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Dominic Grieve: Multiculturalism - A Conservative vision of a free society

It is a great pleasure to have been asked to give the Lord Smith lecture.  He and I have been parliamentary colleagues since 1997 and have got to know each other through our shared work on the British Irish Parliamentary Body.

Indeed it is an interest in Ireland which first exposed me to the issues of identity politics and the particular challenges they pose in building a successful civil society.

Today however, we are seized in mainland Britain with a fear that the growth of ethnic and cultural diversity and the identity politics that flows from it may now be challenging us here.

Only last week Communities and Local Government Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, warned against the rising fear "that we don't do things because people will be offended"... she spoke of "political correctness gone mad"... and lamented the tendency to "over-estimate people's sensitivities".

In fairness to her the Communities Secretary is not just jockeying with Harriet Harman for political position.

In fact if she is serious, she is heralding a U-turn on twelve years of Labour policy.

A decade of ranking people as members of neatly categorized ethnic, religious or social groups, rather than treating everyone as an individual in their own right. 

A decade of courting self-appointed heads of minority groups and pandering to special interest lobbies, ignoring the range of opinions and depth of diversity in modern Britain.

And a decade of stifling difficult debate, under a blanket of political correctness, that marginalises those ill at ease with prevailing dogma or accepted 'progressive' wisdom.

However, serious as Hazel Blears may be and however, genuine this about-turn is on her part, it is clear that the architects of Labour's policy of multiculturalism are still very much embedded within the current government.

This just threatens to leave us with a greater muddle, when the country needs leadership on a subject where angels fear to tread and politicians engage in displacement activity.

Today I want to try to set out a Conservative alternative, based on freedom under law, pluralism in place of political correctness and a recognition of the need to debate all non-violent views in our society, however disagreeable we may personally find them.

But we need first to briefly review what has happened.

For over a decade now we have witnessed a plethora of speeches and academic papers on the subject of multiculturalism. It is nine years since the Parekh Report came out under the auspices of the Runnymede Trust, a document that proved extremely controversial.

It was welcomed by some, particularly on the left, as a serious critique of the structures of the British state. It suggested that society was rather institutionally racist and it offered proposals to recreate the identity of our country on the basis of being a community of diverse communities.

Others at the time saw it as a deconstructionist document that if implemented would leave any sense of common bond in tatters. There was a lot of journalistic apoplexy. As is common in such cases many had only read the executive summary from which  it was difficult to escape the conclusion that it was designed to shock, maybe to shake us out of complacency.

The Parekh report is a subject to which I will return later, because it seems to me that it is essential that it attracts a Conservative contribution - which I am afraid it did not have at the time!

There is, I suggest, quite apart from Hazel Blears' speech, ample evidence that the ideas and ideals of multiculturalism have run into the sand. Certainly its ensuing bureaucratic application has resulted in it being held in widespread contempt.

As I wrote this speech two items of news illustrated this for me.

These were: the parent who was admonished by a school because her 5 year old child discussed her albeit basic Christian understanding with another child; and, secondly, the story of the community nurse suspended for 6 weeks for suggesting she might pray for a patient she was looking after.  I put them together because they struck me as examples of disproportionate reactions which are doing great harm to the worthy cause of promoting harmony which I am quite clear the Parekh report was trying to do, even if I have considerable doubts as to its methodology. 

In both cases I am sure the authorities believed they were reacting totally appropriately in accordance with the principles of equality and diversity that have grown out of the intention behind the Parekh report in order to develop greater respect and tolerance between citizens.

What I want to discuss tonight is whether the means have destroyed the end and how we as Conservatives would set about achieving a better balance between the spirit of the Parekh report and its results.

Now is the time to put this question. Under the leadership of David Cameron and with a general election on the horizon Conservatives must demonstrate that we have the ability and ideas to address the challenges that a multi-cultural society presents.

The challenge is all the more difficult as the left has had this area to itself for too long.  Multiculturalism has become synonymous with the messages of the centre left.  So any Conservative approach must be articulated within my Party's own tradition and language. 

We will not be able to offer our ideas to the electorate if we just continue to repeat parrot fashion the words and methods of the centre left - an approach which is governed by a socialist view of society.

Moreover, at the other extreme, the lack of a credible response from the mainstream right to the current issues of multiculturalism has now left a gap, which is being filled by extremist voices. UKIP and the British National Party have taken advantage of it to suggest policies not based on a reasoned morality but which play on fear and encourage hatred.

