Translocations: Migration and Social Change
An Inter-Disciplinary Open Access E-Journal
ISSN Number: 2009-0420
Counter Narratives to Multiculturalism and the Assimilationist Drift in British
Policy: Lessons from the Era of New Labour
Charles Husband
Professor of Social Analysis, Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, University
of Bradford, Email:
This paper seeks to explore the significant shift within British Government rhetoric and
policy toward an increasingly assimilationist conception of integration and, more
particularly, toward the progressive abandonment of a meaningful commitment to a
pluralist understanding of multiculturalism that had been de facto established in national
and civic policy and practice over the previous four decades. This development,
considered until 2006, is all the more disturbing given the achievements of British
legislation, and of public and private sector practice, in challenging racial discrimination
and pursuing equity for minority ethnic individuals in the United Kingdom. Compared
to many other nation states, the United Kingdom has a commendable record in
developing legislation and related administrative structures that significantly addressed
the existence of inter-personal and institutional racism; and its translation into
discriminatory practices. However, a rights based approach to settled minority ethnic
citizens has co-existed with racist and xenophobic popular sentiment toward current
would-be immigrants and asylum seekers that, in the last decade, has been echoed in
strident Government rhetoric and robust anti-immigrant policies. (Geddes, 2003;
Chakrabarti, 2005). The progressive assault upon racial discrimination in Britain and
the quietly successful emergence of hybrid ethno-British citizens and communities
within civil society is being placed in jeopardy by an unembarrassed assault upon the
achievements of the awkwardly pluralist British expression of multiculturalism.
Contradictions in British management of diversity are not new, and have deep roots
(Husband, 2003).
The Past into the Present:
A little historical digression provides a necessary platform from which to develop the
analysis of the present phenomena. Britain achieved a political settlement as a unified
state long before many contemporary European countries and this long vista of
continuity has allowed the British to consolidate and, where necessary, re-invent a
foundational sense of national continuity (Hobsbawn and Ranger, 1983). The
achievement of political unity was gained at the expense of the Welsh, the Scots and the
Irish with their effective domination by the English, in a process described by Hechter
(1975) as ‘internal colonialism’. Consequently, historical struggle against other
European nations fruitfully served the purpose of meshing together these internal
national identities to a common Britishness (Colley, 1992). And, as active participants
in the expansion of ‘the British Empire’, individuals from all the regions of Britain
shared in a common experience of domination of others overseas. A common faith in
Christianity and centuries of active and collusive participation in slavery and imperial
domination generated two ideological strands of self-definition that continue to have
resonance today.
‘Race thinking’ (Barzun, 1965) has been powerfully layered into the British social
imaginary (Bolt, 1971; Kiernan, 1972; Fryer, 1984). The cumulative experience of the
management of difference within the British Empire provided a ubiquitous shared
experience of cultural superiority. Integral to this experience was the progressive
development of race theory which developed in response to, and which served to
legitimate, the process of domination. Central to this development of British race
thinking has been the critical presence of colour as a determinant of ‘race’ and worth.
The language of ‘race’ and colour has been powerfully sedimented into the British
ideological repertoire. Historically, the faith-based language and moral reasoning of
Christianity was intimately interwoven with both the processes of domination and the
imagery of racism (see, for example, Jordan, 1969). For example, nineteenth century
‘muscular Christianity’ provided a significant supportive rationale for British expansion
in Africa and elsewhere.
This history has shaped the present in a number of ways. The British are comfortable in
recognizing difference and in explicitly developing legal and administrative frameworks
for managing diversity that would be alien in other countries. ‘Race’ with all of its
essentializing propensities is employed without embarrassment in formulating policy
(Anthias and Yuval-Davies, 1993). The series of legislative Acts developed to counter
discrimination were called ‘Race Relations Acts’ (1965, 1968, 1976, 2000). Racism and
its theised alter-ego Islamaphobia, is recurrently problematic in British culture, thought
and action. Colour and faith remain significant determinants of otherness.
Simultaneously, this long history of nation building and a, more or less, continuous
refinement of a very British form of Parliamentary Democracy, and of Empire, has
produced a very particular form of national self-regard. A creative fusion of images of
‘Britain the Mother of Parliaments’, with accounts of Britain’s historical ‘civilising
mission’ within the Empire; with, for example, fragmentary recollections of Britain’s
historical record as ‘a haven for refugees’, can comfortably generate a quiet certainty
about the characteristic decency and tolerance of the British (Husband, 1987; Holmes,
1991). Drawing upon these themes of decency and tolerance, and being comfortable
with the management of diversity the notion of “maintaining harmonious community
relations” has been a recurrent theme in British ‘race relations’. However, as I have
argued elsewhere (Husband, 2000, 2003) the role of tolerance at the heart of this benign
position is to entrench majority ethnic superiority and self interest. Thus I have argued
“For tolerance to be necessary, there must be a prior belief that the
person to be tolerated has an intrinsically undesirable characteristic, or
that they are not fundamentally entitled to the benefits which are to be
allowed them. Those to be tolerated, by definition, possess some such
social stigma.
Tolerance is the exercise of largess by the powerful, ultimately on
behalf of the powerful. It is the generous extension of forbearance
toward someone who is intrinsically objectionable or not deserving of
the privilege being allowed.”
(Husband, 2000: p. 228)
Thus, there is an intrinsic tension between a rights based approach to equity for all
citizens and a tolerance based popular sense of a discretionary granting of privileges to
ethnic minorities. Particularly where race thinking radically questions the perceived
legitimacy of minority ethnic communities’ claims to citizenship, the rights based
approach to equity in Britain rests on an insecure consensus. In a rights based
framework, minority ethnic citizens claim what is theirs by right. From within the
tolerance defined perspective minority ethnic citizens must demonstrably earn their right
to equity; and be grateful for its acquisition, (for a fuller discussion see Husband, 2002).
