Socialist Worker

The White Season's shabby attack on multiculturalism

Issue No. 2092

White Season? Whitewash more like it. A backlash against multiculturalism has been gathering strength ever since the 7 July 2005 bombings in London. It has now become a tidal wave, sweeping through that supposed liberally temple, the BBC.

I watched one episode of this contemptible TV series that was devoted to rehabilitating Enoch Powell. His notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968 and subsequent attacks on black immigration unleashed a great upsurge of racism. This led to the Nazis becoming a serious political force in Britain for the first time since the 1930s.

Another BBC programme, this time on Radio 4, argued in detail that Powell wasn’t motivated by racism, but rather by the memory of the collapse of British rule in India. It claimed Powell was shocked by the pogroms between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs that accompanied the 1947 partition of India and feared this culture of “communalism” was being imported into Britain.

The hypocrisy of this explanation beggars belief. In fact the more pressure that the British Raj found itself under from the Indian independence movement, the more it stoked up its disastrous policy of “divide and rule”.

But for the BBC, Powell is a prophetic critic of multiculturalism. Over scenes of rioting we are told, “The liberal establishment embraced a radically different vision for the country from that of Powell – multiculturalism.”

More tabloid history drivel. Rather than causing riots, as this juxtaposition of words and image implies, multiculturalism is more plausibly seen as their result. And these changes took place under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She was no “liberal”, but was a right wing admirer of Powell.

Race card

The inner city riots of 1980 and 1981 weren’t racial. They were rebellions by working class young people, both black and white, against unemployment, racism and poverty. But they scared Thatcher off from playing the race card, as she had done in the run-up to the 1979 election.

Protests forced Tory governments to follow Labour by pumping money into the inner cities and leaving in place anti-discrimination legislation. The unplanned consequence was what is now called “multiculturalism” – the idea that people from different backgrounds can coexist and pursue their own diverse lifestyles within the framework of common citizenship.

The offensive against multiculturalism since 7/7 has been deployed by New Labour with the straightforward and relatively limited aim of intimidating Muslims from opposing the war and driving them back into political acquiescence.

But the assault is legitimising something much uglier – for example, the endless bombardment of ridiculous Islamophobic scare stories that are fed to the tabloids by the police. And the “liberal” media collude in all this.

The Independent on Sunday last weekend carried a revolting rant by the novelist Tim Lott concluding that the white working class “are a deeper, far more intimately connected part of the national family than many of the more recent arrivals. They are us, English, in the way a Farsi-only speaker in a chador can never be – or not without many generations of effort and willing assimilation.”

Yet again, this is drivel. The “English” working class is itself a historical composite, formed by wave upon wave of immigration – among many others, French Huguenots, Irish Catholics, East European Jews. Over the past generation, it has been recomposed geographically and culturally, incorporating people from South Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and now eastern Europe.

All the whining about the “betrayal” of the white working class by Lott and his ilk ignores the real betrayal of working class people of all colours – mass unemployment, neoliberal economic policies, the destruction of council housing, and the growing gulf between rich and poor.

Effectively resisting all this requires unity among working class people. The assault on multiculturalism is the latest of many attempts to set them against each other. It should be treated with the contempt it so amply deserves.

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