2001: Revisiting the ‘Death’ of Multiculturalism

It is twenty years since British cultural politics was reconfigured around the assumed death of multiculturalism, and the ascendance of populist xenophobic anti-immigration identity politics. Stuart Cartland reassesses this history and asks how its effects can be reversed.

2001 marked both a symbolic and very real turning point in the narratives and discourses surrounding multiculturalism. The so-called race riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, the events of 9/11 and David Blunkett becoming Home Secretary combined to shift the Labour Government away from an outward association with multiculturalism.  This was the year that the term was transformed from a positive and confident statement of national identity, championed by the New Labour Government, such as the now famous ‘chicken tikka masala’ speech by Robin Cook, to a self-fulfilling prophesy of division, disunity and inequality. The lasting effects of this shift can be seen all too clearly in contemporary politics. From government ministers publicly criticising the England football team for taking a knee in support of the BLM campaign, to the Daily Mail publishing an article on ‘no-go areas’ for white citizens, it is clear that despite empty platitudes of anti-racism and inclusivity, narratives of race, ethnicity, and the politics of inclusion and acceptability are closely controlled by the right. However, multiculturalism as a social reality must be recognised and rehabilitated as a reflexive social reality (not loose political or social policy). The cohesive and inclusive vision of national identity articulated by the England football team, offers a powerful model for how this can be done. It is up to Labour to seize the potential of this moment, and undo the mistakes of 2001 and after.

The term ‘multiculturalism’ is often the subject of political and media commentary, vilification and criticism yet, it is often unclear what precisely is being criticised. As Labour MP Jon Cruddas suggests, ‘its very elusiveness allows people to reinterpret the whole idea in a shrill and sour language’. It has become symbolically loaded and associated with a right-wing narrative of a ‘paralysis of political correctness’, ‘the nanny state’, and as an affront to conservative ideological concepts of ‘common sense’ which is couched within a narrative of making the nation weaker, susceptible to terrorist attacks (particularly in relation to ‘home grown’ or domestic attacks) and destroying any sense of social and cultural unity or continuity. Indeed, the involvement of British Muslim citizens in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Syria, and in attacking the London transport network of July 2005, for instance, became a retroactive indictment of the United Kingdom’s supposedly lax immigration control and the so-called failed attempt at multiculturalism and integration.

Multiculturalism was actively encouraged (in rhetoric at least) by the New Labour government, but arguably abandoned in 2001. Although there had always been some critics of multiculturalism from the left  — it was ridiculed in the 1970s and 1980s as politically vacuous ‘saris, samosas and steel bands’ – it was at the turn of the twenty-first century, when it lost its centre-left support, and was consequently left to be savaged. In rapid succession, over the period of a few months, David Blunkett became Home Secretary, there were riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford and the attacks of 9/11 took place. The significance of these events has been described particularly clearly by Tariq Modood:

These events, especially the riots and the global ‘arrival’ of a certain kind of armed, messianic jihadism- which, some feel, too many Muslims in Britain (secretly) support- have led to not just to a governmental reversal, but to a new wave of criticism of multiculturalism from the centre-left, including from some of its erstwhile supporters.

The New Labour Government’s White Paper of February 2002 Secure Borders, Safe Haven channelled political and policy anxieties over asylum, multicultural citizenship, terror threat and immigration into a call for highly ‘managed’ migration. After the summer riots of 2001, 9/11 and the later 7/7 attacks, the New Labour Government took a relatively hardline approach to immigration and surrounding issues. Responding to profound and widespread anxieties and consternation (in large part whipped up by the political and media right-wing) this mood of fear led to the controversial imposition of citizenship testing and the passing of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act (2002). Political tolerance, inclusion, understanding, and equality all became fatally undermined by the reaction to the events of the summer riots of 2001, 9/11 and 7/7, which concomitantly have been used as justification for such a divisive response. As Tariq Modood points out, “it is astonishing how the general thesis that ‘multiculturalism is dead and was killed by 9/11 and/or 7/7’ has become part of the inter(national) common sense without any reference to the work of any key multiculturalist theorist or text”.

