Saturday, 4 April 2015


"The Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was set up by Runnymede in January 1998.
The commission's remit was to analyse the current state of multi-ethnic Britain and propose ways of countering racial discrimination and disadvantage, making Britain a confident and vibrant multicultural society at ease with its rich diversity.

The commission, chaired by Lord Bhikhu Parekh, was made up of 23 distinguished individuals drawn from many community backgrounds and different walks of life, and with a long record of active academic and practical engagement with race-related issues in Britain and elsewhere. They each brought to their task different views and sensibilities and, after a good deal of discussion, reached a consensus. The report is the product of their two years' deliberation." (From Runnymede Trust website).


‘A Single Phrase’-Reflections on the Future of a Multicultural Britain.
The Parekh Report makes 138 recommendations and is the first attempt to address Britain’s future as a whole and proactively, rather than in response to a crisis or act of injustice. The media reaction has centred on two sections of the report and the comments of several members of the Commission. However, this response could and should have been foreseen. It is only a surprise to the Commission members because they come from such a narrow background. It is necessary for somebody outside of this group to explain why attention has been diverted from the valuable 98% or more of the report to the headline-grabbing 2% or less. 

Is all the fuss about the Parekh Report simply about one phrase: that Britishness has racial connotations? Of course not. The report’s tone is set by the posing of the futures facing Britain in terms of stark opposites (from section-‘The Turning Point’).

Static or Dynamic
Intolerant or Cosmopolitan
Fearful or Generous
Insular or Internationalist
Authoritarian or Democratic
Introspective or Outward-looking
Punitive or Inclusive
Myopic or Far-sighted

Unsurprisingly, “it is the second term in each of these pairings which evokes the kind of Britain proposed in this report.” Nobody would wish to be static, fearful, and the rest of this collection of straw men. The implication is that if you do not accept all the conclusions of the report, you must be one of those wicked people who reject a multicultural Britain altogether. The report asks “Does Britishness have a future?.....Some [the report’s authors?] believe that devolution, globalisation, and the new cultural diversity have undermined it irretrievably.” Never mind that we were told that devolution would strengthen the UK. No mention that Britain has the 5th largest economy in the world and that globalisation challenges us to be more competitive and therefore even more in charge of our own destiny than ever before. Also, why should this new cultural diversity, which began more than 40 years ago, be some kind of threat? We have been teaching that Britain is the product of successive infusions of immigrants, their cultures, and the influences of the wider world for some time.

The report takes Britain as being England, Scotland, and Wales-whatever happened to Northern Ireland? It makes the distinctly odd remark that the nation state is the UK (true) but that there is no similar adjective to Nordic in unifying power. Most of us think that British is enough. Moreover, Norway and Sweden are independent countries. In its response to media reaction the Commission muddies the waters further. It insists that what the report says is not that the description of the UK’s inhabitants as British “will never do on its own,” but that “the term ‘British’ will never do as a description of all the inhabitants of the British Isles, i.e. including Ireland. The statement is self-evidently true.” What is self- evidently true is that British Isles is a geographic, not a political term. But British and British Isles are not confused even in a Key Stage 3 Geography class. Britain is a political term. “The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland”-that is what it says in our passports. We are Scots and British, English and British, Northern Irish and British, and Welsh and British. We are all British together. Britain, Great Britain, and United Kingdom have always been confusing-and in a typically British way, nobody has minded very much! Britain and Britishness are perennially loose words. They do not exclude anyone.

The report argues that 1) the UK is not, and never has been a single nation (then why do we elect a Westminster parliament in a single nationwide General Election?) and 2) that “Britain should not be pictured as consisting of one large homogenous majority plus various small minorities.” Quite right. But the report suggests that the non-existent (white) majority is made up of minorities with the implication that this somehow undermines the idea of a united British nation, not that Britishness encompasses everyone. People describe themselves as North-eastern and British, as they always have done, and therefore this supposedly means that Britishness is outdated because of course this is somehow a product of devolution, globalisation and Britain’s membership of the EU.
Who coined the phrase ‘ethnic minorities’ in the first place? AS an EMAG teacher I carry out ethnic monitoring of our pupils. I use terms such as ethnic minority and African-Caribbean to which the report now objects because the word minority suggests ‘marginal’ and it should be African-Caribbean British or ‘Black Londoner’ etc. These are official terms endorsed in the past by councils, government, CRE and, dare one say it, the Runneymede Trust. Given that police officers at the McPherson Inquiry were denounced for using inappropriate and old-fashioned terms such as coloured and Negro, it is disturbing that teachers could find themselves in the same boat through no fault of their own just because the terminology has been changed. Over the years we have seen demands for Black Sections, the Labour Party’s belief that only it can represent non-White voters, and separatist policies pursued by left-wing councils. Are we surprised if the word ‘minority’ has been over-emphasised?

