I’m just about old enough to remember the bad old days: Britain in the 1970s, when casual, vicious, open racism was commonplace and everyday. And with the benefit of hindsight, looking back I can see something that perhaps wasn’t so clear at the time: the role that certain ideas about culture played in that day to day racism.
For it was pretty much taken for granted that there was something called British culture, that was different from and superior to the cultural practices of Asians, Africans or Caribbeans. It was this assumption that was forcibly challenged and overturned during the tumultuous anti-racist struggles of the 1980s. In that process a new word emerged – an awkward word, reflecting its uneasy origins in concessions wrung from an institutionally racist bureaucracy, but a crucial word nonetheless: multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism was a contested and controversial concept from the beginning and prompted sharp debates on the anti-racist left. But in its primary aspect it was undeniably a step forward. It recognised that British culture was not and never had been a monolith. It replaced the previous cultural hierarchy with a pluralistic model that accepted cultural diversity as an irreversible fact. We “others” were here to stay.
It is that aspect of recognition bound up in the idea of multiculturalism that so enrages the right. And it is that right wing resentment that lies behind the steady drip-drip of voices over the past decade declaring that multiculturalism has “gone too far”, has “failed”, that it represents an unacceptable “relativism” that undermines “Western values” and so on.
Over the years the political establishment has warmed to this reheated Powellism. It received its highest blessing in March this year when David Cameron pledged to slay the multicultural dragon. That same day the English Defence League marched through Luton, translating into a more vulgar idiom Cameron’s pious concerns over “rootless” Muslims (yes, he used that word).
All of this makes the publication of Defending Multiculturalism an important and timely counterblast. A collection of essays and poems by anti-racist activists, theorists and politicians, it brings together the left wing case in today’s “culture wars” and issues a call to arms against the New Powellism that has infected establishment thinking on race. Contributors range from Peter Hain and Ken Livingstone through to Tariq Modood, Liz Fekete, Salma Yaqoob and Zita Holbourne.
The essays restate some valuable truths about the black presence in Britain, and how its history and its struggles are inseparable from those of the wider working class. Together they represent the first step in an urgently needed ideological fightback, one that defends the gains of the 1980s anti-racists, stands in solidarity with Muslims against Islamophobia, and forges a cross-cultural unity within the working class that will be indispensable in the wider struggles against austerity that lie ahead.
A new book by Paul O’Brien
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