The events of 9/11 and 7/7 (and to a lesser extent the 2001 summer riots) were used by the political right to seize the moment of public anxiety and fear and firmly establish its ideological approach as the dominant national discourse, as the ‘right’, ‘common sense’ and ‘robust’ approach to the perceived and alleged corrosive effects of multiculturalism. It has become common currency that in many western European countries (not just the UK) that multiculturalism, as a quasi-official programme for giving recognition to ethno-religious minorities and their cultures has failed. This view was forcibly expressed by David Cameron (echoing remarks by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel) at the 2011 Munich Security Conference:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values… This hands-off approach tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead…[to]…a process of radicalization.

Declarations and denunciations by European leaders such as Cameron and Merkel concerning a ‘failed experiment’ are actually referring to the failure of Western Europe’s response to immigration, not the failure of multiculturalism in itself (Watson and Saha, 2013). Politicians have endeavoured to blame a long, largely unplanned process of increasingly diverse and visible social and cultural heterogeneity for failings of the political class itself. When Cameron declared, “we have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong” he highlighted the increased racialisation and exclusivity of a sense of national identity, not created by minority groups but by the very conservative, traditionalist and right-wing holders of power such as himself. This dominant discourse on the topic has been referred to by Arun Kundnani as the end of tolerance.

A conservative ideological position towards immigration and its association with terrorism is not exclusive to, or monopolised by, the Conservative Party. For a decade prior to David Cameron’s Munich speech, government rhetoric and policy under Blair and Brown had relied on the populist credentials of being tough on crime and immigration. Their response to the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks was not a conciliatory search for understanding, dialogue, but instead focused upon assimilation, punishment, exclusionary normativeness, infringement of civil liberties and individual rights and a general demonisation of not only the Muslim community and immigration but multiculturalism as a whole.

Leading public figures have queued up to deliver the last rites of multiculturalism, transcending political and party lines. Trevor Phillips, the then head of the Commission for Racial Equality warned in a report (published in 2005), commissioned by the government following the riots of 2001 that the UK was ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. The report highlighted the dangers that a divided and unequal society will face and was deeply critical of government failure to promote, address and create a fairer and more inclusive society. Phillips stated that, “the fact is that we are a society which- almost without noticing it- is becoming more divided by race and religion”. However, instead of analysing why a general process of multiculturalism has been allowed to fail, ‘sleepwalking into segregation’ has been used to provide a circular narrative of multiculturalism as the cause of its own failure. Mehdi Hasan comments, “in truth, over the years, Cameron, Blair, Brown, Phillips and the rest have constructed a mythical version of multiculturalism- a ‘cardboard cut-out’, to use Clegg’s phrase- and held it responsible for a raft of sins, from segregation and separateness to extremism and terrorism”. Such symbolic and systematic misinterpretation and manipulation of ‘multiculturalism’ not only serves to bolster a conservative, anti-PC, anti-woke discourse, but also opens the door to more casual use of xenophobic rhetoric as it symbolically sends out signals (and is interpreted) as heralding the end of a multicultural and multiethnic society instead of spelling out the failings of an ambiguous and laize faire state multiculturalist programme.

Yet, in fact, studies show exactly the opposite. On many measures of social and political integration, multiculturalism has provided no evidence of negative effects on social integration. While there is a natural tendency for academic research to downplay null findings, in this case these findings carry enormous theoretical and policy significance: the most important rationale for the political backlash against multicultural policies- that they impede or hurt socio-political integration- appears empirically unfounded.