In exploring the functioning of counter-narratives to multiculturalism and the debates
around social cohesion in contemporary Britain the implications of these differing
historically rooted dispositions will be seen woven into this developing scenario.
Counter-Narratives to Multi-Culturalism
The growth of a perverse scepticism about the merits of multiculturalism, and an explicit
resistance to the implementation of legislation aimed to root out institutional racism in
Britain is not a unique event in the history of the politics of diversity. As Hewitt (2005,
p.5) has noted:
‘Negative reactions within white communities to (i) the proximity of
black communities following migration, or (ii) the potential acquisition
of new power and/or new status by blacks, or (iii) the fashioning of
policies or legislation to bring about greater equality between
‘racial’/ethnic groups, or (iv) the enforcing of such policies or
legislation, have all at different times and places led both to visible
protest and the mobilisation of political pressure.’
In an international overview of ‘white backlash’ this statement reveals the deep seated
racism and xenophobia within national, regional and local identities which allows the
pursuit of fairness and equality to be opposed, not only without embarrassment, but
often with righteous anger. In the review of British multicultural and anti-racist policy
development, sketched above, we have already seen the recurrent expression of these
sentiments. In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century in Britain there
is now an extensive and multi-layered backlash against the achievements of the prior
four decades.
That it is multi-layered is important. This is a phenomenon that is now deeply
entrenched in the revisionist rhetoric of the Labour Party (Back et al, 2002); it is
increasingly a theme that achieves enhanced visibility in the writings and media
statements of that species of ‘intelligentsia’ that assume the mantle of public
commentators, and it is concretely evident in the localised politics and community
identities of specific neighbourhoods in urban, and now rural Britain. Each of these
locales of articulation of these counter-narratives has their own distinctive discursive
style, and their own immediate audience. But, importantly, these discourses do not
operate in total isolation: through the media and in the public sphere they feed upon
The vitality, and the viability, of these counter-narratives to multiculturalism is at least
partially determined by the now long established intellectual critique of multiculturalism
that has had great visibility and been the focus of ‘culture wars’ in the United States, in
Europe and in Britain. Texts such as Hughes (1999) Culture of Complaint: the Fraying
of America; Himmelfarb’s (2001) One Nation Two Cultures: a Searching Examination
of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution and Barry’s (2001)
Culture and Equality: an Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism were symptomatic of
an intellectual/academic assault upon the premises and practices of multiculturalism. In
the case of Britain, academic critiques of multiculturalism were robust, and frequently
achieved significant media visibility (see, for example, Hewitt, 2005: pp.116-121). The
intellectual credentials of authors such as these, and certainly within the period of
Thatcherism in Britain, their close networking to powerful think tanks and government,
gave their opinions both credibility and visibility. The intellectual and political status of
this cohort of anti-multiculturalists has done much to enable others to confidently assert
their complementary views.
Given the current significance, and future potential impact, of this emerging consensus
of anti-multiculturalist rhetoric, it is appropriate to explore it in some detail. Counternarratives to multiculturalism and anti-racist strategies in public policy and practice can
be seen as having distinct elements that coalesce into a particular discursive product.
Counter-narratives can be seen as having different and distinct discursive forms, to be
typically focused around, or given relevance through, attachment to specific issues;
typically they are spatially and temporally grounded in a specific locality that gives it a
core constituency whose direct experience fuels the agenda; and all of the above are
framed within the repertoire of meaning and sentiment that is lodged within the national
social imaginary.
Discursive Scripts:
The discursive packaging of anti-multiculturalist sentiments can be creatively achieved
in a variety of ways. At its simplest the invocation of the epithet ‘political correctness’
has become a potent discursive weapon in challenging any form of policy that is
perceived to be unacceptable, externally imposed and favouring others. To assert that
‘this is political correctness gone mad’ skews any debate so widely as to suspend the
possibility of a reasoned counter-argument. The more earnest the attempted response
the more demonstrable is the speaker’s irrational commitment to a self-evident
nonsense. The phrase political correctness is the leitmotif of contemporary British
opposition to local authority anti-racist practice.
The notion of ‘the limits of tolerance’ as revealed by Blommart and Verschueren (1998)
in the context of Belgium, is alive and well within British counter-narratives. This
discursive ploy provides a sophisticated means of asserting one’s tolerant credentials
whilst behaving in a self-interested and intolerant way. Its creative core is to assert that,
if we are to maintain our well known capacity for tolerance, this initiative/policy must
proceed no further; or indeed be rescinded. This stratagem invokes, and rehearses, core
British self-stereotypes of decency, tolerance and commitment to the rule of law whilst
simultaneously asserting that there are categories of people who must lie outside of the
reach of these values (see Tileaga, 2007, for an account of the power of the
‘delegitimisation’ of out-groups as being outside of the normal range of moral affinity:
as ‘not one of us’.)
The concept of the victimization of the majority as discussed by Wodak and Matouschek
(1993) is the archetypically flexible counter-narrative discourse. At its heart it simply
asserts that everyone has rights except the majority ethnic community. It perceives the
‘race relations industry’, the ‘multi-ethnic mafia’ or the ‘bleeding heart’ European Union
as neurotically fixated on the interests of minorities to the detriment of majority ethnic
As Hewitt (2005) pointed out in the quotation cited above, there are a variety of
circumstances which are capable of triggering majority ethnic resentments; and these
typically coalesce around specific issues. In the phenomenon of Powellism in the late
1960’s, there was the unlikely scenario of trade unions actively supporting a right-wing
patrician politician (Shoen, 1979). But then the British working class had a long
tradition of struggle around protecting their position in the labour market; including
racially exclusionary practices. Additionally, at that time some areas of labour, such as
dock workers, were experiencing redundancy due to changing work practices. With the
extensive transformation of the labour market through the following decades,
particularly under the influence of radical Thatcherism, the British majority ethnic
working class have experienced cumulative challenges to their status and power. The
anxieties related to these substantive changes in their collective circumstances were
fused with xenophobic and racist sentiments regarding the simultaneous changes
occurring in British ethnic relations. Firstly, this was experienced in relation to the
influx of additional migrant labour per se; and then in relation to the progressive
implementation of anti-discrimination legislation which eroded majority advantages that
had been entrenched in ‘custom and practice’ that was, de facto, institutional racism.
