Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cameron wakes up and smells the (cold, stale) coffee

David Cameron’s speech yesterday on multiculturalism was gushed over by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: “I have not heard another British politician make such a sophisticated and vital intervention at a time when so many across the parties seem to have lost a sense of proportion, political sense and the instincts of true leadership.”

She adds that “his thoughts and ideas on Britishness today are so remarkable, Labour would be foolish not to steal them”.

Well now. I rather fancy it’d be a cracking wheeze to compare and contrast Cameron’s ground-breaking, visionary intervention with a drab, confused and outdated speech by Tony Blair on the same subject last December. Just to see if there’s any scope for idea-stealing.

Let’s have a heated debate
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“This debate we're having - about what's called community cohesion, about Britishness. We know why we're having it today. It's because two summers ago, young men chose to blow themselves up on London's transport system, killing 52 innocent people in the process. They were British Muslims. And they were acting under the influence of a terrorist ideology that is one of the great threats of our age. We have to face down that threat. But let us not in the process ever give the impression that this question of Britishness, this question of community cohesion, is all about terrorism, or all about Muslims.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“But the reason we are having this debate is not generalised extremism. It is a new and virulent form of ideology associated with a minority of our Muslim community. …
“…integrating people whilst preserving their distinctive cultures, is not impossible. It is the norm. The failure of one part of one community to do so… is a function of a particular ideology that arises within one religion at this one time.

“Of course the extremists that threaten violence are not true Muslims in the sense of being true to the proper teaching of Islam.”

The British reaction
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“When there have been tensions, when things threaten to divide us, we've always reacted in a very British way. We haven't been hysterical. We haven't lost sight of the British way of doing things. We've been calm, and thoughtful, and reasonable.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“I always thought after 7/7 our first reaction would be very British: we stick together; but that our second reaction, in time, would also be very British: we're not going to be taken for a ride. People want to make sense of two emotions: our recognition of what we legitimately hold in common and what we legitimately hold distinct.”

Muslim separatists and the BNP
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“First there are the ideologues and ideologies that don't want us to live together in harmony. Whether it's the BNP, or those who want to separate British Muslims from the mainstream. … For the BNP, racism isn't a scourge, it's a political philosophy. … And those who seek a sharia state, or special treatment and a separate law for British Muslims are, in many ways, the mirror image of the BNP. They also want to divide people into 'us' and 'them.'”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“Those whites who support the BNP's policy of separate races and those Muslims who shun integration into British society both contradict the fundamental values that define Britain today: tolerance, solidarity across the racial and religious divide, equality for all and between all.”

Multiculturalism, difference and division
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“Multiculturalism sounds like a good thing: people of different cultures living together. But it has been manipulated to favour a divisive idea - the right to difference - instead of promoting a unifying idea - the right for everyone to be treated equally despite their differences. So multiculturalism has come to mean an approach which focuses on what divides us rather than what brings us together.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“The whole point is that multicultural Britain was never supposed to be a celebration of division; but of diversity. The purpose was to allow people to live harmoniously together, despite their difference; not to make their difference an encouragement to discord. The values that nurtured it were those of solidarity, of coming together, of peaceful co-existence. The right to be in a multicultural society was always, always implicitly balanced by a duty to integrate, to be part of Britain, to be British and Asian, British and black, British and white.

“We must respect both our right to differ and the duty to express any difference in a way fully consistent with the values that bind us together.”

All talk?
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“We've got to make sure that people learn English”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“we should share a common language. Equal opportunity for all groups requires that they be conversant in that common language. It is a matter both of cohesion and of justice that we should set the use of English as a condition of citizenship. In addition, for those who wish to take up residence permanently in the UK, we will include a requirement to pass an English test before such permanent residency is granted.”

Poverty and education
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“In some of our urban areas people are living in conditions of multiple deprivation. Not only is this an affront to social justice; it's also a breeding ground for resentment and division. So tackling poverty is a priority. And the most effective way of beating poverty in the long run is to give people in deprived areas decent schools.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“Deprivation is a bad thing in itself and it can create the conditions in which extreme ideologies of all kinds can flourish. But it cannot be permitted as an excuse.
“The best way to deal with this is to do what, for a decade now, we have done: systematically to tackle disadvantage. The causes usually have nothing to do with ethnicity - they are low educational achievement and poor skills. But many ethnic minorities have been beneficiaries of the New Deal, the neighbourhood renewal strategy, the minimum wage, Sure Start and so on.
“We have made very good progress on education. We began a national programme aimed specifically at under-performing Muslim pupils in 2004. In June of this year it was doubled in size. In 2000, 29 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children achieved 5 good GCSEs, against a national average of 49 per cent. This year 51 per cent of Pakistani and 56 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils did so. The national average was 58 per cent. In 2003 only 33 per cent of Black Caribbean pupils achieved 5 good GCSEs. 44 per cent did so in 2006.
“The New Deals have helped more than 200,000 ethnic minority people into work. Jobcentre Plus have specifically targeted wards with high ethnic minority populations.”

Treatment of women
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“In certain sections of the community women are being denied access to education, work, involvement in the political process - and, surprisingly, even denied access to mosques. I'm told time and time again by women that the denial of these opportunities is not because of their Islamic faith but because of current cultural interpretations in Britain.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“we stand emphatically at all times for equality of respect and treatment for all citizens. Sometimes the cultural practice of one group contradicts this.

“One of the most common concerns that has been raised with me, when meeting women from the Muslim communities, is their frustration at being debarred even from entering certain mosques.”

Can we fix it?
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“let's not pretend there are simple, quick solutions. … In the end, this is not just about government and politics. It is a social responsibility. We must each do all we can to make this a fairer and more just society”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“None of these things in and of themselves will solve the problem. But then, there is no simple action by government that can solve it. It requires an act of collective leadership from us all”

What comes out of all this, again and again, is that Cameron’s speech is mostly a second-rate rip-off of Blair’s. The main difference is that Blair’s contains far more detail and intellectual depth. Where Cameron differs in tone with Blair, he sways towards lowbrow illiberalism.

Cameron thinks that “the right to difference” is a “divisive idea”. Blair recognises that the aim should be for “people to live harmoniously together, despite their difference; not to make their difference an encouragement to discord”.

Blair balances “the right to be different” with “the duty to integrate”. He recognises that in the UK, diverse ways of life are a necessary consequence of individual freedom, but that this can only work if we “express any difference in a way fully consistent with the values that bind us together.” In this sense, integration “is not about culture or lifestyle. It is about integrating at the point of shared, common unifying British values. It isn't about what defines us as people, but as citizens, the rights and duties that go with being a member of our society.”

There’s another area of possible difference. Blair said:

“I think it is great that in British politics today no mainstream Party plays the race card. It is not conceivable, in my view, that this leader of the Conservative Party would even misuse the debate on immigration and that is both a tribute to him and to the common culture of tolerance we have established in this country today.”

But Martin Kettle, responding to Cameron’s speech, isn’t so sure:

“I do not see how a serious politician can allow himself to use a phrase like ‘the division that can come from uncontrolled immigration’ without embarrassment. This country does not have uncontrolled immigration, whatever the Daily Express may pretend. For Cameron to lend credence to the claim is either thoughtless or malicious. I'm not sure which of the two it is.”

Blair (as I’ve said before) is becoming an interesting politics lecturer. Cameron (as I’ve also said before) is becoming less convincing at aping a Blairish image while keeping his support on the right.

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