I should say at the outset that there are overwhelming moral reasons why as a society we should not and must not tolerate discrimination on the grounds of race, faith or ethnicity.  To my mind the words of Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers of the United States from the Declaration of Independence well presented the position from with which any politician claiming to be the heir of the 18th-century enlightenment, 19th-century liberalism and 20th century pragmatism would agree.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

What is at issue is how we as politicians adhering to different philosophical traditions adhere to this principle and build upon it.

In trying to provide a reasoned contribution to the debate on multiculturalism, there is much in our Conservative tradition which can guide us.

While Conservatism is often seen as being instinctively against change, the reality is very different.  Conservatism has a fine radical tradition of applying its firm principles to evolving circumstances. 

Think of the heritage of Disraeli, Wilberforce, Peel and Thatcher.  There is also our philosophical heritage: a heritage based on the writings of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville amongst others.    Perhaps de Tocqueville best summed up my starting point by saying "Liberty ... infuses throughout the body social an activity, a force and an energy which never exists without it, and which bring forth wonders"

For freedom to exist, it is axiomatic that the role of the state must be well defined and circumscribed.  The need for freedom to enable individual enterprise, innovation and motivation to flourish is a fundamental Conservative tenet and is well known to be at the heart of Conservative economics.  What we have not done is to satisfactorily take that thinking into the social arena particularly to our thinking on community cohesion - the catch all expression that has come to mean how we are going to live together despite our differences.

This is of course  an area fraught with difficulties.  Society is never static - new challenges are constantly being thrown up.

Today co-existence between people of diverse backgrounds is an acute problem for reasons of which we are all aware: globalization and immigration encouraged by population growth and deteriorating economic and environmental conditions in some countries; increased ability to travel; and the potential offered by technological advances in communications.  In this multi cultural and multi ethnic world there are more of us living in the same defined geographical space with differing political ideals, religious beliefs, perceptions of the past and the cultural differences that come with it.

Conservatives believe freedom is essential to the well being of society and we recognise also that there have to be  checks and balances as well and that it is the state's role to provide them.

But in the first instance we believe that it is the individuals making up society itself who can best provide the solutions through self control. 

It is through the exercise of every day contact and the constant exchange of views and opinions that we moderate each other's attitudes and behaviour-something that I hope will take place this evening through the discussion following this lecture. Creating that contact, breaking down ghettos of the mind and instilling confidence in our ability to learn from each other are the essentials.   Greater diversity within our society must be recognised and applauded. 

But it seems to me that the zealous regulation of conduct, the imposition of state-defined orthodoxy on public and private conscience and the overburdening of law and regulation, have the consequence of undermining that confidence and are deterring participation and engagement.

What we need, so as not to oscillate between an over regulated society on the one hand and anarchy on the other is, pragmatism; others might call it common sense.  The disentanglement of the meaning of common sense could be the theme of a lecture greater than this but for our purpose let me rely on Wikipedia for a description of its meaning.  "Common sense consists of what people in common would agree on: that which they "sense" as their common natural understanding". 

When common natural understanding fails, the government, as chosen by the people, does have to intervene to reconcile differences. With this essentially conservative approach, government's role is one of protecting  common understanding, not imposing its own values or acting as thought police.

People do not feel free to modify each other's behaviour if  they are frightened by the unpredictable line of political correctness; a term I use to suggest the imposed doctrines from above. 

Fear itself creates uncertainty and we are finding the centre of the debate becomes the validity of political correctness itself rather than the appropriateness of a word or action.

Increasingly, common sense is not being used to moderate societal norms and the government has become the arbiter of what is acceptable and what is not. This is not a Conservative understanding of the role of government.  There is a profound difference in attitude in political terms: on the one hand the Conservative approach of having a free society where people learn to influence each other's behaviours by intermingling and by reasoned argument supported, as a last resort, by the requirements of the rule of law; and on the other hand the Labour Party's approach under which the government through legislation determines a template of how we should behave.

Now I entirely accept that much has happened in the last half century and that our attitudes must also evolve. 

Our society is currently changing rapidly and it is becoming more diverse at great speed.  Perhaps not since the 18th-century industrial revolution have our values, customs, and way of life been so challenged. Even in the 1960's, an era usually characterised as progressive with the arrival of the Beatles, Carnaby Street and Mary Quant we were inclined to judge identity according societal standing  religious allegiance and colour.  It was the same era that still featured signs in windows of lodging houses saying - no blacks. Discriminatory attitudes against Irish Catholics and against Jews were commonplace. So I have no doubt that a profound change was needed and this is what the promoters of multiculturalism as a political theory have sought to achieve.