Currently, large swathes of traditional unskilled and skilled modes of employment have
vanished from the British labour market as the textile industry, coal mining, ship
building and steel making, among others, have become vestigial elements in the British
economy. In this context the arrival of large numbers of East European migrant workers
from the new accession states have provided a new provocation to an embattled majority
ethnic, and established minority ethnic, working class. In catering and service industries
in urban Britain, and in seasonal rural labour, this new influx of labour is perceived as a
challenge to the indigenous labour force; and, in a more general sense, as precipitating a
lowering of wage rates in the unskilled sector.
However, it is not only in the working class that resentment toward multiculturalism and
anti-racist policies have been focused around issues relating to the workplace. If the
second half of the twentieth century saw in Britain a radical transformation in the
circumstances of the British working class, it also saw a parallel change in the structural
formation, wealth and confidence of the British middle classes. Driven by increased
access to university education, the emergence of new technologically driven industries
and the impact of globalization in transforming the British economy, the middle classes
enjoyed a political and economic ascendancy. It is to this constituency, and their
interests, that Tony Blair directed the Labour Party in his electorally successful
fabrication of New Labour; and its commitment to a ‘Third Way’ political agenda
(Giddens, 1998).
In their workplaces it is this segment of the population who have felt most directly, not
the general attitudinal claims of British multiculturalism, but the specific challenges of
British anti-racist policy as expressed through new practices, and new sanctions. The
success of embedding an understanding of institutional racism at the heart of legislation
and its subsequent roll out in practice through the public sector, and private industry, has
sidelined the equation of racism with prejudice. It has exposed as ideologically
problematic the British conceit regarding the role of tolerance, and focused instead on
behaviours, competences and organizational routines. In doing this it has challenged
workplace cultures, professional competences and the long established moral
complacency within professional bodies. Thus, for example, in social work, education,
health care and local authority administration, decent, responsible and established
professionals have felt themselves to be confronted by challenges emanating from
pressure groups and governmental agencies they regard as uninformed of the realities of
their world, and as politically motivated. In this context the discourses of political
correctness, the limits of tolerance and the victimization of the majority have flourished;
fuelled by personal confusion and anguish; and professional hubris. On occasions the
pace at which anti-racist innovations were introduced, and the unreflective zeal of those
implementing them, contributed to the level of perceived threat and the outraged sense
of arbitrary and alien intrusion. At the same time, the frequency with which institutional
and professional leadership, in taking up this challenge to practice, was characterised by
a spirit of minimal compliance and inadequate sustained support, legitimated the sense
of grievance within elements of their workforce.
If work, and the working environment, has provided one issue around which counternarratives have gelled, then education and issues related to culture have provided ample
opportunities for the construction of bitter anti-multiculturalist narratives. As a key
engine of cultural reproduction, and personal economic success, it is not surprising that
education has been a recurrent issue within the development of British multiculturalism.
There is an extensive literature tracking the contested progress of multicultural
objectives and anti-racist initiatives within Britain education. As in America, challenges
to the ethno-centric curriculum that had evolved as routine within British schooling
attracted forceful and heated opposition and, as in America, some of the intellectual
vanguard of this opposition were actively connected to right wing think tanks, such as
the Centre for Policy Studies and the Social Affairs Unit. And, in the Thatcher era this
opposition most certainly had the ear of Government, (for example, Anderson, 1984;
O’Keefe, 1986). As with any other issue, specific locales and specific events provided
concrete foci that gave quite specific grist to this particularly productive mill. One such
case was the furore surrounding the parental resolve to remove Ray Honeyford, the head
teacher of a multi-ethnic school in Bradford, following his publication of an article in the
right-wing journal The Salisbury Review (Halstead, 1988). This bitter dispute became a
major issue in the national media and was one of a series of flash-points that have kept
education as a key issue within the multicultural debate.
Currently, education has returned to centre stage as the Government pursues its concern
with the guaranteeing of cultural coherence and national identity within a British
citizenry. Schooling is being explicitly required to address the question of what it means
to be British and what are the reasonable expectations in terms of rights, and more
specifically obligations in being a British citizen. The strategic placement of citizenship
within the curriculum, and attempts to promote ‘the right sort of history’, are
symptomatic of this process.
The ‘culture wars’ that have been such a visible part of the trajectory of multi-cultural
politics in the United States of America and elsewhere have had their own, at times
bitter, existence in the British context. Providing concrete foci for discourses of the
‘limits of tolerance’ and of ‘the victimization of the majority’, the creation of a diverse
cultural arena within British society has recurrently been the site of white majority
ethnic backlash. Whether it is the aural pollution of the call to prayer at an East London
mosque or the visual assault of young women wearing the chador, or the dietary
challenge of providing halal food in schools, the intrusion of difference into the takenfor-granted English/British norm has been demonstrably capable of exciting vociferous
resentment. Routinely grounded in the specifics of a particular locality and a particular
community, such local opposition has been exploited by a range of ‘social
commentators’ who have exploited their academic and/or media status to generate more
extensive national debate around these specific issues.
The notion of ‘the victimisation of the majority’ has particularly been invoked around
issues of majoritarian freedom of speech and cultural expression. The ‘Rushdie Affair’
in the 1990’s, with the furore surrounding the publication of the Satanic Verses, was a
particularly bitter and vigorous instance; more recently echoed in the case of the Danish
cartoons and their offence to Muslim sensibilities, (Ruthven, 1990). Where the
pluralism, that was inherent in the construction of the evolving British model of
multiculturalism in the 1970’s onwards, has resulted in the penetration of the minority
ethnic voice into the national public sphere it has frequently had the capacity to
destabilise and challenge the nationalist amour propre. At moments like this, around
specific events, it is as though the chronic ambiguity about what it is to be British is
resolved by an emotive defence of a suddenly self-evident shibboleth of national
identity. In a country where the gap between the haves and have-nots widened under
Blairism such expressive moments of national/majority ethnic assertion have a popular
appeal(see Husband and Alam,2011,chapter 4, for a discussion of realistic and symbolic
threat in inter-group behaviour.)
