Multiculturalism was buried this week, un-noticed

June 14th, 2014

The reaction to Trojan Horse has major implications for social policy

Most of the reaction and comment to the fallout from the Birmingham schools Trojan Horse affair has centred on the spat between Theresa May and Michael Gove (and their respective departments), on what ‘British values’ means, and on to what extent – if they can be defined – they should be promoted.  That’s all fair enough but it misses the implicit step already taken: that not only are the values that were sought to be imposed in the schools not British but that neither is there a place for them in a parallel system within the country.

That may sound obvious now but not that long ago there would have been a lot of noise both from the left-of-centre and from groups purporting to represent ethnic minorities if a politician asserted that some cultures are better than others, or even if they’d said that some cultures are better in this country than others.  Yet this week cabinet ministers have effectively said precisely that and it’s simply gone practically unchallenged.  Multiculturalism – the idea that many cultures, each of equal value, can and should live side by side, celebrating and retaining their differences – is dead and buried.

The implications run far beyond education; questioning what is acceptable behaviour, what imported traditions and behaviours can be accepted, tolerated or celebrated – and what cannot – in any field of life.  While that could apply to any immigrant community (or, for that matter, any indigenous communities that lead sufficiently different and separate lives), there’s little doubt the majority of the focus will centre on muslim communities.

In some ways, that’s unfair.  Apart from the point about other communities, a culture is as much about secular habits as religious teaching.  However, when culture and religion become deeply intertwined, trying to separate them is both a fruitless and pointless task: the habit reinforces the belief and vice-versa.  This becomes really tricky territory because it then follows that an attack on one (behaviour) is easily seen and/or represented by those criticised as an attack on the other (their religion).

And yet that’s precisely where the British Values debate leads, whether the politicians have realised it or not.  The previous mainstream strategy was to place the divide between ‘extreme’ Islam and ‘conservative’ Islam.  Accepting the British Values premise renders that division irrelevant: it says that the social attitudes of conservative Islam are at best inferior and at worst illegitimate, whether ‘extreme’ or otherwise.  It also says that an honest, devout religious belief is still no justification for rejecting the values on which British society is based.

How all that translates into practical policy is the big question.  It’s all very well to talk in generalities, or ideals, rights, duties, values and traditions but how are schools to promote those values, and what are they, precisely?  For that matter, if schools are to have a duty to promote British values, then why not other parts of the state?  What does it mean for policing policy and priorities, for immigration policy, or for when social services departments should intervene, for example?  Virtually no area of public policy would be untouched.

At its heart the debate is a revised version of an extremely old question about the conflicts of loyalty and values between state and religion and how to handle those who dissent, especially when there is a violent fringe associated with the dissenters.  A community that feels persecuted may be more likely to protect their own, especially if they had little confidence in (or need for) the state to start with, producing a situation that leads all too easily where all sides see ‘them and us’ and the creation of parallel, pseudo-institutions in the state’s place.  Integration is the only real answer but for that to happen there has to be a desire for it on the one side and a welcoming and open acceptance on the other.  What the Trojan Horse episode tells us – and it’s by no means an isolated incident – is that we’re a long way from such a position.

So far, the proposal’s received a remarkable lack of criticism.  Perhaps that’s because it’s difficult to knock the principle without upsetting many other people; far easier to wait for the detail.  Whether that’s sustainable as we head into an election year is another matter.

David Herdson