If there is, eventually, one positive to be taken from the increasingly hysterical and tangential debate surrounding Muslim women and their right to wear a veil then let us hope it is that multi-culturalism in Britain suffers a long-overdue death.
Or rather, the utopian dream of multi-culturalism that so many have mistakenly believed encapsulates modern British society is finally laid to rest.
Multi-culturalism is an aspiration we should all embrace. But it doesn’t exist today and it has never existed in this country.
Jack Straw’s now infamous commentary in his local evening newspaper has certainly stirred emotions. But has it really got people talking about what constitutes 21st century Britain?
Of course, it would be too much to ask for such a debate to be reasoned, rational and even remotely progressive. It isn’t surprising that this is beyond our collective capabilities. Given the fact that people have become accustomed to the “quick fix”, it appears all they want from politicians, pundits and columnists is for someone to pigeonhole it in a box marked This is the Right Answer.
It is the way we deal with all manner of knotty problems these days and the sooner it happens the better for everyone. Then we can get back to enjoying the info-tainment that passes for factual news coverage on the majority of news channels, radio bulletins and newspapers these days. Far better to be concerned and heartened by the recovery of a popular television presenter following a self-inflicted vehicular accident, than have an informed and informative discussion about what shape our society is in these days, isn’t it?
But Mr Straw’s original comments won’t be pigeonholed so easily because they have served to highlight how deep the cultural and social divisions are in this country.
What would make a refreshing change would be if Mr Straw’s comments made us all look at ourselves and the communities we live and work in. How integrated are we?
When I first moved to Birmingham seven years ago I immediately bought into the myth that the city was a beacon of multi-culturalism. It was shattered within a few months, primarily by a teacher friend who gave me an insight into the lives of her primary-aged children in Nechells.
She painted a much more factual picture of communities closed off from the wider city, often existing solely within their own extended families and unable to comprehend anything other than what happened in their own, insular world. It was not a criticism of them. As she pointed out: “If and when they do try and open up, they just come up against so many obstacles it simply isn’t worth it.”
When I asked about Birmingham’s multi-cultural credentials, she laughed and was unable to offer anything other than a resigned shrug of the shoulders.
And yet, sure enough, not long after that conversation, Birmingham’s launch of what ultimately proved to be a futile bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2008 had the great and the good of the city waving the banner of multi-culturalism as vigorously as possible. The city’s rivals in this pointless competition – come on, does anyone still believe Liverpool won on merit and that there really was anything for Birmingham to gain from the whole sorry farce? – even cast envious glances over our marvellously multi-cultural bid programme.
But why? Study the bid in any great detail and the divisions that exist within Birmingham were plain to see.
This is not a criticism that can only be levelled at Birmingham. It is a nationwide malaise, from London to Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and all points north, south, east and west in between. Multi-cultural Britain does not exist, it never has done and it probably never will until we acknowledge the divisions that characterise our society.
That needs to be a first step. It evidently was asking too much to hope that Mr Straw’s comments, albeit a little muddled, would be that starting point.
It still isn’t too late. But the more tangents this debate spawns, the more we keep angling for a quick fix, the more we ignore the fundamental issue of how our society is made up these days and how it operates on a day-to-day basis, the more we shy away from supposed minefields like questioning other faiths and their beliefs, then the less likely we are to see anything like progress.
Multi-culturalism is a sham, a thin veneer that masks the less palatable truth. It need not be, we could exist in something approaching a multi-cultural ideal and I have a sneaking suspicion it would be a far more entertaining and satisfying society than the one we currently inhabit.
But we need to get rid of this mask. We need to take a look behind the veil in order to see the truth.