‘When it comes to our essential values - belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage - then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common.’
Tony Blair’s remarks quoted above sound remarkably similar to David Cameron’s much discussed speech in Munich. Blair stopped short of declaring multiculturalism a failed notion or providing us with a philosophical alternative, but Cameron explicitly condemned the doctrine and proposed ‘muscular liberalism’ as a fighting force. Both Blair and Cameron identified a threat to British cultural homogeneity posed by groups that have failed to integrate, carefully wording their speeches in a bid to avoid causing offence, and identifying minority extremist Muslim groups as distinct from mainstream Islam.
Cameron touched on an important debate: multiculturalism definitely does provide us with a diverse society, or ‘experiments of living’ as John Stuart Mill might have defined it, but does it provide us with a better society? If Britain really has played host to several microcosms rather than several communities sharing values - if not identities - then perhaps there is a threat of disconnection. The additional fear that the British way of life is being undermined by minority groups isolating themselves and their cultures has given rise to extremist groups, like the English Defence League, that sit brooding on the other side of the fundamentalist spectrum.
While these are certainly important questions and debates, Cameron’s suggestion that multiculturalism itself is destructive and leads to segregation in society is objectionable. If multiculturalism has encouraged people to live separate lives, muscular liberalism will act to reassert British values, which are, simply put, democratic values, not particularly unique to Britain.
Identifying multiculturalism as the cause of Islamist groups is flawed. Perhaps tolerance of groups has aided these groups, but multiculturalism as a doctrine is entirely separate from the issue. Fundamentalism isn’t generated simply by the presence of other cultures and multiculturalism does not necessarily entail segregation within communities, rather the peaceful and equal coexistence of cultures, with each culture treating the other with respect. Multiculturalism does not immediately mean the tolerance of fundamentalist groups.
Multiculturalism is far from dead. No apartheid exists in Britain. David Cameron touched on a few minority Islamist groups that hold segregationist attitudes, but many more Muslims live integrated lives. Nor does multiculturalism necessarily mean opposing to ‘British’ political values. Recent revolutions and continuous demonstrations in Muslim countries across the Middle East show a desire for democratic values that was hindered by corrupt governments - governments, interestingly, that enjoyed the support of British governments prior to the rebellious movements.
Usually quick to criticise David Cameron, Ed Miliband remained strangely silent on the issue. Miliband’s silence may be seen as an attempt to escape controversy or may be a calculated silence, giving Labour time to formulate its political agenda and avoid making premature statements. Looking at Blair’s remarks, we can see a similar but perhaps more conciliatory approach to Cameron’s, devoid of the declaration of multiculturalism’s death. Miliband’s attempts to distance himself from Blairism shows that Blair has become what Thatcher is to the Conservative Party: his shadow continues to flitter damagingly over Labour’s image. It is unlikely that Miliband will disagree with Blair on this issue, but his failure to comment is peculiar.
How muscular liberalism would work is another issue. Despite its aim of universalising democratic principles across society, it is arguably an undemocratic position, threatening to deny certain groups or individuals free speech. A strand of liberalism that works to force liberalism on to a society or hold a monopoly over culture sounds like a paradoxical idea.