There are certain words I would like to ban, or at least to ban anyone from using without explaining exactly what they mean.
One of these is multiculturalism. A poll funded by former Tory treasurer Lord Ashcroft found that 90 per cent of voters believed “Britain has become a multicultural country”, and 70 per cent said they are “in favour of multiculturalism”.
Lord Ashcroft timed the poll to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s speech on April 20, 1968. The Wolverhampton MP, speaking at a Birmingham hotel, said allowing significant immigration by black people (and he was very clear in his speech that he was talking about black people) was “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”.
The things that determine our supposed race – mainly things connected to our physical appearance or which continent our grandparents were born on – do not determine our culture.
The speech was a nasty racist rant. Powell still has his defenders, but they might want to read the full text of his speech, including his account of an elderly Wolverhampton white woman supposedly terrorised by the immigrants and “wide-grinning piccaninnies” who have taken over her neighbourhood.
It’s no surprise that Lord Ashcroft’s poll has been welcomed by many; and that a number of commentators have warned that politicians, and in particular the Conservative Party, need to accept that the battle against multiculturalism has been lost. If they continue to oppose it then they are leading their parties into oblivion, so it is said.
For example, blogger Sunny Hundal (not a Conservative supporter), claimed: “Multiculturalism has become shorthand for a multiracial and multi-ethnic Britain at ease with its modern identity. Right wing criticisms are, therefore, seen merely as an attack on modern Britain.”
The view from Ian Dunt (at politics.co.uk) was this: “Minorities don’t vote for the Tories because they think – with good justification – that Tories don’t believe in multiculturalism. They are a party for white people.”
It may be true that Conservatives don’t believe in multiculturalism. David Cameron appeared to criticise it – although he hedged his bets a little by attacking “state multiculturalism” – in a speech in February 2011. He said: “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.”
The difficulty here is that, whether or not you think Mr Cameron is making any sense, he is surely using the word “multiculturalism” to mean something different to his critics.
People who oppose multiculturalism use the word to mean segregation and separation. Supporters use it to mean, basically, not being racist.
Mr Cameron, I am sure, would insist that he is perfectly “at ease” with Britain as it is today, while Mr Hundal would undoubtedly say he does not want “different cultures to live separate lives” – even if, possibly, he might disagree with Mr Cameron about the extent to which this actually happens.
If we can’t agree on what the word means then there’s little point having a debate about whether we support it or not.
And there’s clearly still some uncertainty. Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that ten per cent of British people of African or African-Caribbean descent described themselves as “opposed to multiculturalism”, which suggests they don’t entirely share Mr Dunt’s understanding of the word.
But why would I ban the term? All right, I wouldn’t really ban it. I might gently discourage its use if I had the chance.
If you’re opposed to racism then I’d suggest it makes more sense to say that. Ask people if they support anti-racism and you get a pretty good idea about how many of us are racist.
More importantly, however, the phrase multiculturalism seems to me to perpetuate a lazy tendency to confuse culture and race.
As a young child, my family lived next door to an African-Caribbean family. Later, we moved and our neighbour was a white French woman.
The first set of neighours were resolutely, 100 per cent British and proud of it. The second neighbour was just as proud of being French and has no intention of ever changing her nationality, despite living most of her life here.
So which street was the most “multicultural”? Most people would instinctively say the first, because my neighbours were black. This is what multicultural means to most – it means multiracial, but we don’t like talking about race so we use a euphemism instead. But the suggestion of a connection between race and culture is hugely damaging.
The reality is that the things that determine our supposed race – mainly things connected to our physical appearance or which continent our grandparents were born on – do not determine our culture, which I suppose includes things like our beliefs, our understanding of the world and our place in it and how we are supposed to relate to others, as well as the more obvious manifestations of culture such as our taste in food or music and so on.
The idea that our outlook on life is determined by the same things which determine the colour of our eyes or the shape of our nose is nonsense, and it can be dangerous nonsense.
I’m sure that many supporters of multiculturalism would argue that they believe no such thing. But if the word that we use to describe a multi-racial society is multiculturalism, then doesn’t it suggest that’s exactly what we believe?