The death of multiculturalism

April 1, 2002 — Comment

Written by Arun Kundnani

The official response to the summer 2001 riots in the northern towns of the UK is now taking shape.

December saw the publication of the Cantle report [1], titled Community Cohesion, which defines the government’s strategy for maintaining order in those towns. [2] At the same time, Home Secretary Blunkett announced that the government was considering an oath of allegiance for immigrants and that English language tests would be introduced.[3] We were told that practices such as forced marriage and genital mutilation had been allowed to continue because of an over-emphasis on ‘cultural difference’ and ‘moral relativism'[4]. Blunkett wanted a new framework of core values, which would set limits to the laissez-faire pluralism of the past. The Mail and the Telegraph had, it seemed, found their great white knight to slay the demon political correctness.

Of course, each of Blunkett’s proposals, when taken individually and out of its political context, was eminently reasonable. Of course, cultural difference cannot be used to legitimise oppression of women. Of course, knowledge of the English language is a factor in social inclusion. And, yes, migrant communities cannot live in the same way that they did decades ago, in the countries of their origin. But in the context of responding to riots which had sprung from the police’s failure to protect Asian communities from racist violence, Blunkett’s comments seemed to be a case of ‘blame the victim’, rather than an attempt to deal with the real issues. And how could a lack of ability in the English language be a factor in causing the riots when the participants were born and bred here? Blunkett argued that, if their first-generation mothers could not speak English, this might, in some way, have contributed to deprivation in the second generation. But it was a highly tenuous link. Wasn’t Blunkett just appeasing racism? Worse, he was attempting to use immigration policy as a way of disciplining black communities, thereby explicitly reconnecting the issues of race and immigration – something that no leading Labour politician had done for at least thirty years.

But the Cantle report and Blunkett’s provocative comments were more than just regression. They also signalled that, from the state’s point of view, the ‘multiculturalist settlement’, which has dominated race relations thinking in Britain for two decades, is no longer working. The riots of summer 2001 were a wake-up call. And events since September 11 have sounded the death knell for multiculturalist policies. The establishment needs a revised strategy to manage and preserve a racially divided society, as effectively as ‘multiculturalism’ did in an earlier time. The old multiculturalist formula of ‘celebrating difference’ – itself a response to the riots of the early 1980s – is to be replaced. The new strategy is ‘community cohesion’ and the Cantle report is its blueprint.

British multiculturalism

‘Britain is a multicultural society’ – the phrase is bandied about religiously, but the meaning is rarely examined. The whole panoply of multiculturalist clichés – black communities are always ‘vibrant’, always making ‘positive contributions’, always to be ‘tolerated’ – serves more to obscure than to clarify. These glib pronouncements are now reaching the end of their useful life.

From an anti-racist perspective, multiculturalism was always a double-edged sword. At times, it was an effective riposte to the anti-immigrant politics of Powellism that began in the late sixties, challenging the myth of an ethnically pure society. Against this New Right popular racism, multiculturalism stood for demanding the very survival of non-white communities on these islands. But, as the politics of black communities became radicalised, mere survival in Britain was not enough. Those who were born and grew up here wanted to remake society, not just be tolerated within it. The uprisings of the early 1980s were the most obvious expression of this shift. And at this point, multiculturalism changed from a line of defence to a mode of control.

Multiculturalism now meant taking black culture off the streets – where it had been politicised and turned into a rebellion against the state – and putting it in the council chamber, in the classroom and on the television, where it could be institutionalised, managed and reified. Black culture was thus turned from a living movement into an object of passive contemplation, something to be ‘celebrated’ rather than acted on. Multiculturalism became an ideology of conservatism, of preserving the status quo intact, in the face of a real desire to move forward. As post-modern theories of ‘hybridity’ became popular in academia, cultural difference came to be seen as an end in itself, rather than an expression of revolt, and the concept of culture became a straitjacket, hindering rather than helping the fight against race and class oppressions.

Ethnic fiefdoms

While multiculturalist policies institutionalised black culture, it was the practice of ethnicised funding that segmented and divided black communities. The state’s strategy, it seemed, was to re-form black communities to fit them into the British class system, as a parallel society with their own internal class leadership, which could be relied on to maintain control. A new class of ‘ethnic representatives’ entered the town halls from the mid-1980s onwards, who would be the surrogate voice for their own ethnically defined fiefdoms. They entered into a pact with the authorities; they were to cover up and gloss over black community resistance in return for free rein in preserving their own patriarchy. It was a colonial arrangement, which prevented community leaders from making radical criticisms, for fear that funding for their pet projects would be jeopardised. Different ethnic groups were pressed into competing for grants for their areas. The result was that black communities became fragmented, horizontally by ethnicity, vertically by class.