Patterns of migration and settlement in all countries generate quite specific
demographies, and more particularly changing ethnic demographics, which provide the
distinctive terrain in which inter-group competition develops. Whilst particular issues
may have a national audience who, in general terms, can share in the generic concerns
and find evocative relevance in particular discursive scripts; it is in specific locales that
the grounded experiences of inter-ethnic relations are most potently energised. Hewitt
(2005) in his detailed analyses of white backlash in the London Borough of Greenwich
richly illuminates the historical roots of community identities, the shared understanding
of their common experience of external authority and their collective creative
construction of a common sense of grievance. Throughout his account it is the specifics
of locale that give focus and meaning to the building resentment. The social psychology
of inter-group competition (Capozza and Brown, 2000; Brewer and Hestone, 2004) is
here scripted by common understandings and a sense of common fate. The recent
(Dench et al: 2006) account “Kinship, Race and Conflict” in the East End of London
provides further ethnographic analysis of the same phenomena.
Hewitt (2005) in particular, concisely and importantly underlines some of the salient
features of contemporary counter-narratives to multiculturalism. These narratives speak
with the timeless authority of ‘Everyman’. They claim a taken-for-granted authenticity
of voice: “we the people”. There is an outraged resentment at the external imposition of
norms, rules and values by people far removed from their location and their common
sense. These generic rules imposed by ‘mindless technocrats’, ‘woolly liberals’ and
European bureaucrats are experienced through the lens of an unashamedly local
perspective. It is grounded in an assumed, and often real, common local experience and
tradition that fuels the vehemence of their resistance. Counter-narratives may have
common rhetorical features that transcend national borders; but it is the particularity of
their local relevance that gives them life.
Of course the concrete construction of the issue, the righteous anger of local residents
and the demotic clarity of their complaint renders such local instances of majority ethnic
backlash highly attractive to news and current affairs journalists and to ideologically
partisan social commentators (see, for example, Cottle, 1993; Law, 2000).
National Social Imaginaries:
One of the essential characteristics of the specific discursive scripts employed in
counter-narratives is their capacity to implicitly invoke widely held and deep seated
national sentiments and shared beliefs; the ‘modern social imaginaries’ that frame a
wide range of issues. In Taylor’s (2004) discussion of modern social imaginaries he
takes care to sketch their somewhat inchoate, and often elusive, form that present
themselves as deep cultural eddies that are tapped in a contingent way by particular
circumstances and issues. In his words:
By social imaginary, I mean something much broader and deeper than
the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about
social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways
people imagine the social existence, how they fit together with others,
how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that
are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that
underlie these expectations. … social imaginary is that common
understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely
shared sense of legitimacy.
(Taylor, 2004: p.23)
The concept of modern social imaginaries necessarily points us backwards to
acknowledge the historical sedimentation of belief, value, cognitive style and emotional
repertoire that become characteristic of, and identified with, a nation, a region, a city and
a community. As Gilroy (1993, a & b) has cumulatively sought to reveal the historical
roots of diasporic Afro-American and British/West Indian identities and consciousness,
so too we must historicise our understanding of majority ethnic relations. In the context
of inter-group competition, and hostility, a necessary starting point is the majority ethnic
group’s understanding of ‘who are we’; and their available conceptualisation of
difference, generically and in relation to specific target groups. The former we may see
as the extent of a culturally embedded capacity for xenophobia and in-group anxiety.
The latter we can see in relation to the deposition over time of particular beliefs about,
and attitudes toward, specific out-groups.
In the British context such an exercise would necessarily include a recognition of the
distinctive impact of the European Enlightenment in shaping British values and modes
of argumentation. This itself becomes intrinsically linked with the history of nation
building in Britain and the United Kingdom; and the early political settlement of Britain
as a Parliamentary Democracy. It is a sensibility tapped in accounts such as Wright’s
(1985) On Living in an Old Country and Hobsbawn and Ranger’s (1983) The Invention
of Tradition. The British not only have a long history; they also actively recreate it. A
distinctive feature of British history that has laid deep sediments across the national
imaginary is, of course, the experience of empire and imperial domination. This has
found expression in innumerable facets of the contemporary social imaginary: in the
invisible power of normative whiteness in European based cultures around the globe
(Dyer, 1997; Kincheloe et al, 1991; Hage, 1998); in contemporary conceptions of
sexuality (Hyam, 1990; Grewal, 1996) and in British responses to specific migrant
communities in the twentieth century (Fryer, 1984; Solomos and Back, 1995).
In Britain the deep roots of national identity are heavily permeated by the continuous
articulation of variants of racist and ethnocentric ideologies, deposited through centuries
of exploitative relationships of dominance in relation to overseas peoples: many of
whose descendants are now British citizens or legally resident denizens. For the English
in particular, the British sense of cultural superiority has had a particular resonance
given their dominance until recently within the national hierarchies of the
euphemistically labelled United Kingdom. The Scots, Irish and Welsh have shared a
more contradictory consciousness as their participation in the experience and ideologies
of overseas imperialism has sat awkwardly with their own internal subordination within
the United Kingdom ( for an account of the importance of such an historical context in
understanding Islamophobia see Halliday, 1996, and Alam and Husband, 2011,chapter
Whilst there is extensive literature which can fruitfully inform this interrogation of the
continuing impact of a national past in its present consciousness; as the ‘history wars’ in
Australia (Macintyre and Clark, 2004) has revealed, there are difficulties in stepping out
of your history in order to reveal it (see also Young, 1990). Thus, for example, a central
resentment of anti-racist politics in Britain was a perception that it had a primary agenda
of radically critiquing and de-legitimising, core elements of European tradition and
culture. Anti-racism was not about disowning or denigrating white European, or British,
history: it was, and is, about coming to know that history from outside. It is exactly the
nationalism and parochialism that is layered into national and local social imaginaries
that fuels the resistance to such an invitation.
