The severe backlash to the recent comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the role of other faiths in modern British society seemed more than a little out of proportion to the intelligent discussion he apparently wanted to stimulate.
The media was quick to the seize on one aspect of the general point Rowan Williams was raising.
It wasn’t just the rabid way in which the tabloids and some of the quality newspapers jumped on the issue. The BBC, which broadcast the original interview, also seemed to dwell on the same aspect without making too much effort to look at the wider picture.
There is no doubt that the Archbishop would open a can of worms with his comments. But the ferocity of the reaction was quite startling.
It soon became a debate on immigration, multiculturalism and whether the UK was now a post-Christian society. This is no bad thing, but the tone of the debate was based more on ignorance than intelligence.
We simply don’t live in a multicultural society, as witnessed by the over-the-top headlines and vigorous language in countless opinion pieces. If we lived in the sort of integrated society that multiculturalism fosters, then Rowan Williams would have sparked the sort of discussion he hoped for and not faced calls for his resignation.
There is a debate to be had, but it needs to start with a tolerant and open-minded stance than many seem to be adopting at present.
Increasingly it appears that immigration – past, present and future – will play a massive role in the next General Election. Battle lines are being drawn, even if none of the major political parties are willing to acknowledge as much yet.
We are seeing more stories with a twist, more commentary with an edge, more issues that are being linked negatively to immigration and the diverse nature of modern society.
The latest is the report by a thinktank claiming that the UK has become a soft touch and target for extremism and terrorism because of the negative impact of multiculturalism – adopting that mysterious term yet again that no-one really understands, but feels free to use to explain away a multitude of sins.
The Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) suggests that a “fragmenting, post-Christian society” with a “misplaced deference to multiculturalism” is undermining the UK’s self-confidence and hindering our fight against extremists.
“The country’s lack of self-confidence is in stark contrast to the implacability of its Islamist terrorist enemy,” states the report, which adds that the 7/7 attacks on London “exposed the weakness of the ‘multicultural’ approach towards Islamists”.
Rusi says this threat to the UK comes from both “without and within” and urges stronger leadership.
Above all it highlights how the UK has become “…increasingly divided about interpretations of its history, about its national aims, its values and in its political identity…”.
The Prime Minister has attempted to kick-start a debate on Britishness. But Gordon Brown’s somewhat half-hearted and misdirected pronouncements have apparently been swept under the carpet.
The question of what type of society we live in and want to live during the course of the 21st century hasn’t and won’t go away and is likely to become a major political issue in the coming months.
Yet the way in which stories, reports, studies and commentary are being shaped by a standpoint based on fear, ignorance and intolerance means that any hope of an intelligent debate amongst our senior political figures is lost as they scramble to boost their popularity and win votes.