Worst of all, the problem of racism came to be redefined in terms of cultural protectionism and the cultural development, of Asian communities in particular, was stunted. They were allotted their own parallel cultural bloc, where Asian leaders were allowed a cultural laissez faire, largely free from state intervention. The community leadership tried to insulate their clans from the wider world, which they saw only as a threat to the patriarchal system on which their power depended. The cost to Asian communities was huge, measured not only in political subjugation, but also in cultural stagnation.

This state of affairs meant that Asians lived a double life, forced to wear one face within their community and a different one outside. Ethnicity was recognised in the family and in the community, but banished in the public spheres of school, work and politics. As multiculturalism matured, the political ambitions of Asians focused on challenging this public/private division by winning cultural rights in the public sphere. But the culture being fought for was largely defined in terms of a fixed identity, unchanged in its transmission from 1960s South Asia to 1990s Britain.

The crisis in multiculturalist policy

In the event, the political energies of black communities were diverted on to the terrain of cultural rights, while the extreme Right continued its attacks on ‘political correctness’. The state stumbled along, balancing the demands of the two groups while allowing the underlying structure of the ‘parallel cultural blocs’ model to remain intact. Some on the Left, especially those associated with Race & Class and CARF, had, early on, identified multiculturalism as a danger to anti-racism – in that the fight against racism, in Sivanandan’s words, was being transformed into a fight for culture. But these voices were drowned out by the rising tide of identity politics.

Today, the multiculturalist ‘settlement’ is in crisis. First, the successful campaign by the Lawrence family, after the failed investigation into the murder of their son, to get the existence of institutional racism in the police force recognised, showed how the terms of debate could be changed from cultural recognition to state racism. Second, since 1997, a government that is explicitly ‘multicultural’ has also launched a frightening attack on asylum seekers. Multiculturalism, it transpires, is perfectly compatible with anti-immigrant populism. Third, and most important, among Asians, culture is no longer a cage within which opposition can be effectively contained.

Until recently, Asian culture connoted passivity, entrepreneurship, hard work and education. Asians were the ‘model minority’. Pundits predicted that they faced a ‘Jewish future’, that is, increasing economic success combined with cultural conservatism. But that has not happened, except for a small number. Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, especially, remain mired in poverty. And the rebelliousness normally associated with white and African-Caribbean youths has infused working-class Asians. Their old image of passivity has given way to one of aggression and criminality, an image seemingly confirmed by the summer riots, and then heightened by the ‘war on terrorism’. The columnists of the Mail and the Asian bourgeois intellectuals (such as Tariq Modood) are now united in their fear that Asian youths have been infected by white working-class ‘laddishness’, and that they are no longer reliably well-behaved.

Worse, the propping up of a conservative minority culture is no longer a viable option for the state. Rather than being an effective way of integrating communities, cultural identities, particularly Muslim identities, now seem dangerous. The 1980s solution to riots – a higher dose of ‘culture’ – now appears to make the problem worse. Whereas before, black youths were assumed to be rioting because of a lack of culture (what was referred to as ‘ethnic disadvantage’), now youths were rioting because of an excess of culture – they were too Muslim, too traditional. For the state, the laissez-faire allowances of earlier had to be ended and cultural difference held on a tighter rein. The ‘parallel cultural bloc’ was now seen as part of the problem, not the solution.


The Cantle report is the government’s race manifesto. It provides a new formula, in which the separate cultural development that had been encouraged for decades is to be subsumed to the demands of ‘community cohesion’. A set of core values is to put limits on multiculturalism and black people are required to develop ‘a greater acceptance of the principal national institutions’.[5] Racism itself is to be understood as an outcome of cultural segregation, not its cause. And segregation is now seen as self-imposed.

The ultimate problem is identified as ‘cultural barriers’, rather than institutional racism or deprivation. The landmark recognition of institutional racism in the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence is diluted. The racism of Oldham police, which led up to the riots, is played down. It seems that the Greater Manchester police force, which was declared institutionally racist by its own chief constable in 1999, is now no longer a part of the problem. Instead, the same measures that have been proposed for the last twenty years are once again wheeled out: diversity training and ethnic headcounts.[6]

According to the Cantle report, it is not so much institutions as attitudes that are the focus of change. Like its conceptual cousin, ‘social exclusion’, ‘community cohesion’ is about networks, identity and discourse, rather than poverty, inequality and power. By implication the ‘political correctness gone mad’ argument finds official endorsement – cultural barriers have, apparently, been left to fester, leading to a refusal to engage in open debate.