The trouble however is that multiculturalism has turned from theory to creed. I use the word creed advisedly because of the infallible status it has been accorded in some quarters, sprung from the seminal report by the Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain established in 1998 by the Runnymede Trust and chaired by Lord Parekh.  The report set out to add flesh to the bones of the Government's laudable commitment to creating "One Nation", a country where "every colour is a good colour...every member of every part of society is able to fulfil their potential. Racism is unacceptable and counteracted....everyone is treated according to their needs and rights....everyone recognises their responsibilities....racial diversity is celebrated".   

It interestingly takes the Tory notion of One Nation and dresses it in new clothing. It is a sentiment with which no Conservative could disagree.

The Commission however translated One Nation aspirations into a far-reaching social commitment recommending that "the concept of equality and diversity must be driven through the government machinery at local and national level" and "there must be a commitment to go beyond the racism and culture blind strategies of social inclusion currently under way.  Programmes such as the New Deal for Communities are essential.  They must however have an explicit focus on race equality and cultural diversity"

For Conservatives this creates a problem.   Whilst we are against racism as morally unacceptable, the notion of a society created on the back of overt state manipulation is a socialist concept that we find as offensive as we believe it to be counter-productive. 

In 2000, the year the report was published, the Conservative Party was in no position to challenge the premises that underlay the report and its transformation of the idea of "One Nation".

It was three years after one of the most crushing electoral defeats in our history when few were willing to listen to a distinctive Conservative approach to these issues and I do not think that my Party was well placed to develop or market new ideas.

This was a pity as there is a long tradition of social and political reform and innovation within the Party. This includes widening the franchise in the 19th century, to developing a universal health service in the 1950's and honouring our commitment to the Ugandan Asians in the 1970's.

Left unchallenged Multiculturalism as a political philosophy has until recently been given free rein and the whole industry of political correctness has grown on its back. Hot cross buns were banned in a school as liable to give offence to

Muslims when no Muslim had complained about it.

A local authority in the Midlands denied the use of its municipal theatre to a group wishing to perform a mummers play because of the use of black painted faces even though this is part of the play's tradition since medieval times and has no racial connotation. 

And last year at Christmas time the royal mail issued two types of stamps - one with a religious motif and the other a secular.  The only difference was that to get the religious stamps you had to ask especially, otherwise you were automatically issued with the secular ones.

Increasing prescription is robbing us of our ability to decide ourselves what is right and wrong. My colleague Sayeeda Warsi has highlighted in the treatment of forced marriages a disinclination to criticise attitudes which are morally unacceptable to a modern western tradition. 

Forced marriages are a violation against women and should not be protected as an "ethnic" issue - to do so raises the spectacle of double standards.  In Sayeeda's words "There has been a failure on the part of policy makers to respond to this situation.  Some of it has been done in the name of cultural sensitivity and we've just avoided either discussing or dealing with this matter head on".  

Indeed the reluctance to exercise reasonable judgment and to criticise or challenge negative cultural imports into our country by some immigrants including discriminatory practises against women and corrupt political and electoral practises, is one of the most troubling consequences of a culture that wishes to avoid offence and accusations of racism.

And with this has come another unintended consequence.

Multiculturalism was intended to create a more cohesive and friendlier society by facilitating bringing people together. But instead the laws and concepts underlying it seem to me to drive people apart endangering our traditional sense of community based on shared values.  It is these values honed by history, that have created our legal and constitutional arrangements. But to the present government this historic sense of Britishness has been attacked as incompatible with modernity. 

Thus we had the cool Britannia experiment when everything from the tails of British planes, to our constitutional arrangements were subjected to revision and revamping to make them compatible with the Labour vision - a vision based on a bigger role for the state, and the requirement of equal outcomes.  In schools, the dumbing down of history has resulted in a system where the teaching of a narrative of British history has all but vanished.  Instead of children being taught to take interest in and have respect for past events and individuals who have shaped their lives, they are encouraged to be contemptuous of people who in the past did not live up to the then unknown values of modern Britain.

I am convinced that this approach has hindered more recent immigrants to this country developing a sense of belonging. Faced with a society that seems to be suffering an identity breakdown, should we be surprised that they find a common identity with their fellow countrymen hard to identify?

Indeed I have been struck as to how often I have been told by groups of alienated young British Muslims that they live in a society without any values.

I do not find this surprising. It seems to me that the more confident people are in their own identities the easier they find it to engage with the identities of others who have different cultural roots. Lack of understanding of origin and identity is the breeding ground in all people of irrational fear of others and from it springs extremism and intolerance.