The deep cultural sub-stratum of national-cultural social imaginaries contains relatively
autonomous packages of belief and feeling that may be invoked by specific events. As a
non-problematic self-evident basis of ‘normality’ they contain potent filaments of
identity and expectation that for each individual are woven into their unique web of
habitus (Bourdieu, 1977) and as such they are hardly retrievable to conscious audit. Into
this historically sedimented social imaginary we can see the interweaving of the more
immediate and local concerns of communities and citizens bound by specific identity
politics. Being spatially and temporally more constrained, these ‘neighbourhood
nationalisms’ (Back, 1996) carry a more focused energy and fuse the traditional and the
current imaginaries around specific issues. Paradoxically, it is through these localised
invocations of shared commonsense that it is more easy to discern the presence of the
deeper sedimented cultural baggage. The significance of the French conception of, and
attachment to, laicité; the German conception of ‘Volk’; and British notions of tolerance
and familiarity with ‘managing diversity’, through our Imperial and colonial past, all
become revealed in the politics and discursive strategies of localised inter-ethnic
struggles, and their mediated transition from the “topical common space” of
neighbourhood to the “metatopical” national and inter-national public sphere (Taylor,
2004: p.86).
The personal biographic scripts that incorporate historically constructed social
imaginaries should not be seen as some archaic inheritance that is immune to the
present. On the contrary, this shared past is given vitality in, and through, the lived
present. Thus, the changing zeitgeist of the current moment, powerfully nuance the
relevance and meaning of the residues of the past. Writing in the first decade of the
twenty-first century the optimism, social experimentation and expanding social
liberalism of the 1960’s/1970’s ‘Age of Aquarius’ already seems passé and a subject of
curious nostalgia. The social commentary of our current times very heavily speaks of
the impact of pervasive globalization; and the correlate of extensive social anxiety.
“The times are out of joint” and individuals feel themselves cut adrift in a world where
the forces of change are well beyond their control. Social mobility, the collapse and the
banishment of whole swathes of traditional modes of employment have left communities
bereft of their traditional raison d’etre and common linkages through the world of work.
Traditional working class cultures have been cut adrift, loosed from their points of origin
and contemporary relevance. The middle classes in Britain have generally experienced a
significant rise in their standard of living over the last four decades; accompanied by a
radical exposure to risk. Professionals are no longer strangers to redundancy. Pension
schemes that have been the backbone of family fiscal propriety and the guarantee of a
lifetime standard of living, have been proven to be potentially worthless. The
expectation that your class profile is a sufficient guarantee of the class location of your
children is now barely sustainable in the volatile labour market. And, both working and
middle class citizens have become inveigled into a fetish of consumerism where fashion,
not obsolescence, determines the rapid turnover in consumer goods: from clothing to
cars, to mobile phones, to furniture. Sustained contentment is an elusive commodity in
the anxious, ‘must-have’, consumerism of contemporary Britain.
With these forces, and in this context, British society has mimicked, and amplified, a
globalized shift toward a radical individualism in contemporary life. The bitter heart of
Thatcherism was an assault on the collective and the social. The drive to a radical neoliberal assertion of the primacy of the free market was paralleled by a disdain for
communities and a brutish individualism. More eloquently packaged, than in Thatcher’s
assertion that “Society does not exist”, Blairism has sustained the same essentials. The
Blairite “opportunity society” (see, for example, Levitas 2005, Husband and
Alam,2011,Chapter, 6.) is one in which it is individuals who will compete and thrive.
Generating its own internal policy contradictions, Blairism has done little to remedy the
individualist shift in politics and the popular zeitgeist that was so extensively
accomplished by the prior Conservative Party Governments.
This contemporary social and cultural context gives a real dynamic to the counternarratives to multiculturalism. The social sciences over the last two decades have
cumulatively sketched the social psychological consequences of the global and
economic transitions outlined above. The fragmentation of traditional, stable, social
relations has been paralleled by an increasingly active negotiation of fragmented, and
multiple, social identities. Modernity and its transformations have been conceived as the
crucible in which a new individualism has emerged (Baumann, 1997, 2000, 2003;
Sennett, 1992; Elliott and Lemert, 2006). A key element in this shift of consciousness, it
is argued, has been the progressive ‘privatization’ of the personal world: a withdrawal
from sociability and an assertive self-interest (see, for example, Bauman, 1993, 1995,
2002). This sense of personal detachment and social disengagement does not provide a
comfortable space from which to negotiate the concrete anxieties of the contemporary.
Perceived threat in this psychic space is likely to generate significant levels of arousal.
Additionally, if deep social attachment in, and to, community life has diminished, it does
not follow that the significance of collective identities has similarly diminished. The
classic instances of middle class Nimby-ism (not in my back yard), whether it is the
proposed construction of a new road, the citing of an asylum hostel or the placing of a
radio antenna, are capable of invoking a strong ‘community response’ in the absence of
routines of sociability and connectedness that in previous decades would have been
regarded as intrinsic to the claim of community. And, for remaining working class
neighbourhoods the defence of an embattled community, and the social relations and
values it seeks to defend, have the added significance of standing against ‘the times’.