In Dr. Parekh’s Guardian article there is another rather odd phrase: “Thanks to the devolution of power to Scotland and our membership of the EU, there is an increasing tendency in certain circles to define British identity in an exclusive manner that alienates a large number of people and fails to foster a common sense of belonging.” Both Dr. Parekh and the report seem to have a different operating language from the rest of us at times. However, I take this to mean that opposing integration with continental Europe is to be equated with ‘Englishness’ and Englishness = Essex Man and football hooligans (yes, Lady Gavron did really suggest this, as did Gary Younge and Hugo Young in Guardian articles quoted as supportive on the Commission’s website). The report also complains that many customary images of Britain are English-centred. Since the people of England (not just English people) constitute 83% of the population of the UK, this is hardly surprising. In fact, in pre-Common Market (sorry, EU) days, there were probably more non-England images. The creation of a ‘Golden Triangle’ and the concentration of EU grants in the London-Slough corridor have made London and the South-east even more of a focal point.

The Commission alleges that the media reacted to only one phrase: “Britishness ….has….racial connotations” and unleashed a torrent of misquotation and abuse. It retreats to a dictionary defence-“Consider the difference between a racist group and a racial group.” The image of Denise Lewis wrapped in the Union flag has been much quoted by all sides of the argument. People must justly see themselves fairly represented in all aspects of our national life. Why then did the Commission not say that we should live up to our ideals as British people, and not question the idea of Britishness itself? Because slavery, the Empire, and English hooliganism are supposedly what constitute a large a large part of the ‘Britishness’ to which the Commission objects. “Britain is a community of communities” is a bland phrase with which almost anyone can agree. But sally Tomlinson’s sentence continues: “a multicultural post-nation still refighting the Second World War “ and not having come to terms with the end of empire.  These are standard liberal/left themes and not taken seriously outside of this narrow viewpoint. 

Why should a multicultural Britain be a post-nation? Why is the Second World War so important? Because it is a time when Britain stood, supported by its empire, against an evil threat to our independence. Why is contribution of 3 million Indian Army soldiers (70% of the army in Burma and who fought at Dunkirk, North Africa and Italy) and tens of thousands of West Indians (per head of population an even larger group) who volunteered to fight on our side largely forgotten? Yes, for racist reasons, but also because the imperial past, and often the past itself, are an embarrassment to the liberal/left and to this government. The Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol was refused government or Lottery help because it was not sufficiently ‘modern,’-not “part of our project” in the words of a government minister. And above all, because its existence reminds us of a historic connection and a world outside the EU.

In a small way I hope that I am contributing to an attempt to airbrush back this vital contribution into the consciousness of our country. The Memorial Gates Project, the patron of which is Baroness Shreela Flather, will build a memorial to all the Asian, African and African-Caribbean servicemen and women whose sacrifice has not been sufficiently acknowledged. I am a member of the steering committee and a writer on the Educational Project. We are producing teaching materials, a CD ROM and a website for History and the new Citizenship education which will go to every Primary and Secondary school in Britain.* 

The problem is not that the Telegraph confused ‘racial’ with ‘racist,’ but that the report did not stick to the parameters of Dr. Parekh’s introductory theme: “People must be treated equally, but also with also with due regard to real differences of experience, background and perception.” This is spot on and should be the basis of a consensus. The main difficulty is that every member of the Commission, with two exceptions, is either a card carrying member of the Labour Party or of the liberal/left academic tendency. The days when such a group could establish a consensus on racial equality for the whole nation are long gone. It is a pity that the Commission’s website could not have posted the Independent editorial of October 12th which ended: “The report calls for a recognition that we are a multicultural nation. Most of us, especially the young, have known this for some time. We are also aware that we are a ‘community of communities’ as the report puts it. Above all, though, we are a British community-diverse, multicultural and multi-faith, and proud of it. The evolution of Britain continues.”

*unfortunately lack of funds meant the education pack has to be charged for

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