The problem with the word "multiculturalism" is that it means different things to different people. Tony Blair abandoned the term last year, claiming that "I never know quite what people mean [by it]." Ruth Kelly has removed it from the ongoing debate on Britain and Britishness by declaring that "we have moved from a period of uniform consensus on the value of multiculturalism".
There was, of course, never a period of "uniform consensus" on the meaning of multiculturalism, let alone its value. But even Kelly recognises that we do need some shared values and common ground. She calls this "cohesion", but it might be better - if unfashionably - described as British "monoculture". If Britain has traditionally celebrated diversity, integration, human rights, and political and religious freedoms, what was the point of advocating multiculturalism, and what problems has it left? These are the questions at the heart of this book.
George Alagiah is at pains to point out that A Home from Home "is emphatically not an attack on multiculturalism as a whole", from which he and fellow immigrants have received great benefits. It is, however, an attack on the mindless multiculturalism that infringes human rights - for example, in the indefensible case of forced marriages. The BBC journalist writes with a quiet power about the problems of multiculturalism in schools in Tower Hamlets, and is alarmed that the English are becoming an ethnic minority in parts of England. He explains the rise of radical Islam in Britain through dam-building in rural Pakistan and the resultant migration of entire villages.
But A Home from Home does not simply rehearse these familiar issues. Alagiah laces his statistics with interviews, anecdotes and observations. It is a memoir - a confession, even - approaching questions of multi-faith schools, segregation and ghettoisation, and cultural misogyny in terms of how they affect individuals, families and where they live: a place to call home.
After the often unsettling encounters with his Sri Lankan background, Alagiah reassuringly looks forwards. His origins are intrinsic to his character, but they are just the beginning, and he is guardedly optimistic about the future of Britain and its struggle to identify itself. At the present time, perhaps questioning multiculturalism is precisely what defines what it is to be British.
Nick Groom's 'The Union Jack' is published by AtlanticReuse content