Conservatives see that only by "understanding the past" can you understand the present.  Fragmentation of the past means that the anchors of society are weakened, becoming increasingly meaningless.  

To use Trevor Phillip's, Chairman of the Equality Commission, much quoted phrase we are "sleep walking into segregation".  This has become the unintended effect of Multiculturalism.

"Britishness" as an identity that can encompass all people of goodwill choosing to live in this country and which can contribute to social cohesion has been replaced with a citizenship definition that is chiefly seen as the portal for the consumption of state services and for demanding special privileges funded at the State's expense. So the "Britishness of the "shared imagination and emotion that Amartya Sen has shown can play a key role in minimising difference and creating at best a comfortable and sustaining environment for all citizens is lacking.  

Creating a sense of belonging will not be achieved by denying the existence of the traditions of the majority nor by trying to suppress the identity of newcomers. 

In thinking about how we can instil a sense of common identity, the Conservative pragmatic approach starts with what brings us together.

I believe that the things which unite us in a common bond and can bring us together and command respect across race and religion are there but are all too often hidden beneath the surface. Indeed I would argue that at a time when they would be of the greatest value to us we are in danger of losing them from sight altogether.

One of the fundamental contributions to our identity lies in our laws and the freedom to be enjoyed under them.

Its origins goes back a long way to the often painful process by which our country has been transformed in six centuries from a royal autocracy reinforced by compulsory religious orthodoxy and tempered only by the common law, by custom and the occasional recalcitrance of parliament to bend to the royal will and in extremis a notable willingness to rebel, to the pluralist democracy we take for granted today.

From the Saxon moot court, through Magna Carta, the Glorious revolution of 1688 and onwards, freedom and equality under the law has been central to what English and with it British identity has been all about. Its development may have been haphazard and at times the product of accident rather than design but develop it did.

It is a remarkable story and we are fortunate that others before us chose, often in difficult circumstances, and not without sometimes bloody conflict to protect and expand rights and freedoms when it must have been very tempting not to do so.

The religious settlements hammered out between the 16th and 19th centuries which gave us complete religious freedom gave us much forbearance.

And it is this I suggest, more than any other single thing that has made our country so attractive to immigrants: the chance of enjoying the freedom to lead ones life without arbitrary state interference in an environment that places the greatest stress on the right of individuals to security of person and property.

As I keep on pointing out the overwhelming majority of immigrants come to this country for the most positive private reasons which should be a subject of celebration. 

Yet, as those in government extol human rights and promote laws to enhance equality and diversity we seem to be fast losing sight of these basic principles that have done so much to unite us. On the contrary, we may lament that society is in danger of losing its cohesion. We seem entirely cavalier about how our historic heritage is being annihilated by New Labour as archaic and irrelevant leftovers.

Let us look at how freedom under the law is being eroded.

In the last ten years we have seen a willingness by government to by-pass basic legal principles in the name of administrative efficiency and control.

We have seen the rise of administrative penalties that are imposed without due process of law, be they ASBOS, or fixed penalties or the introduction of control orders to restrict the liberty of those unconvicted of any crime.

Basic principles of due process have been undermined with government demanding powers to detain for up to 6 weeks without charge, changing the burden of proof in some criminal cases to facilitate conviction and repeated attempts to limit the right to trial by jury.

There was in 2003 a nearly successful attempt to oust the jurisdiction of the High Court over administrative decisions by government in asylum cases.

We have seen the arrival of intrusive powers to acquire and retain on national databases information on the law abiding and to share confidential information given to the State for one specific purpose between state and other agencies purportedly in the name of wider public good.

In the case of the DNA database this Government has evolved, until checked by the European Court of Human Rights, a doctrine allowing it to retain the DNA of innocent persons who may have been arrested but not charged with an offence thus creating a two tier society of the "monitored" and the "Free" based on administrative convenience.

We have seen centuries old principles that a person's home was inviolable to a bailiff seeking to carry out civil distress of goods overturned with impunity, so that the proud adage that "an Englishman's home is his castle" will soon be but an historic memory. It has been documented that the state has now over 250 entry powers to a private home.

To our forebears this would have had all the hallmarks of a descent into tyranny. Some of them were prohibited in those ancient laws such as the Bill of Rights 1689, Habeas Corpus in 1674 and by judicial decision in the Five Knights case of 1628. Outside of the civil liberties lobby, however, the response has, until recently, been fairly muted.

