Is interculturalism the answer to growing diversity?
Policy advisor John Perry discusses a new book from Ted Cantle, 'Interculturalism – The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity'Ted Cantle has been the author of a series of reports on Britain’s ability to deal with its growing diversity, beginning with his well-known inquiry into the causes of the disturbances in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley in 2001. Having identified a main cause of those disturbances as the fact that communities were leading ‘parallel lives’, he’s not been afraid to take on academic critics who have asserted that he underplayed the importance of poverty and discrimination as factors. His new book, 'Interculturalism – The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity', reflects his recent spell as professor in charge of the Institute of Community Cohesion which he set up at Coventry University, and launches a proposal for ‘interculturalism’ to replace what he sees as the discredited policies of ‘multiculturalism’.
Although the Daily Telegraph focused on his attacks on single-group projects and ‘self-appointed’ community leaders, his argument is more nuanced and densely argued. His starting point is the relatively recent challenges posed by globalisation and super-diversity, which represent wide-sweeping and unstoppable trends. Multiculturalism, he argues, may have had good points but it fails to address these challenges. The book suggests that politicians, too, are deluded, believing they can hold back the tide of globalism and remain the dominant influence over populations who in reality often pay them little attention. One (understandable) response to these changes is fear and insecurity, based on feelings that government no longer shapes our lives and futures, but that it is also unclear who does. Blaming ‘others’ for this state of affairs is a natural response, as people retreat into identities with which they still feel comfortable. The challenge is how to move from the ‘we’ of the increasingly irrelevant nation state to a new ‘we’ based on a global community.
Cantle argues that while one response to globalisation has been the resurgence of the extreme right, there have also been positive signs. Not surprisingly, he sees one of these as being policies to promote community cohesion (of which he is an advocate), although he is critical that they haven’t gone far enough. He also points to the growth of mixed identity (notably in the form of mixed marriages or mixed-race children) as a positive factor. He says though that we have failed to update our policies on issues such as race equality to make them relevant to much more diverse societies.
He also says that David Cameron’s attack on ‘state multiculturalism’ in February 2011, taken together with the ‘Prevent’ programme which both recent governments have used to target Muslim communities, have meant a recent reversion to the stance of blaming new communities for failing to integrate rather than seeing integration as a two-way process. In particular, Muslims have been portrayed as a threat and the huge diversity between Muslim communities has been ignored. He points out the irony of the potential violence of Muslim groups receiving so much attention when it turned out (in August 2011) that unpredicted riots could erupt that had little or nothing to do with religion or even race.
Slightly contradicting the book’s headline message, Cantle says that by talking about the ‘failure’ of multiculturalism we’ve allowed people to develop the view that it is the simple presence of different cultures, especially Muslim ones, that poses a threat to society. Some people have argued as a result that ‘multiculturalism’ is a concept which is now so debased as to be no longer worth defending.
From its ashes we get the new term – ‘interculturalism’ – which becomes the focus of Ted Cantle’s book. Although the argument is an important one, to me it has two weaknesses that must be addressed if it is to be taken forward. The first is that, whilst it’s easy to develop a feel-good feeling about interculturalism, it’s awfully difficult to pin down exactly what it means. It takes as its starting point the new diversity of societies, and the need to promote that as beneficial rather than a threat. This requires leadership both nationally and locally (with which I agree and have written about). As well as promoting a positive view of diversity, leadership is needed to tackle the tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise. Leaders would also promote openness, as some city leaders in Britain and elsewhere have successfully done. In contrast to multiculturalism, there would be more focus on fluid identities of which ‘race’ may be only one (others are now reflected in the new ‘protected characteristics’ in the Equality Act). While people need to know about their country’s history, they also need a vision of a shared society and to be equipped for a more globalised world, to have a more ‘cosmopolitan’ identity.
This is all well and good, but it left me with the feeling of having sucked the chocolate without finding the nut in the middle. Terms like multiculturalism and interculturalism may be the subject of detailed academic debate, but can the differences be encapsulated in straightforward ways that are capable of being taken forward by policy-makers? This isn’t a new problem – the debates about what ‘community cohesion’ and ‘integration’ meant in practice were also difficult – but it is a problem that must be faced if the new concept is to be adopted and policy moved on.
The second weakness is a related one. How would policies actually change? Is it possible to have more subtle policies than (for example) the target-driven ones on immigration that we have had for the last few years? How do we get policy-makers at different levels to sign up to an intercultural perspective, and how would this alter what they do? It might be expecting too much of an academic book to spell this out, but it does, I think, miss a trick in not recording more of the successful community-based initiatives that have developed over the last few years, for example using money from the now-cancelled Migration Impacts Fund, and which suggest ways forward if adopted on much bigger scales. Cantle does make some proposals – like ending the favouritism towards faith-based schools – but stops well short of a broader programme.
Ted Cantle acknowledges that the climate is not an easy one, given the economic situation, the impact of spending cuts and the rapid contraction of the voluntary sector on which much action to promote interculturalism would depend. For those of us working in this field, an optimistic vision based on interculturalism will be more convincing when it is linked to a programme to carry it forward, that realistically takes into account the current barriers to doing so and how we might overcome them. There is a need for a practical follow-up to a challenging and stimulating book.