Speaking in tongues

Once, in any conversation about race relations in Britain, I would use the word multi-racial. Then I would use it again. The next time, to avoid repetition, I would use multi-cultural instead. Many other people did the same. For several decades, the words multi-racial and multi-cultural were used interchangeably, as if they meant the same thing.  

They do not mean the same thing. This dawned on me about fifteen years ago and, since then, I have taken care to use the word I intend. If that involves repeating either of those words several times over, too bad.

Forty or fifty years ago, the question was ‘do we want to create a multi-racial society?’ That question is now redundant. Not only have we created a multi-racial society, but it will remain multi-racial for all time. It has long since become an irreversible process. I imagine that most people under 40 warmly welcome that fact. Quite a lot of us who are over 40 welcome it equally.

The question now is whether we want to create a multi-cultural society, which is not the same question, and is a far more difficult one to answer, or at least to answer simply. The first major figure to draw the distinction publicly was Trevor Phillips, and that was many years ago. The issue has remained largely undiscussed since then.

This week, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on social integration, under the chairmanship of Chuka Umunna, reignited the debate. At a time when the competence and purpose of MPs is doubted as seldom before, three cheers should be raised for their report. And the fact that both Chuka Umunna and Trevor Phillips come from racial minorities themselves seems significant. Perhaps white Britons are too scared to discuss the subject for fear of being branded as racists. But, if the words ‘race’ and ‘culture’ can be kept separate, they should have no such fears.

The difficulty is that the word culture embraces such a vast range of sub-heads. Hardly anyone will object to having the choice of a hundred different cuisines to sample. Or the choice of a hundred different expressions of every conceivable art form. Or the choice of a hundred different styles of dress. All these things, and others, have enriched our daily lives.

But what about religion? And what about the law? And what about language? These things are also part of a culture. And they are not merely dimensions of it: they define it. Whatever diversity there is within society, there have to be some elements of culture that are universal and non-negotiable. Without them, there is no coherent society, and no rooted values to bind the country together.

Despite the anomaly of an established Church, Britain is not a religious country in the sense of having a universal theology that is regarded as unchallengeable. It has not been a theocracy for centuries, if ever. The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in 2008 (not before time, one might think: Lord Denning pronounced them a dead letter in 1949). We gave birth to Life of Brian. If we now have a religious identity as a nation, it is one of tolerance of all faiths.

That is surely the only possible identity for a country that includes so many races and religions, and it is also one of the best parts (during most periods of history) of Britain’s heritage. However, it does demand that tolerance, which includes the freedom to speak freely, should be defended as fiercely as the Christian faith once was. Britain ought to be a country where all citizens can practice their own faith, or the lack of it, but have no right to object if others do not share their beliefs, and choose to say so.

The rule of law is equally fundamental. That is, the rule of one law, applied impartially to all. I have sympathy for anyone who wants to stay away from lawyers. If, therefore, British Muslims choose to resolve private disputes through Sharia courts, I have no objection. But if the cases involve behaviour that is criminal under British law, then we must assert the universal jurisdiction of one law. We cannot accept two parallel legal systems, whether this offends cultural sensitivities or not. The failure of the police to uphold the rights of Asian women in particular has been scandalous.

Then there is language. Nothing binds a culture together more than a common language. It should be possible to travel anywhere in Britain, speak to any British citizen in English, and be understood. It isn’t. That is the fault of government, locally and nationally, because we have not insisted on it. The printing of council leaflets in multiple languages (in one London borough, the number is more than 70) was no doubt undertaken with the best of intentions. It does no favours to anyone. Those who suffer most in the long run are the ethnic minorities themselves. They are given no incentive to become assimilated within the society of which they are a part, and which represents their future and their children’s future.

It is this issue that the Parliamentary Group has addressed. It has concluded that speaking English is ‘the key to full participation in our society and economy’ and ‘a prerequisite for meaningful engagement with most British people’. Hear, hear to that. It added that ‘all immigrants should be expected to have either learned English before coming to the UK or be enrolled in compulsory classes upon arrival’. Yes. And may it also be made retrospective.

Over the coming years, Western values in general, and British values in particular, are likely to come under assault in a way they have not for 70 years. To withstand the assault, we will need a clear vision of the society we are defending. Its values need to be understood, shared and accepted by everyone.

Our ancestors, wherever in the world they lived, had shared values within their own communities. To produce shared values in a culturally diverse country is far more difficult, but no less essential. Some elements of the cultures that migrants have brought to Britain enrich us all. And some elements of traditional British culture – religious tolerance, the rule of law and the English language especially – enrich us all too. They are indispensable to a shared identity. We must not be afraid to say so.