On a local level, the new solutions are as banal as the analysis: cross-cultural contact, inter-faith dialogue, twinning of schools, fostering understanding and respect. Not so much celebrating diversity as kissing-and-making-up; reconciliation without remedial action. The report laments the decline of civic pride but offers these towns nothing to take pride in – no hope of economic development or revival of local democracy, just more ‘neighbourliness’.

On a national level, a new Community Cohesion Task Force has been set up and Blunkett has initiated a ‘national debate’, by suggesting that immigrants take an ‘oath of allegiance’ to the British state and adopt British norms. The debate is meant to clarify the rights and responsibilities of a British citizen. But nobody seems to know what these are. In addition, the forthcoming white paper on nationality and immigration is expected to place extra requirements on immigrants for English language skills. And what is effectively a new policing measure – the introduction of the ID card – will most probably be dressed up as a ‘citizenship card’ to fit in to the new cohesion agenda.

Already contradictions are being thrown up between the old and new models, most notably around Islam’s relationship with Britishness. By the logic of the multiculturalist consensus, faith schools were to be encouraged and, under Blair, won government support. Encouraging a Muslim identity in schools was seen as likely to produce responsible, respectable citizens. But from the new perspective of community cohesion, Muslim schools are dangerous breeding grounds for separatism. The government has yet to resolve such competing claims. Similarly, the question of Imams in prisons: before they were seen as an effective way of bringing wayward Muslim youths back into the community; now they are dangerous ideologues indoctrinating anti-western values.

The cohesion strategy can also be seen as part of a wider anxiety in government about Britain’s Muslim population. This first became evident a few years ago when Home Office crime research started to focus increasingly on young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, as potential criminal groups. Then in the 2001 census, the religious affiliations of the population were counted for the first time, a move widely thought to reflect the need to measure the size of the Muslim population. Following September 11, British Muslims have been criminalised further, with racial profiling in policing becoming acceptable as part of anti-terrorist operations.

Opportunity for anti-racists

The far Right has received a boost following Blunkett’s December speech. Ray Honeyford – the former Bradford head teacher who had tried to make a heroic right-wing stand against multiculturalism in the 1980s – came out of the woodwork, to claim that he had been vindicated after all these years.[7] And indeed many of his old arguments resonate with the official government line of today. Likewise, British National Party leader Nick Griffin argued that the self-segregation line had been stolen from him (a view which credits him with too much originality).

But the fact that the old multiculturalist settlement has been unhinged can only be a good thing for anti-racists, as it leaves the way open for a revival of the left-wing critique of multiculturalism begun in Race & Class twenty years ago.

Related links

IRR expresses concern over excessive sentencing of Bradford rioters

From Oldham to Bradford: the violence of the violated

[1]See Arun Kundnani, 'From Oldham to Bradford: the violence of the violated', in The Three Faces of British Racism, Race & Class (Vol. 43, no. 2, 2001), pp.41-60.
[2]Community Cohesion: a report of the independent review team, chaired by Ted Cantle (London, Home Office 2001).
[3]'If we want social cohesion we need a sense of identity', interview with David Blunkett by Colin Brown, Independent on Sunday (9 December 2001), p. 4.
[4]Brown, ibid., and David Blunkett, 'It's not about cricket tests', Guardian (14 December 2001).
[5]Community Cohesion, op. cit., p. 19.
[6]Ibid., p. 42.
[7]Ray Honeyford, 'Ghettos are the problem: grammar schools the answer', Daily Telegraph (12 December 2001).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.


July 3, 2006


March 5, 2008
Dave Williamson:

Lovely piece – of pretentious, patronising, opinionated, detached and pompous waffle. Well done.

October 20, 2010

Well said Dave Williamson…..I am sick to the back teeth of reading and listening to this liberal left Marxist bullshit…….Muslims should not have come to the West….it has not been worth the cost …and has ruined our society.

May 15, 2012
Peter Yeung:

The two previous comments are excruciatingly idiotic.

August 8, 2012

Hi there,

I personally thought this posting was extremely interesting, you’ve made a handful very good points, look forward to heading back and reading a lot more.
Keep it up,


December 4, 2014

Some insightful and helpful points here, thank you Arun Kundnani.
Perhaps Dave Williamson has not read well on some the issues involved in this piece; corpuschristi is clearly racist in their attitude towards Muslims, not realising that it is people like him/her self that ruins society.


May 12, 2015

what a load of bull, these riots were just criminal acts, nothing more nothing less.

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