Considering the tone of recent debates around colonial statues, white curricula, racist policing and now Israel’s war against Hamas, it should be no surprise that race and ethnicity remains a highly polarizing issue in UK politics. According to polling by YouGov, for example, 54% of Labour voters currently consider that ethnic minorities are discriminated against in the workplace, but this proportion falls to 16% in the case of Conservatives. Faced with a divided public opinion, Labour and the Conservatives seem to have chosen diametrically opposed strategies. While Labour leaders have broadly turned their back on identity politics, as a former Labour Secretary of State recently deplored, the Conservatives have espoused a rhetorical ‘war on woke’ based on purported threats to the British way of life, first and foremost immigration. Yet our research suggests that achieving broad agreement around the governance of cultural diversity may not be a pipe dream, and that the ideas, if not necessarily the concept, of multiculturalism could bring us closer to this goal.
The notion that multiculturalism could heal some of Britain’s deepest ideological fractures may strike some as incongruous. After all, this approach to the incorporation of migrants and their offspring has been widely caricatured as divisive and replaced with a seemingly more unifying vocabulary of ‘social cohesion’, ‘integration’ and, in parts of academia, ‘interculturalism’. Peering through the smokescreen of this ostensible disavowal, however, one finds sustained support for, and cross-party consensus on, the pivotal multiculturalist principles articulated 23 years ago in the landmark Report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (CMEB).
One of the ideas put forward in this report was that the ‘national story’ should be reimagined to account for the multiple cultural influences that have shaped the evolution of British society. Our interviews with the leaders of the Muslim Council of Britain, a large representative body, and British Future, a migration and integration think tank, revealed that both organisations continue to advocate for a more inclusive national identity rather than going down the post-national route favoured by interculturalists. This chimes with the Conservative Government’s Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, published in 2018, which states that school inspectors will ‘expect pupils to have an understanding and appreciation of the range of different cultures within school and further afield; and to show interest in exploring, improving understanding of and showing respect for different faiths and cultural diversity.’ With the decreasing number of primary and secondary schools bound by the national curriculum due to the conversion of local authority ‘maintained’ schools into academies, inspections seem to be the most effective way to promote inclusive teaching practices in overwhelmingly white areas or more homogenous faith schools, which have often been accused of transmitting narrow worldviews. They also appear vastly more promising than the prohibitive approach of the Prevent duty, with the monitoring of students for signs of radicalisation further reducing the space for much needed conversations about race, ethnicity and religion.
Another takeaway from the CMEB report was that ethnic and religious identities should be accommodated in the public sphere as a way of increasing the social participation of minorities. In line with this recommendation, the Director of Stand Against Racism and Inequality, a Bristol-based charity, told us that people should be ‘out and proud’ about their identities, and that this would require ethnic monitoring, positive action and transforming the culture of exclusive institutions such as the police. Far from causing division, such measures aim to tackle it, and our interviewee was highly critical of ethnic segregation among young people in schools, hospitality and retail. Similarly, a review of race in the workplace produced in 2017 by Conservative Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith recommended that all businesses with more than 50 employees collect and publish data on their employees’ race. The simultaneous endorsement of accommodation and mixing can also be found in the Integrated Communities Strategy’s call for school leaders to ‘consider carefully reasonable requests to accommodate religious or other beliefs’, as well as to purposefully increase the diversity of the pupils they admit.
According to the CMEB report, the accommodation of diversity is inseparable from the consolidation of a pluralistic human rights culture. In a position paper on Brexit, Muslim Engagement and Development, a grassroots activist outfit, revisited this argument by saluting the EU’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship programme and the research on discrimination against Muslims conducted by its Fundamental Rights Agency. Human rights discourse is not confined to left-leaning civil society groups however. Tellingly, the bill introduced by the Secretary of State for Justice in June 2022 (and withdrawn a year later) to weaken the influence of the European Court of Human Rights preserved most of the rights enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights itself. In 2014, in reaction to a moral panic about Islamist extremism in Birmingham schools, the Coalition government mandated all schools to teach Fundamental British Values including the rule of law and respect for difference. Yet both values have been seriously undermined by the inadequate funding of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose budget (currently under 20 million pounds per year) never recovered from the austerity drive that followed the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The Equality Act 2010, which the Commission enforces, has been a key driver of multiculturalism, arguably unmatched anywhere in Europe.
In light of the above, we consider that the following multiculturalist policies should be part of any effective and depolarising strategy to address racism after the 2024 election:
- Introducing universal and rigorous inspections of curricular inclusiveness;
- Holding schools and employers to account for (lack of) diversity among their students and workforce;
- Bringing the funding of the Equality and Human Rights Commission back to its pre-2010 level.