'If we want social cohesion we need a sense of identity'

The Home Secretary believes immigrants must adapt to the ways of the host community if harmony is to be achieved
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Indy Politics

David Blunkett says sensitivity, not political correctness, will be needed if Britain is to face up to the challenges of the riots in three northern towns this summer.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, the Home Secretary said the reports on disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham would challenge the communities to help themselves out of poverty and separation.

Q: Were you shocked by the reports on the riots?

A: We recognise there are historic divisions between communities that have separated Asian from white and Afro-Caribbean from Asian and that it will take many years to overcome.

We also recognise that racial prejudice is deep-seated and we need to face it head on and we need to set an example in the public services. But we also accept that we need sensitivity rather than political correctness. We need, therefore, to lay down challenges on the back of these reports in terms of where we are going – to build diversity not separation.

It is a two-way street. If we are going to have social cohesion we have got to develop a sense of identity and a sense of belonging.

The reports seek to face this head on. They say there are a number of issues we can't duck about public policy. There are also issues about how the community itself can make a contribution.

How do people in the Asian community help the second and third generation feel British, belong and identify with Britain, and at the same time retain the right to contribute their own culture?

How do they avoid a conflict between embracing the history and identity of someone born and identifying with Britain while being able to contribute those cultural norms which go to make up the country we are today?

To do it, we need strength within our own culture. We need not to denigrate regions and the cultures of the UK. The Irish, Welsh and Scots celebrate their identity. The English and the English regions need to be able to celebrate their roots and their identity. And by doing so, to be more confident in embracing and welcoming others.

Q: Have we been too tolerant of enforced marriage?

A: Enforced marriages and youngsters under the age of 16 being whistled away to the Indian sub-Continent, genital mutilation and practices that may be acceptable in parts of Africa, are unacceptable in Britain.

We need to be clear we don't tolerate the intolerable under the guise of cultural difference.

We have norms of acceptability and those who come into our home – for that is what it is – should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere.

Q: Does this call into question multiculturalism?

A: I am in favour of diversity and I welcome the interplay of different cultures. I think the word multiculturalism is now so degraded, it is now open to misinterpretation – we are all supposed to perform as though we ourselves are multicultural, where we are not. We have different backgrounds and different interests. What we need to do is accept them, not see them as a threat.

There is a big debate to be had, not about the cricket test [Lord Tebbit's suggestion about supporting England] but about the test we apply to future generations to make sure they are part of that solution.

Q: Does this imply they have to learn the English language? Ann Cryer (Labour MP for Keighley) got into hot water about that.

A: The Nationality and Immigration white paper will deal with the issue of how to ensure people have the tools to be part of that regeneration, including being able to obtain sufficient grasp of the English language for their own wellbeing and that of their children and grandchildren.

The example that Jewish immigrants always give is to embrace the language and the nation they entered and flourish by gaining the tools to make that possible.

What I want to get across in the White Paper is that this is not a threat, it is a promise.

When we touched on this at the time I issued the statement on asylum and immigration in October, someone from the Council for the Welfare of Immigrants abused it as linguistic colonialism. I reject that entirely.

People who talk in that language fail to grasp that if you are to build a cohesive nation, then it's the job of all of us to make an effort to take responsibility for doing that.

Q: Does this mean having an English test before naturalisation?

A: This has been misunderstood.

It isn't a question of having an English test before you come into the country. That wouldn't be practical and it would be unacceptable.

We want to make becoming a British citizen more attractive and we want to ensure that there are light-touch programmes to obtain naturalisation. One of those would be a modest grasp of the English tongue so they can feel and become English.