The Challenge of Multiculturalism for the Centre-Left     by   Jürgen Krönig 




In Europe and America, parties of the centre-left have been on a steep learning curve over the last ten to fifteen years. They have had to accept some difficult lessons. More often than not this has been a painful process. Dearly held convictions were challenged: about the welfare state, about the appropriate response to crime, about family breakdown and the causes of social exclusion. Progressives have had to accept some bitter truths, not least about the ambiguity of human nature.


To this day, many on the left still prefer holding on to their belief in Rousseau’s “noble savage”, despite all the evidence to the contrary. In the mid-nineties, the remark of a leading Labour politician that there should be an end “to the paternalistic, well-meaning acceptance of low-level crime, vandalism and antisocial behaviour” was met inside the party with unease, if not open resistance. Eventually this approach won the day and lead to the slogan “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”, but it still proved to be controversial because of the first part of the sentence. Though it could not be denied that it was and still is foremost the clientele of social-democratic parties – the core supporters of parties of the left – that have suffered and still suffer the consequences of crime and various forms of antisocial behaviour. They understandably felt excluded and turned their back on their parties. They demanded tougher laws here and now and preferred not to wait for the time when the ‘perfect society’ had been achieved – if that is actually possible at all.


For many on the left, politically socialised in the sixties and seventies, this more realistic attitude was difficult enough to swallow. But the need for revisionism did not stop there. New Labour and its German equivalent, Die neue Mitte, as the reformed and modernised Social-democratic Party called itself at the end of the nineties, also had to accept, that the welfare state can create perverse incentives and that, in the words of a former Labour Minister for welfare reform, overdue and unavoidable reforms of the welfare state could only succeed, if based on the realistic assumption that the “driving force of human nature is self-interest, not altruism”.


Now parties of the left are faced with a new challenge which turns out to be at least as difficult and painful to deal with as previous ones: the challenge of mass immigration in combination with the tensions, inherent to multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural societies across Europe. Added to this list is an even more difficult task: how to respond to the rise of totalitarian Islam and its influence especially among young Muslims, who grew up in the European Diaspora who are much more radical than the older generation, as research has shown, and who are, to quite a worrying extent, willing to use terror and violence. 


Together, these challenges demand an even harder look at policies hitherto used and a readiness to discard them, if they are found wanting. Recent seminars, organised by Policy Network and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, asked how centre-left parties should react to the competition of right-wing populists. Some participants, quite rightly in my opinion, have argued that it is too early to concentrate on this question and take political action. Instead, they highlighted first and foremost the importance of concentrating on a frank, fearless debate.  


Responses of the centre-left: the need to move on

Such a debate must indeed be the first priority. Without an honest discussion about the problems our societies are facing and the response necessary, no convincing action can be taken. Most policies of the seventies and eighties are not suitable any longer for the task. Many of the old recipes have proven to be outright wrong or at least completely unhelpful. As Dieter Wiefelspütz put it “Social democrats lost the ability to combine tradition and modernity”. René Cuperus speaks of the “cultural and spiritual crisis” of European societies. The “magic of the post-war period” had vanished, given way to “joyless growth, insecurity and the rise of religion”, creating a new crisis, that is pitching “the higher educated against the lower educated”, while everything is seen through the distorting prism of the ever more “hectic media democracy.” In addition to this, it seems clear that what is urgently required is, as John Denham, Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee for Home Affairs emphasised, “a new, modern identity for the traditional white working class”, exposed to the “pornography of permanent change”  (Cuperus).


It is still hotly debated among the centre-left how these interconnected problems are to be addressed and the centre-left parties across Europe are far from reaching a consensus. Take immigration and integration. Parties of the centre-left have different experiences. Some are not fully prepared to accept the extent to which multiculturalism has failed. Of course, this will remain a controversial point.


Ideology vs. reality: the paradox of multiculturalism

However, it is worth clarifying the different uses of the term ‘multicultural’. Mass immigration across Europe has undoubtedly given rise to many positive examples of minorities living in harmony with their host society. Furthermore, there are ethnic minorities, who have adapted well into Western societies, Indians and the Chinese for instance, without losing their own, distinct identities; they contribute to the diversity politicians are keen to celebrate. The majority of people are happy enough to get on with others, regardless of the colour of their skin or their religion. Yet most people, apart from cosmopolitan liberals, don’t see any reason to celebrate in differences of culture or race. What can and must be expected is tolerance and maybe individual friendships.