Contemporary social imaginaries may be shaped by the global and national trends of our
current times, but they become powerfully relevant in the grounded realities of specific
Counter-narratives to multiculturalism and anti-racist policies acquire much of their
legitimacy by their ability to clearly invoke the consensual values and beliefs of framing
historically sedimented social imaginaries. Equally, a great deal of their political
potency is derived from the strong in-group dynamics of a neighbourhood, and the
coalescing of their sense of ‘common fate’ around concrete current events. It is wrong
to see the eruptions of inter-ethnic competition and the proliferation of evocative
counter-narratives merely as a successful outcome of scheming far-right and racist
ideologues. Rather, they routinely arise in the context of a majority ethnic community’s
experience of real change in their social and economic circumstances. There is a
realistic trigger, if not real basis, for their sense of threat (see for example, Stephan et al,
1999 and 2005). The critical issue then becomes the belief systems and value structures
that become available in order to make sense of these circumstances.
The Building Moral Panic over Self Segregation and Dangers of ‘Parallel
The dynamic elements of the counter-narratives to multiculturalism sketched above can
be seen to be flexibly employed throughout a range of political agendas in contemporary
Britain. To an increasing degree their viability and vitality has been fuelled by the
growingly explicit retreat of central Government from a convinced commitment to a
British multiculturalism committed to differentiated citizenship and positive cultural
pluralism. The cumulative impact of the weekly political and media anxiety over the
scale of immigration and asylum seeker entry into Britain has sustained an image of
Britain under threat. The popular imaginary of ‘island Britain’ and her relatively small
population being threatened by alien invasion has an established capacity to be invoked
in populist and political resistance to immigration and its perceived threat to national
identity (Fryer, 1984; Winder, 2004). Thus, in recent years this discourse of external
threat has primed majority ethnic sensibilities to be self-consciously concerned with the
current integrity and long term viability of their national culture.
A corollary to this external threat has been the episodic majority ethnic anxiety about the
social, economic and cultural impact of the growing settled minority ethnic population in
Britain: particularly in the inner cities. In the first few years of the twenty-first century
this concern has again achieved significant visibility. Particularly after the civil
disturbances in the North West of England in 2001, a series of reports have highlighted
what they see as the unfortunate consequences of the ethnic demography of
contemporary urban Britain (Cantle, 2001; Ouseley, 2001; Denham, 2002). In
particular, one phrase has emerged as a leitmotif of this political anxiety: it is the phrase
– self-segregation. The assumed ‘self-segregation’ of minority ethnic communities in
British cities is claimed to promote ‘parallel communities’ and constitute a challenge to
the hegemony of British values.
A potent exemplar of this idiom was provided in the 2001 Ouseley Report on Bradford;
a city which has become synonymous in the British press with the perceived threat of
Muslim enclaves in urban Britain. In the Foreword the report states:
We have focussed on the very worrying drift towards self-segregation,
the necessity of arresting and reversing this process … The Bradford
District has witnessed growing divisions among its population along
race, ethnic, religious and social class lines – and now finds itself in
the grip of fear.
This highly visible, and influential report, emphasised this notion of fear as a defining
feature of Bradford’s ethnic relations. ‘Fear’ of the perceived self-segregation of
minority ethnic communities has become a recurrent theme in current political debate
and media reportage. It has been given support, and added credence, from unlikely
sources: including Trevor Phillips the Chairperson of the Commission for Racial
Equality (Phillips, 2005).
Like many political moral panics the heat of the argument is not allowed to falter merely
because of the presence of contradictory evidence. In a detailed analysis of
demographic change in Bradford, for example, Simpson (2004) argued that there was in
fact movement from inner city areas of minority ethnic concentration into more outlying
mixed neighbourhoods; but that this was disguised by the natural growth (more births
than deaths) within these communities, and by immigration (see also Finney and
Simpson, 2009, for an extensive critique of the arguments and data around the claims of
“ sleepwalking to segregation”) Additionally, Phillips (2002) argued that:
Contrary to the popular perception that South Asians, especially in
places like Bradford, prefer to self-segregate, we found evidence of the
desire for more mixing on the part of all ethnic/religious groups.
Almost all respondents who talked about mixing characterised this as a
process of Asian integration into ethnically mixed neighbourhoods
rather than dispersal to white areas …
(Phillips, 2002: p.10, see also Dorling & Rees, 2003)
Despite evidence to the contrary, the assertion of minority ethnic self-segregation is now
a recurrent and dominant theme in the contemporary public sphere. Importantly, it
carries a clear assertion of the wilful self-segregation of the minority ethnic communities
which fortuitously obviates the need to pay attention to the continuing processes of
social exclusion based on ‘race’, class and religion which may contribute to current and
future urban demographies.
There has been a significant shift in the locus of social exclusion within governmental
thinking under the communitarian infused conception of the opportunity society that has
come to define Blairite social policy. The strong and clear emphasis on racially
motivated forms of exclusion, and particularly of institutional racism located in routine
normative practices, that so powerfully informed the McPherson Inquiry into the murder
of Stephen Lawrence and subsequently fuelled significant shifts in policy (McPherson,
1999) has not been apparent in the more recent reports on the civil disturbances in the
Northern cities in 2001 (Ouseley, 2001; Denham, 2002; Cantle, 2001). There is an echo
here of Solomos’ (1988) account of the pathologising of black culture in accounting for
the disaffection of black youth in 1970’s Britain. In his words:
“While recognising in some form the relevance of deep social
inequalities and urban decay as factors determining the position of
young blacks. A continuing preoccupation throughout the 1970’s was
the connection between deprivation and supposedly pathological or
weak black cultures which produced ‘special problems’ connecting
deprivation to a weak black culture which produce ‘special problems’
for young blacks. This ideology had the effect of externalising the
source of the ‘problem’, and locating it firmly within the black
communities themselves.”
(Solomos, 1988: p.117)
Externalising the source of the problem is very much part of the rhetoric of
governmental and civil society accounts of the current ‘threat’ of self-segregation and
the reproduction of parallel cultures. Now, however, it is not the Afro-Caribbean
communities, and their ‘weak’ culture, that defines the agenda. Framed by the
contemporary manifestations of Islamophobia in Britain (Runneymede Trust, 1997), it is
the Muslim communities in Britain who are the anvil upon which opposition to
multiculturalism are being beaten out. In a splendid demonstration of the flexibility of
racist and xenophobic rhetorics, and of the powerful historicity shaping the construction
of demonized outgroups (Modood, 2005), it is now the internal coherence, strength and
resilience of South Asian, (read Muslim), cultures that constitute the problem. As we
shall see below, it is the strength of their community’s ‘bonding social capital’ which
renders them such problematic citizens.
