul Hatwal is a community and social affair consultant.

Michael Dugher returns in a fortnight.

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2 Responses to “The unholy alliance that made multiculturalism a dirty word”

  1. WHS says:

    If multiculturalism is so wonderful, go down to the East End of London. You have second and third generation immigrants who can’t speak English. You have Bangladeshis practising reactionary and mysoginistic practices that don’t even happen in Bangladesh. The result is ghettoisation and resentment.

    Multiculturalism has failed, because instead of immigrants melting in the melting pot like we have had in Britain for millennia, we have metaphorically walled off communities who don’t speak to each other, and government policy which for years has encouraged this in the name of diversity.

    Multiculturalism is a dirty word because it’s divisive and wrong, not because of Trevor Phillips’ ego.

  2. Dan McCurry says:

    There is a stubborness in Muslim communities, whereby the uneducated elderly hold sway over the educated young. It’s very frustrating for the young and also for the rest of us; particularly the lack of transparency and the viscious manner in which order is maintained in the community, with ugly rumours spread against individuals in order to bring dishonour on their family.
    One of the ironies that the writer points to is that a Pakistani community would be more likely to vote for a white person rather than a Pakistani, if that Pakistani was not a part of his tribe. This tends to ensure that a very small pool of suitable candidates comes forward, which ensures that a Muslim is less likely to be any good, and less likely to go on to parliament etc.
    It is a fact which explodes the myth of the “Dooma”, the brotherhood of Muslims.

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