published on 28 May 2014
It is now two years since the London Olympics showed the world London’s central message of diversity and multiculturalism – not just for the games, but also as its ongoing legacy. In doing so, it sent that message on behalf of the whole UK. The games, as well as the world’s focus, is now moving on to Brazil, a country that successfully lives with diversity built into its national identity.
The run up to and now the developing aftermath of the May 2014 local and European elections in the UK have left quite a bitter taste in the mouths of many. The seeming victories (largely outside of London) of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) have been based largely on emphasising the worries and concerns of a substantial part of the ethnic majority of the UK.
These worries really do exist, that immigration, and the cultural diversity that comes from such change, both need to be resisted. Ukip have built a platform by arguing for the reinstatement of the UK as a self-confident and successful nation which can apparently be achieved through returning to a monochrome sense of identity. For Ukip, migration, diversity, and multiculturalism (whatever that might mean) are a challenge to such self-confidence and need to be resisted.
The transformation of Humpty Dumpty
This is all happening against the background of one of the greatest historic challenges to the make-up of the UK. That is, the 18 September vote for independence in Scotland that could possibly cause the ‘decapitation’ of the UK (geographically if not economically or politically). Whether Ukip like it or now, what is very largely the English independence party (David Coburn notwithstanding) may find themselves fighting their corner in a much reduced United Kingdom after 24 March 2016.
When the process of devolution started for earnest in the 1990s, Michael Forsyth, the then Conservative Scottish Secretary (a role some saw as the chief colonial officer for Scotland) made the comment that if devolution was to happen, then it would not be possible ‘to put Humpty Dumpty back together again‘. It would be done, and could not be undone.
Scots who are pro-independence (the ‘yes’ camp) welcome this, of course, and many see the 1997 referendum as an inevitable part of the process of dismantling Scotland’s role in the UK. To remain with the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ analogy, the creation of the super-Scottish omelette has required the breaking of some eggs.
In short, the process of devolution of much of the UK’s political power over Scotland back to the country – in some form or another, whether that be independence or devo-max – was inevitable once the 11 September 1997 vote delivered a ‘yes-yes’ result. The main issue has been how Scotland, and its near neighbours, should make the most of the opportunities offered by these changes, rather than recriminations over whether or not devolution should have happened.
Britain has transformed already and we can’t go back
Ukip’s ideological platform is based on a fundamental error. Their rallying call against immigration and diversity is similarly about trying to put Humpty Dumpty ‘back together’.
Diversity in the UK (including in Ukip’s Essex back yard) is well and truly a fact-on-the-ground. Britain (little and great) has been a diverse country since the 1960s, for more than half a century. What has been debated during that time is how it could and should live with that diversity. Every government during that time has had to make some positive contribution to those debates – some more than others. It is reassuring to hear that Tony Blair is keen to defend his party’s own positive contributions in this regard.
The main Ukip message seems to suggest that ‘send them home’ is the only thing that will solve this ‘problem’. As Lenry Henry was saying back in the 1980s, the only answer he could give to such a suggestion was to ‘go back’ to his Black Country (West Midlands) roots.
Going home is being here. Plain and simple. If Humpty Dumpy is a white, racially homogenous UK, then that is well and truly ‘broken’ (or transformed). We are a diverse nation. The question is instead how we live with that.
There have been many predictions that both the Conservatives and Labour will move to the right in the next year, out of fear of the impact of Ukip’s anti-multiculturalism. I am not sure if this is the necessary and ‘politically correct’ route to ensure electoral success in 2015. (I am also encouraged by Mehdi Hasan’s comments last year, here in the Huffington Post on the topic of immigration, which I came across as I was writing this.)
The need for a positive approach to multicultural realities
If we are going to focus on the longer term (i.e., beyond the next election), the argument needs to shift away from the politically easy spectres of scapegoating and fear of loss (jobs, identity, and country). There is a much more pressing need to shift the debate onto how the UK is multicultural, what that diversity means, and how for several decades it is has been a source of enrichment.
I believe that kudos would go to the party that plays the ‘multicultural card’ in a positive way, to point out that we are all multiculturalists now. Britain is (or at least should be) a nation that is at ease with its differences (national, political, economic, ethnic, religious, and other).
Whichever party comes out of the next general election in the winning position should take a lead in helping to define more clearly how a diverse, multicultural Britain (/ England) can live more at ease with itself. This is not an issue to run from, but instead we need to recognise that diversity is now (and has been for a long time) a vitally important element of what makes the country what it is.
It is also what will give us the competitive edge that we need to succeed in the globalised twenty-first century. A successful multicultural policy is aligned to economic development, national security, and all the other issues that will all figure high on the agenda of the next election.
Multicultural Britain 2.0
Such a multicultural perspective is not about celebrating diversity, preaching tolerance, or looking to ‘recognise’ others. It is instead, about acknowledging the diversity of stakeholders in the national debate. It is about the right for people and groups to be different on their own terms, so long as there is also a common ground of identity where all can feel comfortable. It is about acknowledging the challenges of diversity in an attempt to take us beyond the issues of community v. community, identity v. identity, us v. them. It is about us and us, together with our differences.
Any political party that can articulate this sense of acceptance, of a social and national wellbeing in the midst of its diversity, would earn the right to govern, and would indeed find itself with an electoral mandate to do so.
It would be nothing more than helping us to accept the realities of today, rather than falsely promising a return to the long gone days of empire and ethnic homogeneity.
Much that I enjoy watching Downton Abbey, I would not want to live there, particularly if we found that Nigel Farage had taken on the role of Mr Bates.