In the wishful de-classé individualism that defines the Blairite project, the persistent
eruption of class and ‘race’ based forms of the reproduction of inequalities are
uncomfortable reminders of structural, and collective, forms of exclusion from the
progressive promises of the ‘Third Way’.
This blaming of minority ethnic communities for the current status of urban
demographies is interrelated with a fetid anxiety about the maintenance of “parallel
cultures” within Britain. At a surface level the concern with parallel cultures is an
expression of concern about the failure of minority ethnic communities to integrate. The
question then remains: what does integration require? The emergent model throughout
the 1970’s and 1980’s was toward an acceptance of relatively autonomous ethnic
community cultures accompanied by minority ethnic community participation in civil
society and compliance with British law and the demands of state institutions. In the last
decade this has been increasingly eroded and replaced by a conception of integration that
is a variant on assimilation. It is transparent, as we will see below, that the current drift
of Government thinking is toward a requirement of a commitment to, and adoption of,
some assumed, but elusive, common British culture. Behind this demand is a fear that
ethnic minority urban concentrations will provide a demographic and economic resource
that will be able to sustain an infrastructure capable of sustaining vigorous and coherent
minority cultures: that will inevitably constitute a challenge to the majority ethnic
culture. Such a view can only be sustained by a determined ignorance of the historic
synergies that have shaped contemporary ‘British culture’; and of the current extensive
diversity within the majority ethnic population that is expressed in strong regional and
neighbourhood identities.
The Opportunity Society, Social Cohesion and Citizenship
In drawing this analysis to a close, it is necessary to relate the prevalence of counternarratives to multiculturalism and the neurotic anxieties with demographic segregation
and the implications of ‘parallel cultures’ to the wider current policy environment within
current governmental policy. A major theme in the last decade within the policy debates
has been a progressive retreat from pluralist multiculturalism. As one review has
phrased it:
‘The events of summer 2001 in northern town and cities, together with
the growing Islamophobia and open questioning of the allegiances of
British Muslims following the events of September 11, have been
recognised as prompting a shift in New Labour policy, away from a
valuing of cultural mix and an active embracing of diversity and back
to the assimilationist language of the 1960’s, exemplified by the
introduction of citizenship tests and an oath of allegiance for new
(Robinson, 2005: p.1417)
The centrality of cities, and specifically inner city minority ethnic concentrations, in
focusing the anxieties around the current expression of multicultural co-existence in
contemporary Britain positions multiculturalism as inextricably entwined with
governmental urban policy. In Britain, as in other European countries, cities have been
given a pivotal role in guaranteeing economic competitiveness: and integral to the
guarantee of competitiveness is a particular definition of integration. As Spencer (2005)
points out, the European Commission (2003) Communication on Immigration,
Integration and Employment – “sets integration within the context of both Tampere
(migration) and Lisbon (economic prosperity) agendas, seeing successful integration of
new and settled migrants as a matter of social cohesion and economic efficiency”
(Spencer, 2005: p.18). In this way in domestic British policy social cohesion has
become the necessary handmaiden of economic competitiveness. Thus, framed by this
policy agenda, the strong cultural bonds of minority ethnic city communities are not
only a perceived challenge to the majority culture, they are also a perceived hindrance to
national economic success.
In their (2005, p. 6) text, Buck et al outline an account of the “New Conventional
Wisdom” in which cities have a key role in fusing economic success with a broader
engagement in social management through the interlinking imperatives of “(economic)
competitiveness, (social) cohesion and (responsive) governance.” Thus:
Social cohesion, like competitiveness, becomes a significant public
issue in the NCW [New Conventional Wisdom] because the
arrangements of the old status quo, with the clear divisions between
public/private, and economic/social roles, can no longer be counted on
to ensure the conditions for competitive success … Co-ordination
functions which had been increasingly undertaken by (and often
within) major firms would now more often take place outside them,
largely through ‘the market’, though this would have to be
underpinned by social capital in the form of networks, trust relations
and shared conventions.
(Buck et al, 2005: p.11 - emphasis added)
Given the centrality of social cohesion in the ‘newspeak’ of Blairite multicultural policy,
and in its institutional representation in policy development, as indicated by the June
2006 construction of a Commission on Integration and Cohesion within the Department
of Communities and Local Government, it is troubling that it has no clear definition. As
Buck (2005: p.45) observes:
“The model of the social structure of cities in the current paradigm
tends to privilege elements which have the clearest demonstrable
relationship (in either direction) with economic performance. It is thus
close to a tautological system in which social cohesion is that which
promotes competitiveness.”
However, critically for the problematisation of South Asian communities in Britain the
notion of social capital is recurrently central within the British policy debate around
social cohesion. In this context, the distinction between (‘good’) bridging social capital
and (‘bad’) bonding social capital is particularly significant. Bridging social capital
facilitates links to new social networks, which, amongst other things, can aid the entry of
individuals into the labour market. Bonding social capital, on the other hand, points to
strong bonds and solidarity within communities; which, it is argued, may inhibit access
to other forms of social capital. In a review of literature for the Government’s Social
Exclusion Unit, Jones (2005, p:20) tellingly observes that:
“The cultural norms of a community – relating to bonding social
capital described above – can be supportive of beliefs and practices
which policy makers would like to change”.
It is from within such a conception of social cohesion that the Government has come to
interrogate the nature of minority ethnic community engagement with being British.
