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Society, Politics & Law

Is the UK really multicultural?

Updated Thursday 3rd August 2006

Britain is often described as multicultural - both with admiration and disgust - but Henry Bonsu remains to be convinced.

Multicultural Britain? A steel band at Notting Hill. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

There's a nice, rather under-used, quote from a 1918 Arnold Bennett play The Title which goes like this:

"Journalists say a thing that they know isn't true, in the hope that if they keep on saying it long enough, it will be true".

I'm not sure whom Bennett had in mind back then, but if he were alive today he would have plenty of targets: from those who write stories about "bungling Brussels bureaucrats", to pundits who over-egg our "special" relationship with the US.

But he might also include journalists like me, the presenter of BBC London's Drivetime radio show, who insist on celebrating the "multicultural" nature of our society.

You can see why I might be tempted to do this. For the last nine years I've lived in Brixton, which is so widely known as the capital of Britain's black community that the likes of Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali have found its lure irresistible.

Walking down my street I can bump without fear or tension into members of almost every major ethnic group on earth, sample their food, and read their newspapers. In my local coffee shop I can spend hours chatting with Jamaican-born owner Robert, and his German wife Sabena, while the largely Eastern European staff serve everybody from Nigerian poets to Italian students.

Why have you come to London, I ask? Almost to a man (or woman), they reply "Because everything is so relaxed, and tolerant." It's almost as if they have read from a shared script.

And the script is indeed a compelling one. In the run-up to London's mayoral elections in 2000, the candidates informed us that London is the most diverse city in the world, home to hundreds of languages and thirty three different ethnic groups numbering at least 10,000. Where else can you can celebrate the Irish Fleadh, the Muslim festival of Eid, the Sikh birthday of Vaisaki, Chinese New Year in Trafalgar Square, or revel in Europe's largest street party, the Notting Hill Carnival?

Each of these cultural landmarks is firmly established on the capital's calendar, and receives the official blessing of the mayor's office.

But is what seems true for London also the case for the rest of Britain? If you listen to pronouncements of politicians you would certainly think so. Since the 1999 MacPherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, our leaders have preached a mantra of "diversity", claiming that we have completed the transformation from post-war importer of immigrants to successful multicultural society in which shared difference, not assimilation, is the desired aim. Even true blue Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who preferred the term multi-ethnic, has now fallen into line.

Yet when I, a black Mancunian, venture outside the capital I often wonder which Britain they are talking about. It is true that in our cities you can find ethnic minority communities large enough to parade their own cultural identity alongside their urban loyalties. But apart from some successes in Leicester, and Birmingham, it is hard to find other black and Asian populations enjoying the political and economic progress that is taken for granted in London.

Visit the regions, and you will see them still concentrated in the poorer areas where they settled after the war. Only impoverished whites remain in these districts - the rest have taken flight.

The result is the ghettos so criticised by Tory grandees Lord Tebbit and Winston Churchill in the 1990s and former CRE chairman Lord Ouseley. Handicapped by shrinking budgets, and even narrower vision, local councils merely dole out the occasional grant to the loudest community groups, while the white majority looks on in disgust at what it claims is preferential treatment.

The picture beyond the cities is even more depressing. I occasionally have the pleasure and the pain of travelling into the England so beloved of John Major - the England of warm beer, village cricket, and maidens cycling through the mist.

For all the beauty of ancient pubs, fresh air, and rolling countryside, I am aware that I, and my kind, stick out like a sore thumb, and will be tolerated, so long as we don't overstay our welcome. In most of the shires, visible minorities number less than two percent (as opposed to around seven percent nationally), and as they recently made clear over the asylum reception centres, our good countryside folk don't want it any higher.

There is a move among some black organisations, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to persuade minority groups to visit rural areas (one young Nigerian group stages regular "reclaim the countryside walks"), but it will not be an easy campaign, for many of us have horror stories, and who wants to go where you don't feel wanted?

That's why I breathe a sign of relief whenever my train pulls into London Euston or I see signs for the M25 on the motorway, and I know I'm approaching the metropolis. It's the same kind of feeling I get when I return to Paris or New York from a trip into the outlying regions.

That's not to say that our capital city is without serious fault lines. The kind of disturbances Britain saw in summer 2001 in Oldham, Bradford or Burnley could happen in the edgier parts of Camden or Tower Hamlets where young white and Bangladeshi youths face each other down on a regular basis. Muslim and Hindu groups have also clashed in West London, proving it's not just a black and white issue, but one of social exclusion breeding fear and mutual contempt among people for whom culture becomes a coat of arms.

There are other challenges too. The cultural practices of some minority communities like forced marriage, female circumcision, or open halal slaughter, tend to appal the majority.

Likewise, indigenous practices like weekend binge drinking, pub fighting, and football hooliganism act as a barrier to further integration with more recent arrivals. However, it's a sign of our society's increasing maturity that some of these features are now being challenged (often from within), breaking the "anti-racist" silence that has sometimes allowed abuse to masquerade as culture.

In the 18 months after the report by the Commission on the Future of a Multi-ethnic Britain, it became fashionable to knock multi-culturalism and all it stands for, and I believe it will continue to be resisted by many until this question is solved. "Why is it that all the other communities can celebrate their cultures, but we have to suppress our Englishness for fear of being called racist?" I can't answer that here, but will happily continue to outrage the spirit of Arnold Bennett in the hope that one day my fiction becomes a reality. It's in all our interests.

This article was originally published in 2002

 

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