Jamie Mills O’ Brien on the death of multiculturalism in Munich

State Multiculturalism has failed, apparently. At least that is the opinion of PM David Cameron who last month advocated a new ‘muscularliberalism’ to bring an end to the ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’. This doctrine has, according to Cameron, failed to create a secure society, diluted Britain’s national identity and encouraged extremism.

The muscular Mr Cameron

He laid out his concerns at a security conference in Munich last month: “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide avision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.”

Now most people in St Andrews will be shocked to find out that multiculturalism ever began, let alone ended but Cameron’s speech was alarming for several reasons. Firstly, the comments were made on the same day that the English Defence League (EDL) staged a march in Luton and amongst the accusation that followed the speech was that Cameron was propagandising on behalf of these right wing extremists.

It also remains unclear what exactly Cameron meant by the terms ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘muscular liberalism’. The latter was doctrine that emerged during the Cold War. It enthroned tolerance and freedom against more popular, totalitarian movements that threatened third world states in the 1950s and ‘60s. ‘Multiculturalism’ is a more fluid term which is very hard to define, which makes Cameron’s speech slightly difficult to digest. What ‘multiculturalism’ exactly was Cameron ending?For surely tolerance, a central part of any strain of liberalism, also plays a crucial role in multiculturalism?

The speech has also attracted criticism for perceiving a society that doesn’t actually exist. At one point in the speech Cameron remarked, “when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them.  But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them”.

Where are all these non-white people who are allowed to say racist things without punishment? No-one seems to have met them. The problem with the speech is that it was conceived in highly simplistic terms with a lot of easily digestible sound bites but lacking in content. If, for example, under the new docrine of ‘muscular liberalism’ we are all supposed to adhere to a certain set of values, what are these values, when were they decided upon and who decides whether we are adhering to them correctly or not?

It seemed that the speech was partly a sop to a disgruntled Tory backbench in need of some radical rhetoric from a leader who has been struggling (the Big Society, royal forests) to get his message across. Yet Cameron did seem genuinely surprised and upset at the criticism the speech drew.  He clearly intended for Munich to represent a seminal moment when a reforming PM stood up and enthroned a new set of British values. The problem is that he bypassed the debate. The role of faith schools, the Muslim Council and immigration are issues that garner vitriol from all sides but a sustained dialogue needs to be encouraged before an end to multiculturalism can be declared.  Cameron’s speech seemed to rule out any possibility for debate

In fact, if you narrow the speech down to its core messages – an end to polarization, combating extremism and bringing communities together – there is nothing surprising at all. Tony Blair, amongst others, made similar speeches on several occasions. What Cameron succeeded in doing, and this is why the speech was ill-judged, was merging two speeches – one on community cohesion and the other on fighting terrorism – into one. And so we return to the problem of defining multiculturalism.

For if multiculturalism means the successful amalgamation of communities, then you cannot declare that it is at an end when London, and other cities, are shining examples of very successful, very diverse melting pots of many communities. Yet if multiculturalism is – and this is the way in which Cameron wanted to use it – a non-judgemental, live-and-let-live ideology then there is enormous room for debate. However, the Prime Minister failed to target the non-judgmentalism of contemporary multiculturalism and instead, mistakenly, attacked its tolerance. He should have said that there needs to be more critical appraisals of the way in which different communities live and work in Britain. He should have said that the problem with multiculturalism is that communities aren’t judging each other, they aren’t having a critical dialogue, rather than declaring a total break from multiculturalism. Instead Cameron attacked tolerance which is where his message became confused. For surely liberalism, even in its muscular variety, relies on tolerance as a central tenet.

Jamie Mills O’Brien