When I interviewed Bonnie Greer as part of the ParliaMentors Annual Lecture last week I asked her what it means to be British. In response she said, "I don't know what it means to be British and I think it's a very positive thing... I think Britain is the right sort of template for the 21st century in that it is a multi-national state that isn't at war with itself, that isn't tearing itself apart, and is actually showing the world how to function".
It seems that we Brits have a perpetual identity crisis; like Bonnie most people would say, "I don't know" in answer to that question and perhaps many people would add that they don't really care. We might cobble together something about manners, tolerance, a stoic attitude or an acceptance of bad weather but we wouldn't be very sure of our answer. Our long and complex history means we don't have a short, sharp story to explain our national identity unlike, for example, the USA. The somewhat bemused reaction to Gordon Brown's attempt to celebrate "Britishness" provided a prime example of this confusion.
Our lack of understanding of Britishness and the idea, argued by David Cameron, that state multiculturalism has failed seems to be gaining a lot of traction. Government has responded to the symptoms of the country's identity crisis with their long-awaited integration white paper "Creating the conditions for integration". In commenting on the paper's launch Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said, "We need a new approach, one that emphasises what we have in common rather than difference".
The government is rightly shifting focus to promoting integration rather than allowing a multiculturalism of separate communities to develop. But surely celebrating difference is a fundamental part of what it means to be British? We are a nation of explorers who love to travel, our high streets are filled with restaurants serving food from every corner of the globe. Historically we have travelled the world, discovered new foods, spices, animals, plants and brought them back home. Exploring and learning from other cultures is a key part of what Britishness is all about and it enriches our own culture.
So why all the fuss about a failure of multiculturalism? Have we lost our confidence in accepting difference or is something really going wrong in our culture?
Channel 4's Make Bradford British provides a fascinating example of people from different backgrounds who mistrust and dislike each other, as Sarfraz Mansoor points out in his review, primarily because they don't mix. Sarfraz Mansoor also makes the point that lack of meaningful contact with people who are different often leads to ignorance that breeds resentment. Surely this is the root of where multiculturalism is going wrong rather than a misplaced focus on our differences.
A self-confident nation should be able to understand common ground and be comfortable with difference. People can't do that without going against their seemingly natural inclination to gravitate towards people who are similar to them.
Government needs to provide a legislative framework that promotes integrated structures as well as creating incentives for people to integrate. Charities like 3FF provide these 'unnatural' opportunities to explore common ground and learn about differences. Recently a colleague who works on our Faith School Linking programme, which links 50 Faith schools, told me about a time she took a group of Jewish and Muslim children on a school trip and people in the street actually stopped to watch this unusual spectacle of such a diverse group of children walking together.
Bonnie Greer was right: we have multiple identities; we are a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-racial state. We should be proud of this and follow our centuries-long tradition of appreciating difference and allowing that difference to enrich our own lives.
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