I have been increasingly alarmed by what appears to be a backlash against multiculturalism. Eric Pickles recently criticised the "comfort blanket" of multiculturalism, promoting instead what he seems to regard as traditional British values. However, those who oppose multiculturalism are swimming against the tide. Mass migration has made our communities more culturally diverse than ever. Multiculturalism is not just a world view, it is a reality.
From racial attacks in London to the thousands of supporters of the BNP: opposition to diversity is not just a phenomenon of British politicians. A sustainable strategy for multiculturalism is required - not just domestically, but internationally, for globalisation is making the domestic/international distinction weaker by the day.
Many of the ingredients and symptoms of cultural conflict are already present. Few in the West speak Chinese, or understand Chinese ways of thinking and understanding the world. Islam is frequently demonised in the media, with a hugely disproportionate focus on a tiny minority of extremists and no attention given to the hundreds of millions of Muslims who wish to live in peace. Many in the developing world, meanwhile, regard 'Western values' as an extension of imperialism.
As the global economic climate changes dramatically, how can we avoid going down the route which humans almost always go down in times of economic crisis - that of insularity and exclusion? For it seems likely that Europe and North America is entering a period of long-term relative economic decline on an unprecedented scale.
The solution is not in extreme cultural relativism. There must always be a limit to tolerance: we cannot expect violent extremists, for example, to live peaceably in our societies. However, there is also great value in diversity: in meeting a diverse array of people, in breaking down barriers, even in experiencing a varied range of flavours. Diversity enriches life and eradicates prejudice.
However, many cultures incorporate profoundly intolerant values. This means that the way forward must be something between tolerance and order, because unless we can punish, dissuade or educate those who seek to attack cultural diversity, our tolerance becomes self-destructive.
This is the paradox of tolerance. Only by refusing to tolerate intolerance can tolerance prevail. By subjecting our tolerance of cultural values to limits, our very different cultures can thrive within those limits.
The limits to diversity I advocate allow for the greatest diversity possible. This limit is:
That my freedom to practice my cultural values ends where yours begins.
You can practice your religion, but as soon as you force it upon me, you are in the wrong. I can celebrate my culture, but as soon as that restricts another's ability to celebrate their culture - for example by forcing them to wear certain clothes - I am in the wrong.
This approach is quintessentially British. Cultural diversity has played a key role in forming the multicultural Britain of today, far more so than adherence to one set of 'national values' has.
The role of the state is to enforce this tolerance through laws and expose children to the true diversity of the world they are entering in the education system. This means ensuring that visits to different places of worship are part of every school's curriculum, and prohibiting the teaching of just one set of values in a school.
Societies, by this formula, can both protect and enjoy diversity. Globalisation demands the success of multiculturalism. By encouraging tolerance through our national education systems, the tolerance necessary for the global world will be exhibited by the next generation of citizens and policymakers. As long as my freedom ends where yours begins, there is no reason why we cannot take the necessary steps to a world that is at ease with itself. This is a recipe for a more peaceful, diverse and tolerant future.
Do you agree? Can multiculturalism work? Leave your comments below.