What has failed is the ‘ideology of multiculturalism’. This should not be misconstrued as a rejection of a multicultural society itself. It is a reality, with many positive features. And it is here to stay anyhow regardless of such discourse. Sometimes this vital difference between welcoming a multicultural society – or perhaps more accurately ‘multiethnic’ or ‘multireligious’ - but rejecting the ‘ideology of multiculturalism’ is being confused, perhaps deliberately so, in order to defend the failed ideology itself. Rejecting multiculturalism has nothing whatsoever to do with denying that we are living in such societies.


Yet across Europe it seems clear that multiculturalism not only failed in its proclaimed aim to create a harmonious, more integrated society; in fact it turned out to have had exactly the opposite effect. By emphasising and even underpinning differences between different communities, it helped, in the name of diversity, to create an ever more deeply divided society. The great experiment of multiculturalism damaged society as a whole; it emphasised separate identities; it opposed the idea that there should be an overarching national identity based on the culture of the host society, which it nevertheless regarded with hostility, pursuing some cosmopolitan dream of a ‘universal culture’ that might render national cultures obsolete; it refused to see the danger of fragmentation and ignored, if not outright rejected, the need for common values.


As Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain, warned back in 2005, multiculturalism was responsible for having created a dangerous situation. We are, he said, “sleepwalking” towards a separated, ghettoised society. Multiculturalism as an ideology might have been born out of good intentions, but during its ascendancy through European countries a mixture of other motives soon began to gain influence: postcolonial guilt, cultural relativism and a misplaced sense of respect for cultural and religious differences. At the end of this process we are confronted with what David Goodhart, Editor of Prospect, calls a “self-inflicted” wound. Goodhart rightly emphasizes the need for an “overarching national story”, something the left leaning liberal elites have forgotten, and suggests to “re legitimize” the idea of the nation state and to define new civic rights. 


Multiculturalism allowed another trend to flourish and remain unchecked for a long time: possible tensions between ethnic minorities and a virulent racism. It is rarely mentioned in our societies, even though Britain and other European are affected by it to quite an extent: Pakistanis against Blacks and Indians, West Africans against Somalis to name but a few examples. Between these groups exist hostile feelings which are quite often aggressively expressed and can, as various disturbances in the last years showed, quickly lead to an outbreak of violent interethnic riots. It has been, out of reasons of political correctness, rarely mentioned in the media or by politicians.


It is telling that members of the immigrant communities themselves are the ones who dare to speak out and mention the inconvenient truth. Archbishop John Sentanamu warned that social cohesion between communities could only be achieved if the “failed strategy of endlessly talking about diversity” was ended. Darcus Howe, an immigrant from the Caribbean, was one of the few, who dared to show the extent of hatred and antagonism between different ethnic minorities in a television series for Channel 4. He remarked, that the “multicultural establishment” and the “race relations industry”, human rights lawyers, politicians and most of the media, still prefer to talk about “white racism”, ignoring the existence of a quite vicious interethnic racism.


The common European dilemma

There is one dilemma most European countries share, namely the successful integration of their Muslim minority. Whatever path was chosen, multiculturalism or assimilation, European societies all have failed in their aim to integrate immigrants coming from the Islamic world. To a varying degree, this is the case in Britain as well as the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. At the same time, the example of France, with its pursuit of colour – blind assimilation, assuming that there was no need for some form of extra help or ‘positive discrimination’ for a transitional period, was similarly unsuccessful.

Muslim immigration will be the biggest of all the challenges facing Europe for a long time to come. It may take twenty years or more. Modern liberal democracies rightly demand tolerance for different religious beliefs and convictions. At its core is the idea that individual freedom should prevail and that the state does not have the right to curtail ones liberty. However, multiculturalism created a new problem: the right to individual freedom is in conflict with the rights of groups of people to uphold their religious traditions. As Francis Fukuyama wrote, “too much authority was ceded to cultural communities to define rules of behaviour for their own members”. 


But liberal democracy cannot be based on the right of groups, because not all of them uphold liberal values, and, as in the case of Islamists and conservative Muslim groups, openly reject the principle values of liberal democracy, if they are not actively trying to destroy them.


