Comment: Just because we’re multicultural doesn’t mean we lose our national identity

By Varun Uberoi & Tariq Modood

Last year in Munich David Cameron criticised 'state multiculturalism' and endorsed nationhood. Doing so is common and as Ed Milliband emphasises both 'one nation' and the cost of immigration, he may end up doing this too.

Multiculturalism allegedly causes people to focus on minority identities not national ones, prevents the state promoting a national culture or reduces what citizens share to such an extent that they no longer possess one.  Those making such claims seldom define multiculturalism, national identities or national culture or explain why they see these ideas in the way that they do. What these ideas denote and their conceptual, logical and other relationships to one another are not self-evident.

We try to avoid some of these difficulties by first explaining how multiculturalists see the relationship between policies of multiculturalism and nationhood so as to identify a multiculturalist goal in relation to what is often called 'Britishness'. We then show, perhaps counter-intuitively, that this multiculturalist goal is actually more popular today among leading politicians than it once was and how this raises a range of difficult questions for these politicians. 

Multiculturalists argue that cultural diversity is in-eliminable without an unacceptable level of coercion and is a source of intercultural learning. But hostility, competition and conflict between cultural groups will make such diversity seem divisive, destabilising and necessary to subdue. A nation's identity thus becomes important as it is the institutions, laws, history, traditions and other features that make the nation what it is; and related to the latter are peoples' sense of their nation’s identity, or their national identities which enables them to feel that regardless of differences in class, region, religion and so on that they share institutions, laws, a history and traditions and are thus, inter alia, a group. This helps them to take collective action, forge collective goals and accept collectively binding decisions.

However, the cultural majority often see the nation as only theirs and this exacerbates the exclusion and discrimination of cultural minorities. Policies of multiculturalism however help to make a nation's identity more inclusive. Hence anti-discrimination measures or legal exemptions for minority religious practices help to reform the nation's laws and institutions and as these features of the nation become more inclusive so, by definition, does its identity. Such laws and institutions overtime help to shape people's sense of what the nation is as do education systems, hence multicultural education shows children how different groups comprise the nation, shape its history and nature, and call it 'home'.  Where a nation's identity and people's sense of it helps a society to be united enough to welcome and not subdue their differences; policies of multiculturalism help to include cultural minorities in both. Unsurprisingly, most sophisticated multiculturalists do not see policies of multiculturalism and nationhood as antithetical and endorse the need for both. 

Multiculturalists thus emphasise a need to include cultural minorities in Britain's history, institutions, traditions and others features so that they can see themselves in the nation just as the cultural majority can and like the latter feel it is theirs; but also so that these features of the nation do not become symbols of who does not belong.
But cultural minorities will still be perceived as outsiders until people's British identities also include them and they are seen as Britons. There is a need then to include cultural minorities in Britain's identity and people's British identities and make what is often called 'Britishness' more inclusive. Hence since 1974 multiculturalists like Bhikhu Parekh have discussed this goal. The 1985 Swann Report into the education of ethnic minority children did so too; but in 2000 politicians rejected the Commission for Multi-Ethnic Britain's suggestion to do so.

The Commission said "political leaders should lead the country in re-imagining Britain and in ensuring the national story is inclusive" and were attacked in the media. Home secretary Jack Straw said he disagreed with part of their report partly because Britishness had already become more inclusive.  Conservatives like William Hague also suggested in speeches that Britishness had become more inclusive and like Labour figures he did not suggest aiding this process. Unwilling to accept the multiculturalist goal of making Britishness more inclusive when 'state multiculturalism' was relatively uncontroversial, we would not expect politicians to do so when it is so criticised; yet this is what has happened.

Thus in addition to leading a debate about Britishness, the last government introduced measures for those whose British identities were most malleable i.e. children and immigrants who wanted to be citizens.

