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The York Union's latest event was a panel debate this week on whether or not "Multiculturalism has failed Britain". The speakers were Daniel Goodheart of Policy Exchange and Trevor Phillips OBE arguing for the motion, with sociologist Tariq Modood MBE and Guardian columnist Zoe Williams against.
Phillips, for many years the drafter and enforcer of the UK's anti-discrimination laws, now less given to public appearances, was introduced with a particularly fulsome welcome. The audience chuckled when he decided that all of the panel ought to be greeted with the same round of applause that he received, and mildly startled panel Chair Harry Scoffin by clapping loudly at close proximity to his ear.
a peculiarly British strategy of leaving immigrant communities to their own devices and hoping
The debate felt at times like the two sides were talking of different things. Those against the motion praised Britain's diversity and what they thought multiculturalism did for the country (better test scores for ethnically integrated classrooms being one of many cited examples). They argued that multiculturalism had failed by not going far enough, rather than anything else. Madood proved a diffident yet confident speaker, with the added backing of personal experience of integration of different communities and his strong contention that full equality was had to involve different cultures being allowed to retain their heritage. He noted that the groupings in Britain that most identified with the notion of Britishness were somewhat different: Ulster Protestants and British Muslims.
Those for the motion attacked the system of population management that they called separatist multiculturalism. To them, this was a peculiarly British strategy of leaving immigrant communities to their own devices and hoping that they fancied integrating- and one that had failed. This, they argued, was evidenced by failures to challenge toxic beliefs on an institutional level.
Phillips, who in 2004 attacked Labour's multiculturalist approach, had previously warned that Britain was "sleepwalking towards segregation". When asked by Nouse if he still believed this, he stated that he thought that the sleepwalking had only stopped "because we're there". He and Goodheart argued that multiculturalism by its nature failed to challenge beliefs and actions that were often unpleasant or harmful, stopped dead by the belief that since "that's their culture", we ought not to criticise.
Some amusing vignettes provided by big data about the beliefs, preferences and achievements held by different ethnic groups were given, reminding the audience both that explicit differences do exist, as well as making them chuckle at the results of OK-Cupid surveys.
Zoe Williams' arguments that problems were ultimately rooted in economics was less persuasive in the face of examples such as Female Genital Mutilation, beatings of those thought to be possessed or forced marriage. The idea that physically harmful cultural practices foreign to Britain, no matter their original origin, were ultimately due to poverty and economic management did not seem to sway the audience. A later audience question on banning the burka or niqab saw her express disapproval of it as a Saudi Arabian export, in a way that didn't quite gel with earlier remarks.
She did, however, skewer the notion that Britain could claim the enlightenment and egalitarian values that much of Western Europe holds as solely "British values", pointing out that these do not differentiate us from others. Her suggestion that our values are an acute sense of "social embarrassment and self-parody" raised a large laugh from the audience.
a Swedish audience member was heard to say "mate, that's bollocks"
The strongest argument made by those against the motion was that differing cultures under the aegis of Britain and British culture allowed ethnic minorities to remember their heritage and thrive at the same time. It was at this point that a rather interesting split developed, in which both Phillips and Madood, both of ethnic minorities, attacked colourblind liberalism as a workable system- pointing out that it essentially misses that some ethnic groups require more or less attention given their success or lack of it in integrating. Williams and Goodheart, meanwhile, proved more resistant to the idea of abandoning a colourblind approach. This led to the interesting situation of watching Phillips argue that he would feel more connection "with him and him, because we're black" than he might with others, simply due to how people act- a point that Williams in particular proved rather less keen on acceding to.
A question from the floor on the refugee crisis and "sacrificing British or Christian values" to appease new arrivals was met with short shrift. An attempt by the questioner to support this with reference to Swedish schools not being able to sing the national anthem was replied to with a stentorian roar from a Swedish audience member, who was heard to say "mate, that's bollocks", adding "I was in Swedish schools for 14 years and it's just not true".
The only rancorous point came towards the end, when Goodheart and Madood disagreed vociferously and angrily about definitions of multiculturalism- slightly startling the previously transfixed audience. Calm was carefully restored by the chair.
The fact that the speakers were often so clearly talking of different things leads one to suspect that both sides believed multiculturalism had failed on an institutional level. Both sides praised diversity and condemned unpleasant cultural imports. The common ground that occasionally appeared seemed to suggest that all were infuriated by Britain's utter fudging of the issue.
Neither adopting the ruthlessness of the French (deciding that all migrants were French, and that's that) nor tolerance mixed with teaching (as certain Danish cities adopted) had left us with a compromise that helped no-one, made neither side happy, and allowed attitudes that both sides thought repugnant to flourish.
While the number of attendees in favour of multiculturalism barely dropped, over half of those abstaining on the motion voted for it afterwards - victory and vindication under the Union's voting rules to Phillips and Goodheart for swaying the most to their side.