The awkward, extremely difficult debate about Muslim integration is accompanied by a disturbing phenomenon, widespread among the hard left and many left leaning liberals, the bien pensants, too: the spread of the culture of western self-hatred, that expressed itself in an alliance between various hard left splinter groups and totalitarian Islamists, George Galloway’s Respect Party and the Trotskyite Socialists Workers Party, who both allied themselves with totalitarian Islamism because they see it as the only credible ‘revolutionary’ force, that is able to bring down their hated enemies, capitalism and liberal democracy.

Even beyond this extreme fringe, mainly in cultural and media institutions of the West, you can find the view that our civilisation and the political and economic system it instituted is guilty, oppressive and not worth defending. The message conveyed to immigrants is that our societies are not worth integrating into. From there follows the conclusion, that the last thing we should do is trying to impose values and rules of our liberal democracy on to people from other cultures and communities, who want to stay here and live in our countries. 


The internal conflict of the West

Here, fault lines of a deeper, internal Western conflict become visible, a conflict that is an integral part of the present culture wars about identity and religion. This conflict threatens to become ever fiercer in future. Cultural dispute will dominate the political debates in Europe for the foreseeable future and will be a decisive factor in determining the outcome of elections. These cultural disputes are, after the external threat of communism has faded into the background, about a new definition of Western civilisation. For a while we assumed that whatever happened, the new definition would be our decision alone and not imposed on us from the outside. After a brief pause, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the conflict resumed with a vengeance, producing not only a new, dangerous challenge from outside in the form of Islamism, but intensifying at the same time the battle fought within. 


This internal conflict of the Western world has always been with us. Samuel T. Karnick writes in his essay “The two streams of Western Civilisation”[1], that Western history contains the record of intellectual turbulences created and sustained by two currents, based on two opposing views of the human condition. One sees humanity’s immutable limits, restraining itself to limited attempts to deal with it, where as the opposite view sees humanity “as requiring and able to accommodate a transformation to make us fit a rational social system, devised to solve all our problems”. The Western world has always vacillated between the two, with one stream sometimes sweeping history in its direction and sometimes the other predominating.  

The frontline of this philosophical conflict is running right through the left too. Progressives tend to instinctively share the aims and hopes of the second current; but they should be wary and never venture too much in the direction of ‘transformation’. Centre-left parties should not forget the catastrophic disasters of communism and other ideologies believing in the perfection of human nature. The wish to create a better, fairer society should always be tempered by realism and the knowledge that every previous attempt to bring about paradise on earth has ended in disaster.  And Progressives should be under no illusion: There is no family of the wider Left, including those who flirt with totalitarian models. There is a clear divide, a fact, Social Democrats have always understood.

Furthermore, the centre-left parties have to be prepared to admit past mistakes and learn from them. A former minister of the social democratic government in Sweden, Jan Larsen, explaining the election defeat of his party, that not long ago, in 2002, his party had accused the opposition party’s demands for immigrants to learn and speak Swedish as “racist”. It was in his opinion a “stupid” mistake. To denounce everybody as “right-wing extremist”, who disagreed with multiculturalism, was despicable; he called it “shameful left-wing populism”. This example illustrates how important it is to free parties of the centre left of the hold, multiculturalism and political correctness had over them in recent decades. 


Lessons not learnt

This hold was responsible for far reaching policy mistakes, whose fallout our societies now have to deal with. The left does not have the excuse of not being warned, as a shameful episode in Bradford during the 1980s illustrates. Ray Honeyford, head teacher at a local school in an immigrant area of the city, was smeared as a racist, shouted down and eventually driven out of his job by a concerted campaign, organised by the trade unions, members of the Labour party and the media. What had he done to attract such vicious condemnation?


Honeyford had argued in an article that the Muslim minority of Bradford’s population – 20 per cent at that time, now near 45 per cent – needed, for their own sake and for Britain’s, to be fully integrated into British society. If their children were to participate in the nation’s life, they needed a good education that stressed the primacy of the English language, along with British culture, history and traditions. He criticised local authorities for allowing Muslim children to be taken off school, for months, sometimes for years, to be sent to Madrasses in Pakistan, and drew attention to the widespread practice of arranged marriages that helped to increase separation even further; Honeyford  was also one of the first to draw attention to the plight of a new, mostly ignored minority in some British cities – the children of the white working class, who were taught in schools, where 90 per cent of pupils did not speak English at all. Most other head teachers in Bradford privately agreed with him; Muslim shopkeepers did so too, but nobody dared to come out and defend him publicly. The shopkeeper feared for his business and safety. Everybody bowed to the pernicious influence of multiculturalism and the demands of politically correct discourse.