During citizenship ceremonies new citizens pledge allegiance to the political features of Britain that were also equated with being British in a pamphlet that many of them were assessed on.  Children now also learn about "the changing nature of UK society, including the diversity of ideas, beliefs, cultures, identities, traditions, perspectives and values that are shared". Equating Britishness with Britain's political features and its diversity, the Labour government was promoting what we call a civic multicultural national identity.
Civic nationhood seems inclusive because the political features defining a nation are shared regardless of ethnicity; but there was also the multicultural component where Britain is defined by the way it has accommodated difference. Thus John Denham noted: "While a modern British identity will draw heavily on the history of the white British majority, we cannot discover Britishness in that history alone; it will have to draw on the histories of all those who now make up our country". For Denham, British identity is necessarily shaped by a history favouring the cultural majority but accommodating minorities means they too should help shape the nation's history.

Similarly, Conservative education secretary Michael Gove has discussed Britishness in civic terms. But in 2009, he said: "Britishness is about a mongrel identity." There is again a multicultural component to this Britishness, as Pauline Neville Jone's review group in 2007 said "we need to rebuild Britishness in ways which allow us to understand the contributions which all traditions, whether primarily ethnic or national, have made and are making to our collective identity". While criticising 'state multiculturalism', Cameron advocated in the same speech "a national identity that is open to everyone". Where Thatcher and Major discussed preserving traditional forms of Britishness, their successors emphasise the inclusivity of its civic and multicultural components. Beneath the anti-multiculturalist rhetoric, leading politicians endorse the long-held multiculturalist goal of Britishness being more inclusive and their doing so raises difficult questions.

Such questions include whether politicians are referring to Britain's identity or people's British identities, as both are important. The former cultivates pride, loyalty, ambivalence or shame; and the latter are identities shared regardless of differences and are thus a source of commonality that can help, as above, make people feel like a group that can take collective action, forge collective goals and so on.

Equally, an understudied relationship exists between Britain's identity and people's British identities. Hence debates about 'being British' emerged as familiar features of Britain, like Empire and Protestantism, were disappearing as changes in Britain's identity seemingly destabilised people's British identities. So should those promoting Britishness focus on Britain's identity, people's British identities, both, or their relationship?

Likewise, the political features of civic nationhood cannot exist independent of language, norms and values which are usually those of a dominant cultural group privileged in political features of the nation all citizens are supposed to be equal in. When this is minimised and other groups of citizens are also acknowledged in the nation's political features, as in Canada or in India, civic nationhood can be inclusive; but the nation can also be defined by a tradition of accommodating difference, or by a cosmopolitan feature in which 'the British' honour their obligations to all humans; hence which inclusive conception of Britishness should be chosen and why?

Is it the civic, the multicultural, the cosmopolitan or all three? But to shape Britishness we can ask should politicians just encourage debate about it or also use the education system; why is the latter acceptable without a consensus from the former and what if people are uninterested in this debate? Indeed, as some sociological studies suggest many are less interested in Britishness than they once were, is this a reason for policy–makers to emphasise Britishness or to eschew doing so?

Finally, Westminster politicians have limited influence over Britain's features outside England and thus control only the English education system. They need the Welsh government, the nationalists governing Scotland and shared power in Northern Ireland to influence people's British identities outside England; but is this likely?
A multiculturalist goal advancing among politicians supports scholars arguing that rumours of multiculturalism's death in Britain are exaggerated, but this advance also raises questions for politicians like Ed Milliband and David Cameron who discuss Britishness. 

A complete version of this article was published in Political Studies.

Varun Uberoi did his first degree in politics and history at the University of Manchester, after which he joined the civil service and later went onto to do a doctorate at the University of Oxford. After completing his doctorate in 2007, he became a research fellow in the University of Bristol's Centre for Ethnicity & Citizenship. In 2008 he returned to Oxford as a post doctoral fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations and in 2010 he was made a lecturer in Brunel’s Department of Politics and History.

Tariq Modood is the founding Director of the University Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship. He has held over 40 grants and consultancies (UK, European and US),  over 30 (co-)authored and (co-)edited books and reports and over 150 articles or chapters in political philosophy, sociology and public policy.
He was awarded a MBE for services to social sciences and ethnic relations in 2001 and elected a member of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2004. He served on the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, the IPPR Commission on National Security and on the National Equality Panel, which reported to the UK deputy prime minister in 2010.

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