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Tuesday, August 09, 2005


The unbearable lightness of Hazel Blears

On the principle that even a broken clock is right twice a day, the Prime Minister's office has done something sensible. It has shot down in flames Hazel Blears's ridiculous suggestion of an official 'ethnic rebrand', to create hyphenated British people.

The recent wave of terrorist attacks has sparked off a wild goose chase to find or rekindle some sort of 'British identity'. As I explained in a
recent post, this will get us nowhere. Politicians seem to be divided between those, such as Hazel Blears, who cannot see that multiculturalism is a busted flush, and more traditionalist elements, whose latest wheeze to unite the nation is 'Citizenship Days'.

Of these two approaches, the revival of flag-waving patriotism is the more obviously flawed strategy (read
Blood & Treasure's demolition job on "state mandated ceremonials", via Doctorvee). Multiculturalism, on the other hand, has not been subjected to the same degree of scrutiny.

Multicultural ideology first flourished in the right-on, politically correct 1980s. Following the victories of Thatcher and Reagan, the right was ascendant and was remaking the world. Confronted with this challenge, the left chose to disappear up its own fundament. Instead of refreshing communitarian values, it focused on asserting personal rights.

The left turned out to be as much a part of the 'me' generation as its counterparts on the right. The damage done to the social fabric in the 1980s was not just a product of newly unleashed 'free market' forces but also owed much to the self-obsession of the left, which failed to develop a fresh critique of what was going on in society.

Michael Fitzpatrick's
recent essay in Spiked provides a much-needed corrective. It is good that anti-racism has triumphed and is now embraced by the establishment. But the ideology of multiculturalism has politicised identity and created a cult of victimhood.

Multiculturalism has encouraged the politicisation of identity in ethnic or religious terms. Earlier immigrant minorities, such as the Irish or the Jews, cleaved to their national and racial traditions in ways that were largely personal and private. They may have participated in public acts of worship but their ethnicity rarely took a political form. By contrast, the identity of being a Muslim has come to define many people in British society to the exclusion of all other characteristics.

The children of Irish or Jewish immigrants had some choice about whether to follow or reject their parents' allegiances, matters which undoubtedly caused much family strife, but did not become political issues. By contrast, the children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East have little option but to adopt the label of Muslim, which is thrust upon them by British society as much as by their own parents. If young Muslim women have embraced the hijab as a badge of identity in a way their mothers never did, as a public political symbol, this is more a result of the demands of British multiculturalism than a spontaneous assertion of allegiance.

Furthermore, the distinctive character of the identity promoted by multiculturalism is the identity of victim. In the world of multiculturalism, claims of victimhood provide the basis for recognition and status. Thus British Muslims proclaim a litany of persecutions and humiliations of Muslims around the world - in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Israel, in Bosnia - as the justification for their sense of grievance and their claim to a privileged position in the hierarchy of victimhood. (As a veteran campaigner against imperialist oppression in various parts of the world, I have opposed British interference in all these instances, though also in many others, irrespective of the faith of the victims.) But the cult of victimhood in Britain has merely a vicarious relationship with the sufferings of people in Iraq or Palestine - its real origins are to be found in Britain.

In the competitive struggle for prestige (and state resources) unleashed by multiculturalism, every minority must justify its claim by elevating its sufferings. Even established minorities feel obliged to enter the fray: while Muslims inflate every personal slight into a manifestation of Islamophobia, Jews cite the desecration of graves with swastikas as proof of a new wave of anti-Semitism.

While the opportunism of community leaders is shameful, it is important to recognise the origin of this problem in the British establishment itself. If Tony Blair feels obliged to apologise for the Irish famine or for Britain's role in the slave trade, it is only to be expected that some individuals will take advantage. The elevation of victimhood has a corrupting and infantilising effect: it encourages members of ethnic minorities to exaggerate and parade their sufferings as a means towards personal and communal advancement. The result is to unleash a sense of grievance that is unlikely to be assuaged by the meagre offerings of the state to the local mosque or temple.
The mindset of British-born suicide bombers and the government's plans to outlaw 'religious hatred' spring from the same source. The answers aren't simple but can be found in neither flag-waving ceremony nor the narcissism of multiculturalism.

If we want to develop a Liberal strategy to foster a sense of belonging (which is what this debate is really about) - for the benefit of everyone in society, not just ethnic minorities - we should forget any search for a centrally-managed 'silver bullet'. Instead, we ought perhaps to focus more on encouraging multifarious local initiatives to rebuild informal social networks and assorted local amenities. (I was intending to cite as an example of such local initiatives community campaigns to save local pubs, then realised this might not be the best way to integrate young Muslims - but you get my drift).

In this, as in so many issues, the Liberal message is that we should trust people and empower them to run their own lives. After all, local people are more likely to find workable solutions than is Hazel Blears.

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