Today, a good twenty years later, similar views are beginning to be accepted as common sense. But some of the Centre Left are learning very slowly. When a Labour minister announced the plan to introduce English tests for immigrants five years ago and dared to suggest they should practice English at home, his demand was greeted in some quarters with the accusation of “racism”. Just recently, the President of the National Teachers Union said in a speech, teaching “Britishness” in British schools would fuel “racism”.  New and refreshingly direct was the response from the Secretary of State and his officials: They did not, as would have been the case not long ago, beat around the bush; they called this accusation  “nonsense”. 


The Bradford - episode is an example which stands for many mistakes and errors made in the past decades. Not only does it highlight a chapter of the left’s past that it can’t be proud of. It illuminates the dangers of not saying how things really are, of not calling “a spade a spade”, to use an English phrase, and in doing so, risk alienating their traditional supporters. Fallacies and errors of the past need to be corrected, because it is the right and necessary to do so. But there is an additional reason for a change of strategy that should make it easier to convince the ones on the left who are hesitating: It is called self-interest. Parts of the left don’t want to let go of a “Multikulti” – Position that gives them the pleasant feeling of moral superiority. But if parties of the left don’t change their course, they may loose their ability to win over majorities and to govern for the foreseeable future.


New Labour and the challenge of multiculturalism

In Britain, the Labour government was for a long time in a state of denial too, avoiding, for instance, tough action against preachers of hate or extremist organisations and pursuing a strategy of dialogue with so called “moderate” Islamists who turned out to be rather the opposite. In the last six months or so, the British government has dramatically changed course. It decided to back a proposed law against enforced marriages, Tony Blair called the veil a “symbol of separation” and demanded the acceptance of democratic rules and “our values” – “or else, don’t come”. Police and Courts took action against Muslims, who so far seemed to be able to call for mass murder and justify terrorist atrocities without having to fear any legal consequences. And funding of the “Muslim Council of Britain” ceased; money will go instead to Muslim organisations, among them the newly founded “Sufi Council”, who are seriously trying to do something against the radicalisation of young Muslims.  


The reason for this change is simple. Labour wants to avoid the fate of the Australian Labour government under Premier Paul Keating, which holds a valuable lesson for other centre left parties in Europe too. Keating’s strategy was similar to the one New Labour pursued: He combined the economics of the right – free markets, deregulation, privatisation and a steady flow of immigration with the policies, reflecting the cultural and social trends of left leaning liberals, immigration, gay marriage and multiculturalism. As John Lloyd pointed out, according to astute Australian observers this proved to be a “deadly combination”. Labour, despite being economically successful, with steady growth, low inflation and despite growing prosperity, lost the last three elections against John Howard’s Liberals. Australians Labour party was swept from power by a shift in public opinion, which had to do with identity, nation, security and the general feeling that “things had gone too far”.  


There are signs in Britain and elsewhere in Europe that this course of recent history might repeat itself. It could be a similar combination of resentments and fears that will work against the centre-left. Sweden’s Social democrats got a foretaste of it. The Dutch Labour party, despite being back in power, got a bad result at the last elections. One factor which seems to come into the equation is the relentless pace of immigration, equally applauded by business, because it keeps wages down and provides the desperately needed workforce, and left leaning liberals, because, among other reasons, it fits into their vision of a universal, cosmopolitan culture.


But it is far less appealing to the wider working class and especially semiskilled workers on lower wages. They are worried not only about the extent of immigration, which shows no sign of slowing down; they are the ones feeling the pressure on wages, benefits and the distribution of social housing, real or assumed. Add to this the growing number of people, as indicated by opinion polls, irritated, if not fearful and angry about Islamists and Muslim extremists, who are pushing permanently for new rights and privileges, who demand censorship, the introduction of the sharia in parts of our liberal system of law and do everything, to extend Islamic influence in liberal democracies they despise and threaten with violence. If a minority behaves as confident and aggressive, what will it be in a time, when the population balance has shifted more into their favour? 


In some European countries extreme rightwing parties might profit from a voter revolt that might erupt even stronger if a new terrorist atrocity happens in Europe. In others countries, Britain and Germany, the Conservatives will be well positioned to gain from such a shift in the collective mood. The parties of the centre left must decide how to respond quickly and decisively. 


[1] The Foreign Policy Research Institute, Orbis Winter 2007