Two Cheers for David Cameron on Multiculturalism

I am slightly less encouraged than some commentators by British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on “the doctrine of state multiculturalism.” The speech is certainly worth two cheers, and the fact that Cameron has said much of this before is no reason for him not to say it again, especially since he has never said it so clearly. And I could not agree more with Pete Wehner’s contention that the problem is the decay of Britain’s shared identity, that assimilation matters, and that Arthur Schlesinger’s Disuniting of America was astonishingly prescient.

But with all that, a few caveats. Robert Chesney points out that “David Cameron delivered a fine speech . . . condemning multiculturalism and calling for a “muscular” liberalism that is actually committed to actual things such as the rights of women and the right to blaspheme and criticize religions. The problem is that British leaders always deliver fine speeches, and yet their bureaucratic elites continue along exactly the same gradual reduction in liberties as before, and always in the name of protecting rights.”

Anthony Daniels is even more skeptical, arguing that multiculturalism is only part of the swamp and that Cameron is “the head of a bloated, bullying but ineffectual government apparatus that weighs very heavily on the population and acts as a thick pall of pollution over the whole society.”

On the good side, the Prime Minister’s speech condemns cooperation with (supposedly) non-violent extremists. His forthright rejection of multiculturalism, and his willingness to name his enemy as the ideology of Islamism, stands in contrast to Conservative Party Chairman Sayeeda Warsi’s speech last month, in which she described millions of middle-class Britons as prejudiced anti-Muslim bigots. Indeed, the divide between the Prime Minister’s remarks and those of the Party Chairman is so wide that it seems unlikely the Chairman will hold that position much longer.

But there is also a less good side of Cameron’s speech. Daniels is right to point out that multiculturalism is only part of the problem: the British state is flabby, fat, and enervating in a thousand ways. But the problem is even deeper than that. Cameron’s description of British identity, and his call for “a much more active, muscular liberalism,” revolves partly around defining Britain as a society that stands for individual rights. Well, yes, of course. But a society that emphasizes rights without any emphasis on responsibilities is a society that worships the values-free, community-destroying multiculturalism that Cameron rejects.

Cameron may be aware of this problem, for he moves on to emphasize the:

practical things we can do as well. Making sure that immigrants speak the language of their new home and ensuring that people are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum. Back home, we’re introducing National Citizen Service: a two-month programme for sixteen-year-olds from different backgrounds to live and work together. I also believe we should encourage meaningful and active participation in society, by shifting the balance of power away from the state and towards the people.

But again, a contradiction appears: making sure immigrants learn English, having a common curriculum, and National Citizen Service are all things that the central government does. All – or mostly all, for I have my doubts about National Citizen Service – are sensible ideas on their merits, but they sit ill beside a call for reducing the scope of the state. The problem is not just that Daniels is right. It is that the reliance on state-based answers is so ingrained in Britain that even politicians like Cameron who are the most sensible, the most supportive of localism, the most worried about multiculturalism and Islamism, end up proposing so-called “practical things” that are based on the idea that the state can do it all.

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