Multiculturalism or Britishness Anti-racism and internationalism still the only way forward

FRFI 179 June / July 2004

The ruling class is ever flexible in protecting its own interests. In the past the brute assertion of ‘Britishness’ was sufficient for social control. In recent times ‘multiculturalism’ has been adopted as a convenient code by the racist British state. Now we are set to return to the older model. When Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), argues that it is vital to ‘assert a core of Britishness’ we know that nationalism is being brought to the forefront again. Government circles are preparing to discard the notion of multiculturalism and resort once again to a ‘core culture’, the quintessence of Britishness, teaching subjects to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.’ (Oath, Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, 2002).

Multiculturalism is a strategy to hide the real racism of the British state and, by offering crumbs of capitalist prosperity to a layer of the minority ethnic communities, serves as a means of curbing militant resistance to racism. It is an ‘inclusiveness’ which facilitates social control. Focusing on ethnic differences, it undermines class-consciousness. Nonetheless, it resulted in limited concessions to the anti-racist struggle: community centres for minority ethnic groups, religious days celebrated in schools, public service leaflets in translation and so on. It made crude racism unacceptable.

Multiculturalism no longer serves the requirements of the ruling class. Today Britain is acting out its old imperialist role, with brute force and military might in the service of capital in Iraq and elsewhere. There is a direct impact on domestic politics as the government prepares the electorate to face the economic and human cost of the massive mobilisation of the armed forces. Terror attack scares and the eradication of civil rights are part of the process of softening up the British public to support imperialism. Islamophobia and hostility to asylum seekers and immigrant workers are manipulated by government and media in a rising tide of race hatred. Racism, the partner of national oppression, is particularly relevant to the US/British war coalition. The occupation of Iraq is repeatedly justified in terms of the superiority of western values, democracy and neo-liberal free trade. Blair adviser Robert Cooper says in The New Liberal Imperialism, 2002, that today there are civilised, barbarian and savage states in the guise of post-modern, modern and pre-modern states. He provides theoretical support for Blair’s visionary belief that it is the duty of Britain as a post-modern state to be a guardian of superior British civilisation across the globe.

Another influential thinker Samuel P Huntingdon, author of 1998 best-seller The Clash of Civilisations, rationalises racism, claiming: ‘People and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans face: “Who are we?”... People use politics not just to advance their interests but to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against’. The ‘we’ that Huntingdon speaks of is the mythical ‘we’ of all racists; Hitler’s ‘volk’, the nation, the ethnic group, the tradition and shared values of a distinct people.

In 1968 the Labour government tried to enforce Britishness by introducing the blood link, patriality, which removed the right of British overseas passport-holders to settle in Britain unless they had a (white) grandparent in Britain. In 1969 the same government showed contempt for family ties and removed the right of admission to Britain for the spouses and fiancés of immigrants. In opposition, the Labour Party then opposed the Tories’ 1971 Immigration Act but embraced it fully when back in office 1974-79. This Act designated black Commonwealth citizens ‘non-patrials’ and denied them entry except on work permits. Arrivals at Heathrow Airport were subjected to humiliations including disgusting ‘virginity’ tests carried out on Asian women entering to marry British Asians. Anti-deportation campaigns multiplied in protest against punitive immigration controls that denied rights even to children born in Britain.

The first-ever issue of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (November-December 1979) carried a report on an anti-racist campaign in Leeds, the Chapeltown Rasta Defence Committee. A 15-year-old Rastafarian schoolboy was suspended for refusing to cut his hair. The local authorities then threatened to take him into care for not attending school. Many white boys at the school had hair as long or longer than his. The youth won his case following a determined campaign joined by the community, the Bradford Asian Youth movement and the Manchester Revolutionary Communist Group. The crude racist harassment by the local Labour-run education authority was typical of the period. It was the fight-back, culminating in the uprisings of 1980 and 1981, that led to the creation of race relations officers, advisors and the establishment of the CRE itself as one of the largest non-governmental organisations in Britain.

As a campaigning body, the CRE has been far more successful in promoting multiculturalism than demanding racial equality. But today the uses of multiculturalism are over, it would seem, and there is a return to the rotten old nationalistic roots of the Labour Party. In 1965 Roy Hattersley, then Labour’s deputy leader, said Britain must limit immigration in order to create new British subjects: ‘Without integration, limitation is inexcusable, without limitation integration is impossible.’ He meant then, and Trevor Phillips means today, that support for the British government is the prime duty of all citizens. We say anti-racism and internationalism are the only way forward for all of humankind.

Susan Davidson