The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Just a little bit more conformity & we'll all be alright, won't we?

Two weeks ago Jack Straw reignited the simmering debate about multiculturism in the UK with his clumsy comments about Muslim women wearing the veil.

This is a tricky issue, complex with few easy answers, especially for a liberal - but the response has been predictably simplistic. We are now in the midst of a wave of Isamophobic media-led hysteria. Since Mr Straw spoke out we have had fears of Muslim teaching assistants being unintelligible, Muslim policemen cherry picking their duties, Muslim cabbies refusing to allow guide-dogs in their taxis and now fears over the building of a 'supermosque' in East London.

The problem with Straw's remarks is not that he doesn't have the right to express his discomfort at overt declarations of religious doctrine, as an atheist I have quite a lot of sympathy for that. Rather it is that he has calculatedly stirred up a hornets nest to promote his own forlorn ambition to become Labour's Deputy leader and dressed it all up as an attempt to bolster community relations.

The essence of Mr Straw's point is that the wearing of the full veil is so alien a concept in the UK that it is hurting community relations. He argues that those relations would be far better if Muslim women took the full veil off. In other words there would be less discrimination, fear & distrust of Muslims if they were just a little bit more like everyone else.

It's a cheap populist political gimmick, typical of today's Labour party, but unsurprisingly the new Rainbow Tories are jumping on the bandwagon with David Davies accusing Birtish Muslims of 'voluntary aparthied'. What is this nonsense? Should Sikhs take off their turbans or should Jews lose the skull caps to avoid upsetting other communities? - of course not, just to suggest it expose's the absurdity of the idea. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, blaming the victim for provoking the crime. The problem isn't too much diversity, its too much intolerance.

It would undoubtedly be true that if we were all alike we would have less cause to disagree with each other, but I'm afraid that kind of conformity comes at a price. One of the reasons I am a liberal is the preamble to the Liberal Democrat's constitution which boldy declares that the party 'exists to safeguard a......society in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity'.

When I was a teenager Enoch Powell came to my school, quite something for an inner city comprehensive with a 40% black intake. None the less it gave me, as the son of Jamaican immigrants who came here in the 1950's the chance to ask him whether or not he thought I was British? He replied in his ornate way - "If the passport you carry, says you are British then, by will of the Crown in Parliament, you are indeed British - but you are not English and should not want to be." For years his comment puzzled me, but in the end I saw in it an essential truth about what it is to be British.

The historian Lynda Colley describes the nation as an 'imagined community'. Britishness is the perfect example of that - it is an invented concept - Britain didn't organically evolve, the UK was willed into existence by the Act of Union 1707. That doesn't make Bristihsness any less valid or real, but it does allow us to better understand what it means. Just as the British state has changed in those 300 years so has what it means to be British. 250 years ago it was illegal to wear that symbol of Jacobinism Clan Tartan, now it is an integral part of our culture. That is the essence of Britishness, that it grows and changes with each generation. This is a nation of immigrants, our national drink is the once exotic oriental infusion of tea, our most popular dish the chicken tikka masala. For over 1,000 years wave after wave of immigration has shaped our identity. That process has never been easy or comfortable, but it is what has made us who we are - the average sentence in English contains words whose roots come from at least four different languages.

I am a multiculturalist and an integrationist. I don't believe in multiculturalism in its classic academic sense - believing that abuses of civil liberties such as female circumsicion, should be excused on the grounds of differing 'cultural outlook'. No, a multicultural society is not one that allows any & everything - it has rules, universal standards that must apply to all people & all communities, however a multicultural society is one that doesn't assume that in order to obey those rules we all have to be the same.

The fear of otherness is found in all societies, its cure is not conformity but tolerance. That tolerance and integration cannot be achieved by brow beating and bullying. It may take generations for things that are exotic or threatening to become a standard part of British culture, but like tea & tartan British they will be. Integration takes time and undertsanding not political posturing. What has made Britain such as extraordinary influence on the world was not just its ancient traditions, but its amazing vitality & flexbility. What made Britian great was its ability to accept difference and to adapt to it.

It is not just possible to retain your cultural identity as a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim or a Afro Carribean while being British - that is the very essence of being British. It is Britishness that will change with each new wave of immigration, we will absorb these differences not through forcing conforminty but by growing and expanding our 'imagined community' and our society will be the better for it.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think there is any difference with the veil, because the veil covers the face, unlike the headscarf or the turban or the skullcap?

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