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Why Cameron Is Wrong About Multiculturalism

08/02/2011 11:26 | Updated 22 May 2015

Over the weekend, David Cameron did what politicians always do when the chips are down: attack the outsiders.

In a speech to European leaders at a security conference in Germany on Saturday, Mr Cameron blamed "state multiculturalism" for encouraging "different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream".

He said Britain had "tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values", adding that immigrants should "speak the language of their new home" and be "educated in the elements of a common culture".

The prime minister finished with a rhetorical flourish worthy of a (grammatically challenged) action movie trailer: "At stake are not just lives, it is our way of life."

At the root of the speech was an attempt to talk about the difficult subject of home-grown Islamist extremism and some of what Cameron said did actually make sense.

What a shame then that he chose to fall back on the tired cliche of urging those from immigrant backgrounds to embrace British values, because apparently we just don't do this enough.

As somebody whose mother comes from the Caribbean (at least I half "belong" – my dad's Scottish), such calls always make me wonder how exactly we are supposed to do this. Carry an "I love the Queen" banner around Tesco's? Make our children recite Shakespeare at the school gates? Serve dinner with buttered bread and milky tea when friends come a-calling?

Surely it must be time to put a sock in this kind of "them and us" political posturing. This week it is multiculturalism that finds itself in the firing line but it could just as easily be single mothers (John Major's "back to basics", anyone?) or gay men (witness the row over Section 28).

It's as though our PM's get left a secret "Coping with Unpopularity" handbook in the airing cupboard at Number 10: "Struggling in the polls? Finding it hard to connect with a hostile electorate? Why not Attack A Minority? In extreme emergencies only, turn to p101, point 1: 'Burkas and Headscarves'."

If I am giving the impression that I find this state of affairs amusing, that is only partly true. The truth is that Cameron's words will provide ammunition to those only too eager to dismiss our multicultural society as a failure and advocate radical and even violent solutions.

The fact that Cameron made his speech on the same day that 3,000 supporters of the English Defence League marched through the streets of Luton chanting anti-Muslim slogans and that the BNP leader Nick Griffin hailed his remarks as "a further huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream" illustrates the care that Cameron should be taking.

I am not going to go on about our rainbow nation. All that talk about Muslim women in headscarves rubbing shoulders with Rastafarians and home counties grandmothers in street markets redolent with exotic food smells makes me want to puke.

But I simply don't recognise the kind of country that Cameron and his ilk seem to believe we live in. Yes, there is segregation, but that has much more to do with inequality of opportunity in employment, education and housing than any self-imposed wish for separateness.

Speaking as the child of an immigrant, I for one would much rather live in our imperfect multicultural society than anywhere else in Europe, and possibly the world.

And I can also speak English. Does that mean I pass the Britishness test?

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