"Multiculturalism and Nation Building go Hand in Hand" a Commentary by Tariq Modood

May 23, 2007

Author: Tariq Modood

Source: The Guardian


With Gordon Brown preparing to take over as prime minister, we can expect to hear a lot more about Britishness and integration. Could his premiership even signal the death knell for multiculturalism in our public life? For some time Brown, and recently his campaign manager, Jack Straw, have argued for the need to revive and revalue British national identity. They seek to derive a set of core values (liberty, fairness, enterprise and so on) from a historical narrative.

The problem is that such values, even if they could be given a distinctive British take, are too complex, and their interpretation too contested, to be set into a series of meaningful definitions. Every public culture must operate through shared values, which are both embodied in and used to criticise its institutions and practices. Their meaning is grasped as old interpretations are dropped and new circumstances unsettle one consensus and another is built up. Simply saying that freedom or equality is a core British value is unlikely to settle any controversy or tell us, for example, what is hate speech and how it should be handled. Definitions of core values will be too bland or too divisive.

The idea that there has to be a schedule of "non-negotiable" value statements to which every citizen is expected to sign up is not in the spirit of an open, plural citizenship. National identity should be woven in debate and discussion, not reduced to a list. For central to it is a citizenship and the right of all, especially previously marginalised or newly admitted groups, to make a claim on the national identity. In this way, racism and other forms of stigmatised identities can be challenged and supplanted by a positive politics of mutual respect and inclusion. Being black or Muslim is then no longer seen as something to be tolerated but part of what it is to be British today.

Such an inclusive and work-in-progress concept of national identity helps to also clarify that the recent emphasis on citizenship, common values and community cohesion has taken two forms. For some, like Trevor Phillips and David Goodhart, it means that multiculturalism is an idea that, once helpful, must now be left behind. For others, it means re-emphasising an aspect of multiculturalism that was always there, albeit sometimes in a muted or half-hearted way.