The same Government that has actively, and unsuccessfully, sought to reify majority
ethnic regional identities in an attempt to promote new layers of administration and
representation, simultaneously presents itself as fundamentally suspicious of the reality
of minority ethnic community identities. But importantly, not only because of their
apparent misfit with the demands of economic competitiveness, but also increasingly
because of their ambiguous Britishness. In the transition from ‘community cohesion’ to
notions of ‘national cohesion’ an insidious xeno-racist nationalism has been allowed to
grow within the governmental rhetoric (see Fekete,2009). Citizenship is being explicitly
tied to a prescriptive conception of Britishness: a reassertion of a majority ethnic
hegemonic norm that undermines the earlier construction of British pluralistic
multiculturalism and creates an environment in which the plethora of counter-narratives
become legitimated. The 2005 policy document emanating from the Home Office,
entitled Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society: the Government’s Strategy to
Increase Race Equality and Community provides an indicative example of this ideology:
Fundamentally, national cohesion rests on an inclusive sense of
Britishness which couples the offer of fair, mutual support – from
security to health to education – with the expectation that people will
play their part in society and will respect others. It is important that
people feel that this approach works in practice, for everyone in
When a community feels that some groups are not
contributing, divisions will increase. That is one of the reasons why,
for example, we have made clearer the expectations we have of new
British citizens, including language skills and a test of knowledge of
life in the UK.
(Home Office, 2005: p.42 – emphasis added)
The issue of which community feels that some groups are not contributing has been left
as implicitly obvious.
The Government has invited a national debate on the definition of multiculturalism
given the experience of the last decades and current circumstances. In framing this
debate it is hard not to conclude that they have already indicated that the evolved model
of the last decades is no longer viable. Thus, for example, Ruth Kelly in launching the
Commission on Integration and Cohesion (Kelly, 2006), having identified the economic,
cultural and specific labour force benefits of past immigration, noted that circumstances
in Britain had changed following 9/11 in New York and the 7/7 bombings in London;
she then argued that:
“And as this complex picture evolves, there are white Britons who do
not feel comfortable with change. They see the shops and restaurants
in their town centres changing. They see their neighbourhoods
becoming more diverse. Detached from the benefits of those changes,
they begin to believe the stories about ethnic minorities getting special
treatment and to develop a resentment, a sense of grievance.
The issues become a catalyst for a debate about who we are and what
we are as a country. And what it means to live in a town where the
faces you see on the way to the supermarket have changed and may be
constantly changing.
I believe this is why we have moved from a
period of uniform consensus on the value of multiculturalism, to one
where we can encourage debate by questioning whether it is
encouraging separateness. ………………
In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture,
have we ended up with some communities living in isolation of each
other, with no common bonds between them?”
The evidence is that the Government has, in fact, pre-empted the outcome of any debate
and has already constructed ‘parallel lives’ as a dangerous and extant reality. And, they
have already initiated an assimilationist remodelling of multiculturalism, with an
imagined Britishness as its normative core (Back et al, 2002; Shukra, 2004: and see
Husband and Alam, 2011, for an empirically based critique of UK community cohesion
policies and their accompanying rhetoric).
The political cowardice and pandering to racist and nationalist sentiments, that is at the
heart of this policy shift, demonstrates a triumph of political rhetoric over empirical
reality. The reality is that the great majority of Britain’s minority ethnic populations are
now deeply enmeshed in the British way of life. Certainly the younger generations not
only identify with Britain, in a fundamental way they are culturally British: but in a
hybrid way as revealed in, for example, a recent ethnographic study of young Asian men
in Bradford (Alam and Husband, 2006). These young men negotiate being Bradfordian,
British, Pakistani and Muslim through a grounded sense of their existential certainty of
their rooted Britishness. Hybrid forms of identity construction and maintenance are a
demonstration of multiculturalism as a work in process (see for example, Back, 1996).
The majority ethnic culture, just as minority ethnic cultures, is fragmented and
permanently undergoing change. The current Government policy juxtaposes a denial of
the reality of multicultural identity formation in Britain against an ossified and
essentialized conception of Britishness.
In contemporary Britain the legal basis for guaranteeing individual rights, and for
challenging manifestations of personal and institutional racism is still in place, and has
in recent years been strengthened. Anti-discriminatory policies in employment, in
service delivery and in wide areas of civil society are substantively routinely operative.
Britain is a de facto multi-ethnic society; with significant minority ethnic communities
who have established concrete hybrid British/ethnic minority identities. In this context
the resurgence of a nationalist xenophobia that is fed into an assimilationist model of
multiculturalism is not only a denial of the successes of the post-war period of
immigration and settlement; it is also laying the foundations of future political conflict.
Minority ethnic Britons have no evidence of a cohesive, uniform majority ethnic culture
that they could feel they must emulate in order to merit their citizenship rights. There
are significant aspects of majority culture they may wish to actively reject: including
binge drinking, high levels of family breakdown, high levels of consumer debt or
increasing privatization within family networks. More centrally for second and third
generation minority ethnic British citizens their rootedness in Britain is very widely not
in doubt. Their personal identities are creatively hybrid British. To be singled out as
being problematic citizens, whether because of their ethnic heritage, their faith, or both,
is rightly perceived as state enforced discrimination. It provides a dynamic that feeds
the in-group suspicion and enmity that Government rhetoric claims it wishes to
The current Government strategies around social cohesion and the renegotiation of
multiculturalism provides a discourse permeated by ‘little Englander’ sensibilities. It
obscures the substantive rights minority ethnic citizens should legitimately enjoy, and
feeds on discourses of tolerance in which an undefined Britishness provides a normative
core identity. It has already, and will continue to, provide a nurturant environment for
all the majority ethnic self-serving counter-narratives to effective plural
multiculturalism. It contributes to the persistent reproduction of a discursive field in
which ultra-nationalist and racist parties will enjoy unchallengeable legitimacy in the
centre-ground of national politics. The Labour Party, in government, created the same
conditions that have fuelled the success of the racist and far-right parties in, for example,
France and Belgium. This Labour Government lost faith in the British population who
predominantly learnt to live with, and then accept, a robust assault upon racism in public
life and a viable plural multiculturalism.
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