Yet as I have found when meeting minority groups, these things do matter particularly, if you feel you are at the receiving end of state attention. What message for instance does the case of Binyam Mohamed convey in terms of our values when we are faced with accusations that we colluded with the USA in interrogation practises that were outlawed by the English Parliament in the mid 17th century?  For Conservatives preserving and enhancing these principles would facilitate the development of common values far more than any industry of multiculturalism.
Freedom under law requires freedom of thought and expression.

Our country has defined itself for many generations as a place where freedom of expression, political and religious, can be practised and indeed the whole trend in our history in the last two hundred years is the gradual removal of the fetters of censorship on people's views and, to a great extent their behaviour, subject to the protection of others under our criminal law.  Sedition is not a word you hear much now.

As a Conservative I would contend that this offers us a great advantage in developing social cohesion in an age of rapid change. We ought to be emphasising its value all the time. But we are being told the opposite - that the price of diversity must be restrictions on freedom and this trend has been promoted in the name of multiculturalism.

We saw this with the incitement to Religious Hatred bill and again now with the debate as to whether or not there should be a saving clause for freedom of speech in respect of incitement of hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

And, of course, in the context of terrorism we have seen new restrictions enacted that led to the  arrest of protestors for reading out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph and to the risks that will now be run by those who photograph the police.

In each case, the restrictions have been justified on the basis of achieving greater tranquillity and tolerance. But the evidence that this is or will be the consequence of such legislation is wholly lacking. 

On the contrary as the proposals for religious hatred showed, the issue promoted division between groups that believed that the proposal could be used to their advantage to stifle criticism of them by others.

Now as a Conservative I have nothing against trying to promote a tranquil and tolerant society, but both my instincts and the evidence suggest to me that it will never be achieved by compulsion.

On the contrary we are producing the reverse, a society where individuals feel disempowered, lack a clear sense of perspective and place ever greater demands on the State which can only be fulfilled by the State obtaining more power at the individual's expense.

So we as Conservatives must offer a different view.

This is why I believe that there is merit in looking to the creation of a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to help better define ECHR prescriptions and ensure that the principles in the ECHR are expressed so as to be seen as being relevant to all people and not as at present an international obligation that seems on occasion to appear to privilege certain individuals over the rights of the law abiding majority.

Preparing such a Bill would also provide us with an opportunity to engage in a national debate as to what aspects of our legal and constitutional framework constitute core values in the area of civil liberties that could merit better protection than the Human Rights Act itself currently affords. 

For example I believe that the right to trial by jury in indictable cases should be protected as a key feature of our participatory democracy. We may also wish to add to the right to freedom of expression in the ECHR and ensure that principles of equality under the law are spelt out-an important issue in countering the current lobbying for special privileges for different groups.

There are also sound arguments for including the obligations of individuals to the wider community as well. While some rights are properly absolute, there is no reason under the ECHR, why the failure to act in a neighbourly and acceptable way should not be taken into account if an individual seeks to invoke rights.

Finally if the document we produce is well worded and is perceived to provide protection to rights and freedoms then it will become effective in defining common values so that people in Britain of different backgrounds may feel ownership of it.

We also need to pay attention to how we educate our children in an understanding of the country they live in. Much has been made in recent years of whether or not faith based education contributes to communities leading parallel lives. My own impression however is that this matters far less than the absence of a proper teaching of history and civics. In most cases, as I keep on discovering when I address 6th forms it is plainly not taught at all.

We need to ensure that new British citizens have an understanding of how our country has evolved just as it is essential that the settled population has an understanding of the history that has shaped the lives of immigrants and the issues which informed their personal or family decision to come here.


I would not wish to end this talk leaving you with an impression of pessimism on the future of community cohesion in Britain.

When one considers the extent and rapidity of the changes to which we have been subject and some of the prophecies of doom, particularly in the media that have come with it, what is most striking is our resilience as a society in absorbing and managing that change, whatever our shortcomings. Far from being an unhealthy sign, I see the debate generated over multiculturalism as an indicator of a country that is accepting of pluralism and doing exactly what is needed. But we will only succeed in developing  a community of values and a shared national identity if we allow all people the freedom to discover and to coalesce around their shared aspirations  arguing out areas of disagreement.

That is why I have set out a Conservative vision: a vision based on limited state interference in our freedom, the role of the past in shaping our present identities' the strength that lies in the common sense of individuals living out their lives in common and strict limits on State prescription and interference.

The imposition of state devised models will fail and the biggest challenge for politicians and academics alike is to recognise that this is the case.

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