Moreover, despite the widely publicised failure or death of multiculturalism, the reality of life in a mostly urban, post-colonial and highly globalised society is one of cultural interdependence, inter-related conviviality. Multiculturalism by its very definition describes society as pluralistic, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be for some to understand or accept. The complex power dynamics, and contingent, shifting, and fluid relationships between different social and cultural groups is an ongoing, constant and historical social characteristic, “in this framework, discourse of success or failure have no place”.

One of the key issues which is overlooked in the unrelenting criticism of multiculturalism is that the nation-state cannot contain, or be the arbiter of, multiculturalism. It is a complex and incremental process, much like globalization, of which it is a central part. As Jan Nederveen Pieterse comments, “multiculturalism debates suffer from methodological and policy nationalism”. Concepts that are based on a traditional account of national identity cannot hold water or be relevant in a so-called era of post-nationalism. The real failure of multiculturalism is the political mainstream and establishment’s inability to grasp what it might mean outside of an ideologically narrow contextualisation of the social and cultural effects of globalisation. Multiculturalism combines with institutionalised amnesia and the refusal to view the country’s colonial past in other than a benevolent light. The nation and the homogenised ‘us’, as the benevolent ‘host’ as ‘tolerating’ and giving to ‘them’. The very domination of the right within discussions of multiculturalism and immigration is always dominated by the negative effects of a so-called ‘open door immigration policy’ and a seemingly one-way flow of immigrants but this is a political fiction, one that can and should be challenged and turned on its head. Modern Britain is multicultural and this is one of its strengths, to propose a positive future built upon this and to reject the tired populism of blame, exclusion and hate is absolutely key if Labour is to generate a distinct challenge to the dominant Conservative stranglehold on (particularly) English politics.

To avoid the mistakes of New Labour in trying to out-do the Conservatives on immigration, Starmer’s Labour needs to offer a sense of positivity, hope, inclusivity and unity. To a certain extent, Labour has achieved this in the past, and has embraced identity politics — a politics that rejects nationalist populism and pandering to the right-wing press. Both the Corbyn campaign of 2017 and to some degree, New Labour in 1997 built momentum for possible change, and rejected the tired right-wing conservative narratives. Yet, the latter allowed itself to be boxed in and confined to the well-worn furrows of a politics of blame, fear and exclusion.

Yet, a pluralist, inclusive, reflexive, and representative identity is not only desirable, it is essential. The United Kingdom (and more specifically England) is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse countries in Europe, and contains London which has been described by many commentators as not just highly multicultural but as a city of ‘superdiversity’. Mixed-race Britons represent the fasted growing ethnic group in Britain, according to official census statistics from 2001 to 2011 (2021 figures yet to be released). It is widely projected that the 2021 census results will further confirm this trajectory, however individuals of a mixed ethnic heritage are frequently left out of serious discussions concerning race or national identity. Diversity and difference needs to be viewed as a norm not as an ‘alien’ or ‘outsider’. Evidence of success in ethnic integration is therefore self-evident.

Mythical and illusionary concepts of England being an homogenous and mono-ethnic entity are entirely baseless, as Richard Weight points out, “England is not only one of the most diverse countries in the world, it is also one of the most hybrid”. A shared ownership of space and place has to be recognised and seriously incorporated into any developing sense of Englishness, especially one fit for purpose within a modern and outward looking context. This is not only possible and attractive but also necessary.

The specifically (and to some extent) quiet English success of an evolving hybrid and multicultural society has to be celebrated and become a central part of an over-arching national identity.  Indeed, the English national football team can be viewed as both a tangible example of this (in terms of players’ heritage) and also as a direct political shift in terms of, not only an acceptance of a multicultural reality, but also the celebration of a multi-ethnic and progressively inclusive nation. If the nation-space becomes dominated by a reactionary and nostalgic conceptualisation tacitly promoting racism and xenophobia, then it cannot become a progressive, diverse and inclusive social force. But an identity which celebrates its plurality, diversity and inclusiveness opens the possibility for social change.

Dr Stuart Cartland is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex and a regular contributor to Culture Matters.