Tuesday, November 21, 2006

New Generation Network manifesto

This looks good.

Thirty years since the passing of the Race Relations Act, Britain faces a crisis of discourse around race and faith. These have always been sensitive topics, but the debate has hit new lows of simplicity and hysteria in the past few years. People want to talk. They need to talk. But how do they engage in a discussion which has been manipulated by recent governments to demonise minority groups, while being increasingly hijacked by self-appointed "community leaders"?

We need an approach that discards the older politics of representation through government sanctioned gate-keepers. One that rejects prejudice from both majority and minority communities, especially religious intolerance, and finds a common cause in equality and social justice with all Britons.

We need to wrest the debate away from the extreme ends of the spectrum and provide a voice to the silent majority. The true purpose of "multiculturalism" should be to help people from differing cultural backgrounds to understand each other better and overlap productively. Instead it has come to mean increasing separation. Sometimes this is a case of deliberate misrepresentation by the media. It has not been helped by the government entrusting power to so-called community leaders and other umbrella groups who claim to be the voice of minority groups. Such organisations should be working to put themselves out of business not expand their remits.

In a throwback to the colonial era, our politicians have chosen to appoint and work with a select band of representatives and by doing so treat minority groups as monolithic blocks, only interested in race or faith based issues rather than issues that concern us all, such as housing, transport, foreign policy and crime.

Unfortunately, many self-appointed community representatives have an incentive to play up their victimisation. This arrangement allows politicians to pass on the burden of responsibility to them and treat minorities as outsiders. MPs have increasingly sought to politicise problems of segregation, political apathy, criminality and poverty into problems of race and religion, and shift responsibility onto appointed gate-keepers rather than find ways of engaging with all Britons.

This brand of politics works against the very people it is meant to help. The gate-keepers have helped to polarise the debate on community cohesion by taking extreme positions and failing to reflect more progressive opinion from those they claim to represent. Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews all have long traditions and histories of progressive thought, self-criticism and change. Unsurprisingly a political paralysis has followed when addressing cultural ills such as honour killings, homophobia and forced marriages.

The struggle for equality and better access to public services is a struggle for all Britons not just ethnic minorities. White working-class families also face problems with deprivation, injustice and demonisation. Their concerns should not be ignored or blamed on other groups.

We need to foster a climate in which people can have private differences which include religion, language and culture, but also have a public space where such differences are bridged. The right to freedom of speech and expression of culture, faith and public debates must remain paramount.

Each one of us from this modern generation of Britons has multiple identities and we do not ask that anyone surrenders their heritage. Indeed, cultural and religious heritages are, in the main a source of empowerment.

The aim of this manifesto is to declare that too many discussions are framed as "them and us" by politicians, or dominated by reactionaries on all sides. To build a modern Britain at peace with itself we must also hear the voices in the middle that are interested in building bridges rather than stressing our differences.

(See also comment pieces by signatories Sunny Hundall and Sunder Katwala.)

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