British Leftist wakes up to the perils of multiculturalism

Ruth Kelly broke with decades of Labour support for multiculturalism as she admitted the Government's failure to impose a single British identity could have led to communities living in 'isolation'. The Communities Secretary became the first Cabinet minister to question the idea that different faiths and races should not be forced to integrate but should be allowed to maintain their own culture. In an extraordinary volte face, she appeared to concede that Government policies had contributed to communities drifting into segregation. 'In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture, have we ended up with some communities living in isolation of each other, with no common bonds between them?' she said.

In a keynote speech launching a new commission on community cohesion, Miss Kelly said: 'We have moved from a period of near uniform consensus on the value of multiculturalism, to one where we can encourage that debate by questioning whether it is encouraging separateness.'

Tony Blair and other senior Labour ministers have repeatedly underlined their commitment to multiculturalism and its doctrines over their nine years in power, insisting it allows different communities to promote their own cultures while co-existing happily. But Miss Kelly conceded that its central planks were now being challenged by a series of Britain's leading ethnic minority figures. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and most recently, BBC newsreader George Alagiah have expressed serious doubts.

Miss Kelly called for a 'new, honest debate' about the dangers of segregation. She signalled a series of possible policy rethinks about the way different cultures and religions are treated in Britain. She suggested wider teaching of English to immigrants as a way of encouraging them to integrate better into British communities. And she said young children from segregated communities should be made to mix with other cultures. Miss Kelly proposed 'twinning' schools with different ethnic and faith profiles and student exchanges between them.

In West Yorkshire, Spring Grove, a majority Asian primary school in urban Huddersfield is already twinned with Netherhong, a majority white primary school in the rural Holmfirth Valley. Pupils aged between six and ten are matched with pupils with similar interests and encouraged to correspond and interact. The policy is reminiscent of an experiment in the 1970s which involved transporting Asian children from Bradford's city centre to schools on the outskirts.

In 1975, the Race Relations Board decided that 'bussing' ethnic minority children into white communities contravened the Race Relations Act. The board argued it was being done on the basis of racial or ethnic identity rather than educational need.

Miss Kelly said the question was more urgent because patterns of immigration into Britain were far 'more complex' today than they were when the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948, carrying 492 Jamaicans who wanted to start a new life here. 'Our new residents are not the Windrush generation,' she said. 'They are more diverse, coming from countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, from South Africa to Somalia.'

Miss Kelly admitted global tensions were increasingly reflected on the streets of Britain's communities as a result. 'New migrants fell the fierce loyalties developed in war-torn parts of Europe. Muslims feel the reverberations from the Middle East,' she said.

She said some white Britons 'do not feel comfortable with change'. 'They see the shops and restaurants in their town centres changing. They see their neighbourhoods becoming more diverse,' she said. 'Detached from the benefits of those changes, they begin to believe the stories about ethnic minorities getting special treatment, and to develop a resentment, a sense of grievance.'

Miss Kelly adopted former Tory leader Michael Howard's slogan from last year's election campaign, insisting it was 'not racist' to have concerns about immigration and asylum. 'We must not be censored by political correctness and we can't tiptoe around the issues,' she said. 'For example, it's clear that we need a controlled, well-managed system of immigration that has clear rules and integrity to counter exploitation from the far right.' She said Government policies would not be based on special treatment for minority ethnic faith communities. 'That would only exacerbate division rather than help build cohesion,' she said. 'And as a society, we should have the confidence to say "no" to certain suggestions from particular ethnic groups but, at the same time, to make sure everyone can be treated equally, there are some programmes that will need to treat groups differently.' Miss Kelly said the new commission, charged with improving community cohesion and tackle extremism, would be more than another 'talking shop'.

But critics pointed out that a series of official reports dating back to 2001 had warned of dangerous segregation between communities. And the idea of a cohesion commission was first floated by the Government last July in the wake of the London bombings. For the Tories, shadow immigration minister Damian Green said: 'Previous Government initiatives have proved to be more about grabbing a day's headlines than working on the roots of the problem. This time, it must make a proper long-term commitment to solving the problems. 'There is a huge and vital challenge to be met in helping Britain's new communities integrate fully with the mainstream values of British society.'


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