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How can we say multiculturalism has failed when we struggle to explain what it is? - Arv Kaushal

08 February 2024

By Arv Kaushal, Head of People Development & EDI at MK College Group

A few months ago, the former home secretary, of Kenyan Indian and Mauritian Indian parentage, caused a storm of controversy with her claims that multiculturalism had “failed”. She said there was an “existential challenge for the political and cultural institutions of the West,” and that the “misguided dogma of multiculturalism” has allowed people to come to Britain with the aim of “undermining the stability and threatening the security of society.”

To determine whether she is right or not, we need to understand what multiculturalism actually is. If you were to ask a hundred people, there’s a good chance you’d end up with (at least) a hundred different answers. How do you define a term that is so utterly dependent on perspective? My own concept of multiculturalism would certainly be very different from that of Suella Braverman, or a Ukrainian refugee, or a Huguenot fleeing religious persecution in seventeenth century France. Where does multiculturalism start, and interculturalism or cosmopolitanism begin or end? When somebody uses the word, how do we know what they're talking about? A lack of shared experience means a gap in shared understanding.

Is multiculturalism all about black and brown and white faces? Does prime minister Rishi Sunak, the former Winchester head boy, Oxford graduate and Stanford MBA, have more in common, culturally, with a nurse whose grandparents came from the same village in the Punjab as Mr Sunak’s, or with the clutch of male Old Etonians and Oxbridge alumni with whom he has shared membership of various cabinets?

Certainly, the Covid inquiry has heard suggestions that the monoculture of those making the decisions during the pandemic led to a lack of understanding of the needs of, and risks to, ethnic minorities, children in need of free school meals and elderly people in care homes. Is this a failure of multiculturalism, or no multiculturalism at all?

At Milton Keynes College Group, we are committed to a community of staff and learners who reflect the makeup of the city in which we operate. That means our diversity, from senior managers, teachers, cleaners and catering staff, should mirror our homes and neighbourhoods. This is not some blind sacrifice to the God of multiculturalism; it is not “woke” or political correctness gone mad. It is simple business sense. How could we attract the best staff, the keenest students, the individuals most likely to meet local skills needs, if we fail to fish in all available ponds for talent? Isn’t multiculturalism in this context simply another term to describe commercial good sense?

For the sake of argument, let’s define multiculturalism as the collective recognition, respect and valuing of different groups of people, all with the same rights, responsibilities and laws. My late immigrant Indian father had to abide by the law, and also had the right to vote, to buy a house and so on. This has not always been the case. When black and Asian immigrants came to Britain in numbers in the 40s, 50s and 60s, it was the trades unions that first found the concept of multiculturalism unpalatable, calling for British jobs for British workers. The 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts, largely came into being as a reaction to the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, where the bus company defended its refusal to employ black crews, because the Transport and General Workers Union had demanded they do so.

Trades Unionism has undergone a transformation in its relationship with the ethnicity of workers and such a situation could not arise today. A company, blatantly and explicitly refusing to hire non-white workers would find itself demonised in even the most right-wing newspapers and in court shortly afterwards. So, from 1963 to today, surely, it has to be said that multiculturalism has actually succeeded. Nobody reacts with surprise or alarm when getting onto a bus driven by a black driver. It is the norm. And this is a key thing to consider. For something to have failed it needs to be assessed over a period of time, but what period? What is the timeline for assessing which particular trends? Is the home secretary talking about the last five years, or fifty, or fifteen hundred even?

In the last century, British servicemen (for it was only men) of colour, used to be consigned to unmarked graves if they fell in the field for their country. Today such indignity would be unthinkable, and great care is taken by the armed forces to recognise the religious sensitivities of its fallen soldiers. That’s multiculturalism too.

Does racism still exist in British society? Of course it does. Are there inequalities in health, education, employment, life expectancy? Palpably so. Are white and black people equal before the law? In theory, yes. In practice, no. Is that a failure of multiculturalism?

Are refugees from Ukraine regarded in the same way as those from Afghanistan or Syria? No. Is that a failure of multiculturalism?

There is a tendency among those who see multiculturalism as a failure, or even a threat, to want to preserve or even conserve something called Britishness, as if trapped like a fly in amber. But which Britishness is it? Is it the Britishness of today or yesterday, of the 1930s or the 1730s? Cultures cannot be frozen in time. The only ones that are, are those that no longer exist. The cultures of ancient Greece or the Incas are fixed and immutable… and dead.

Television, and advertising in particular, have taken great conscious strides to be more representative of the multiethnic nature of society in recent years, but this is one of the great irritations for some who feel that multiculturalism has been artificially forced upon British society, rather than being part of a natural process. Supermarket advertisements featuring black and brown families tucking into a traditional Christmas lunch routinely provoke howls of protest about being unnecessarily and even offensively “woke.” Strangely, the depiction of some of the nation’s favourite meals (and yes, they really are) like Chicken Tikka Masala, Spaghetti Bolognese or Beef Chow Mein being eaten by white British families seems to cause no offence. Could it be that the reality is that what causes upset, is not a cultural difference, but the presence of non-white faces in situations which are not considered by some to be their place?

Those of us working in the equality, diversity and inclusion space are often asked, “What does success look like? When will we have achieved the nirvana of total integration, total cultural harmony?” The reality is that the pursuit of multicultural perfection is a process. There is no end point, because all cultures are subject to constant change, with extinction and replacement the only possible alternative. So, has multiculturalism failed? Yes. In one sense it fails every day. However, the process of continual improvement, of gentle, sometime almost imperceptible evolution, goes on.

Multiculturalism is an aspiration, and not a destination. Rather than decrying its failure, let us celebrate its achievements.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.