Does multiculturalism have a future in Britain?

This post was originally published on the New Internationalist website on 14 May 2013…

In February 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference outlining what he saw as the failures of ‘state multiculturalism.’ For him, it seemed to be about young Muslims getting involved in terrorism. ‘We’ve allowed the weakening of our cultural identity,’ he lamented.

Inspired by this speech and the gravitation of British politics towards an anti-immigration blame culture, ‘multicultural newspaper’ The Prisma, set up the debate: ‘Does multiculturalism have a future in Britain?’

Held at the House of Commons on 9 May 2013, the panel for the event was introduced by Colombian journalist and founder of The Prisma, Mónica del Pilar Uribe, and included social scientist Nigel Pocock, writer and lecturer Mike Jempson, activist and artist Zita Holbourne, international speaker on Islam Abdullah al Andalusi, Peruvian philosopher Claudio Chipana Gutiérrez and Labour member of parliament Jeremy Corbyn.

Most of the panellists were keen to point out the often conveniently forgotten fact that multiculturalism has always existed in Britain. The problems begin when it is used as a political weapon. ‘You can’t collect pebbles from the beach and then complain there are too many stones in your room,’ said Mike Jempson.

When talking about multiculturalism it can be hard to separate race, culture, religion, and immigration. Zita Holbourne argued that the recent pandering of the mainstream parties to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) empowers people with racist views to express and act on them.

An audience member made the point that equating multiculturalism to immigration excludes non-white British people like herself, and those children could grow up British but not truly feel it because the establishment rejects them. What was telling in Cameron’s 2011 speech, which focused on young Muslims, was the repeated use of the terms ‘we’ and ‘they.’

Jempson said we all need to do more to challenge everyday racism and likened his experience of growing up in an Irish Catholic family in 1950s Surrey – with ‘no Irish’ signs and being stoned on the street – to the experiences of some young Muslims in Britain today.

But how can human rights be protected in such an environment? How to view these rights was something that provoked the most debate. Are they based on universal humanity or some other code specific to certain groups, such as religion? Jeremy Corbyn and others seemed to think they could be universal and secular but for Abdullah al Andalusi, true multiculturalism, freedom of expression and recognition of rights is impossible within a society with one law for all. He argued that a person’s conscience, including their belief in God, was the most important factor in determining their actions and that they should be able to act on this freely – as long as they don’t commit murder.

So what are the solutions to all these issues? This was an area I think could have been discussed at much greater length but some members of the panel did have their own projects which had begun to explore this. Jempson edits a magazine called the Bristol Globe which ‘celebrates Bristol’s diversity’ while Holbourne talked about her group Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts which is planning a voter registration drive among young people as well as a campaign condemning continued race discrimination in Britain.

Political trends come and go but racism and discrimination in day-to-day life continues – this is why lasting solutions need to come from the grassroots. Cultures mix, branch off and develop all the time and pretending they don’t is only going to lead to less cohesion within, and between, communities. But ultimately how someone identifies with one culture, or many, is not solely down to their immigration status, skin colour, religion or anything else – it is about where they feel they belong.

Taking on the benefits blame game

This post was originally published on New Internationalist on 3 April 2013.

It may have been April Fool’s day but while Twitter announced it was going to begin charging for the use of vowels and Virgin launched a glass bottomed plane, big changes to the British welfare system began to bite in what is far from a comical prank.

One of the most high profile of these changes, which began to kick in on Monday 1 April, is the bedroom tax. If a claimant’s house is defined as having one spare bedroom or more they will lose 14 to 25 per cent of their benefit money. 660,000 people face losing hundreds of pounds a year and the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent. Two thirds of people hit by the tax are disabled, and single parents and foster families will also be among the hardest hit.

Opposition has been vocal: MP Frank Field has called for landlords to brick up windows and doors or knock down walls to help tenants facing the tax which he describes as ‘grossly unfair.’ Bedroom tax protests have already been held across the country and UK Uncut has promised ‘mass civil disobedience’ on Saturday 13 April, ‘bringing the cuts home to millionaire misery-makers.’

Also part of the welfare overhaul is the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance and major changes to legal aid which means thousands may lose access to legal services and be forced to represent themselves in court.

On 15 April the welfare benefit cap will be introduced to four London boroughs and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by the end of September. It is predicted that 80,000 households will be made homeless as expensive cities like London see a deepening of social cleansing.

There are now more billionaires across the world than before the global financial crash. But while the ‘feral rich’ get wealthier, 20 per cent of children in Britain already live in poverty and families increasingly need to use foodbanks to sustain themselves.

Meanwhile the ‘workers and shirkers’ demonization of benefit claimants, immigrants and disabled people by the government and the media has taken hold among those who feel that while they are working as hard as ever and getting less in return, somebody should be made to pay.

A 2012 poll by the Trades Union Congress found that while people mistakenly thought that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently (the government’s figure is 0.7 per cent), the most hostility was among those who knew the least about the benefits system.

In this climate, newspapers like the Daily Mail can publish a front page (3 April 2013) calling a man found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children a ‘product’ of the welfare state and still sell plenty of copies. Claiming benefits does not make people more likely to cause the death of their family.

Where do we go from here? Local and national anti-austerity groups have been campaigning relentlessly across the country – networks like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut have mobilized thousands. Some mainstream media are trying to counteract the propaganda machine. But people need to be presented with more than the facts and protest; they need to be truly convinced that blaming benefit claimants and immigrants for their problems is not helpful, fair, or accurate.

However, the deeper austerity goes, the more people will see those close to them affected. Anti-austerity Britain is growing in size and anger. Over 420,000 people have now signed a petition to challenge Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 ($80) a week after he said on national radio he thought he could do it while defending cuts to benefits.

What’s key is a cohesive, accessible and communicative groundswell from the grassroots. Party politics is enough to leave people in despair as politicians jump aboard the blame train conducted by UKIP. Initiatives such as the People’s Assembly may be part of this, as long as they reach further than the usual suspects.

We also need to tell people’s stories, not just in the media, but to our friends and family, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And while we fight to keep what we have and strengthen community resilience to austerity, we need to show that we will stand by our neighbours when the blame game comes knocking at their door.

PODCAST: Vanessa Baird and Owen Jones on the feral rich

January’s New Internationalist podcast looks at how the super rich are gaining from the economic crisis while the poor get the blame…

My latest New Int podcast features co-editor Vanessa Baird, and author and columnist Owen Jones discussing with me their ideas for turning the tables on the super rich and putting a stop to the demonization of the poor.

As the wealth gap grows, despite the economic crisis, January/February’s double magazine explores how the ‘feral rich’ get away with it and what can be done to stop them.

Listen to the podcast and find out more about the magazine at the New Internationalist website.