Adrian Hamilton: Multiculturalism needs defenders

Multiculturalism was once a term of tolerance, an acceptance of difference in an increasingly cosmopolitan and urbanised western world. Today it has become just a convenient label which politicians can use to assault immigration. Now Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has seized on it to read the funeral rites over an open society. "Multikulti," she declared at the weekend, "has utterly failed." It was wishful thinking, she argued, to believe that Germans and foreigners "could live happily side by side.... We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn't stay, but that's not the reality."

Indeed it isn't. Having invited immigrants in by the millions to fill a labour gap in an expanding market – just as Britain did after the Second World War – the governments and society that welcomed their arrival now think that they should conveniently disappear, taking their wives, their children, their benefit needs and their political antagonisms with them.

There's no need to search far for explanations for Mrs Merkel's extraordinary, and in some ways uncharacteristic, leap into the low ground of racist politics. Ever since the Bundesbank official Thilo Sarrazin launched his best-selling-book last August (and was forced to resign from the bank for his pains) blaming immigration for social decline in Germany, the country has been in a fever of debate about the issue. Only last weekend, the Bavarian Governor, Horst Seehofer, declared his determination to preserve German "Leitkultur" as the "dominant German culture". The country was in danger, he declared, of becoming the, "world's welfare office".

With her fast-falling poll rating and fraying party loyalty, it was little wonder that the German Chancellor finally seized this opportunity to up her voter-approval figures and try and breathe new life into her dying party. Little wonder but hardly admirable. Dispense with all the finer analysis of political advantage, forget the excuse that mainstream politicians must express the bubbling concerns of their constituents, and recognise what is happening here.

The attack on "multiculturalism" is just a mask for expressing prejudices that would have been regarded as unacceptable and unrepeatable a decade ago – that the "guestworkers" were basically welfare scroungers, that they didn't and wouldn't subscribe to the culture of their hosts, that they were less educated and less educable than the majority "whites," that they somehow resented and challenged social values based on culture, language and the Christian religion.

Mrs Merkel is not alone in these views, although she brings to the debate some of the peculiar provincialism and ethnic exclusiveness of those brought up in eastern Germany. All across Western Europe there is a gathering chorus of concern on the migrant issue.

Worries about jobs have become mixed with fear of Islamic terrorism and now the talk of cuts everywhere. As societies have turned inwards so they have also turned against the outsiders. It does not express – as yet – a desire to scapegoat the immigrants, to load them with the hatreds and fears which people in an age of anxiety are feeling. It's more a sense that society as people have known it is changing too fast and that the foreigner is somehow part of the process of exsanguination going on.

But it is significant that the language being used is the language of racism of the 1930s – that it contains and implies attitudes of ethnic purity and cultural superiority, alongside xenophobia, which are dangerous in their logic and potentially extreme in their emotion.

Multiculturalism as adumbrated in Britain in the 1960s, was developed precisely to still these sorts of attitudes. It wasn't a policy of letting everyone do their own thing so much as a counteraction to the suspicion and hostility to difference that immigration was bringing. More than that it never really defined itself, which is why it can be so easily misused now.

Its assumption was that immigrants, just as the Huguenots and the Jews of the late 19th century had, would integrate through generations, that over time their children would grow up much like everyone else in their society.

That assumption has been challenged, it is true. The post-war insertion of immigrant labour in industrial towns, rather than the pre-war waves of social and political refugees fanning out from the ports of entry, has posed real problems as these industries have declined.

If you take Germany, with 18 per cent of its population made up of immigrant groups, the proportion of those going to university (15 per cent) is no different from the society at large. But if you look at the proportion who drop out of school (9.6 per cent) or are out of work (14 per cent), then they are out of kilter with the rest of society – which says far more about social conditions and deprivation than cultural attitude.

At the same time globalisation and communications have served to divide as much as unify groups in a search for identity. The belief that the children of immigrants would become more like their neighbours remains true, but in doing so they have taken on a desire for self-identification which has, in individual cases, proved violent.

The real problem with the multicultural debate is not the critics, however. Politicians will always seek routes to populist votes. It is better that the views are aired in public rather than whispered in private. The true worry is the lack of voices to come out in defence of toleration, the paucity of figures ready to defend the values of an open society and to take the battle back into the opponent's court, forcing Mrs Merkel and her like to define just what they think immigrants are doing or threatening to do and just what the politicians would wish, or force, them to do instead.

For further reading

'Multiculturalism', by Tariq Modood (2007)