Saturday 16 February 2008
Deborah Orr: We can't put the blame for terrorism solely on our multicultural society
Professor Gwyn Prins, one of the authors of the Royal United Services Institute's report on national security, has offered a useful précis of its contents. "We are simply saying that we are in a hell of a mess," he asserts. The Government refutes the suggestion that Britain is a "soft touch" for terrorists, and counters with the claim that Britain has some of the toughest anti-terror legislation in the world.
Our anti-terror laws may be tough. But many of them are also, unfortunately, unworkable. Take this week's decision by the Court of Appeal, which ruled that the five young men convicted of downloading material from jihadist websites had committed no crime. They had, strictly speaking, committed a crime, which was the hastily drawn-up crime, section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000, of consuming material pertaining to horrible realities of which most Westerners lacking a death wish are somewhat suspicious. It was a piece of legislation just waiting to be tested and found wanting. And so it has come to pass.
Now the possession of extremist material can be considered a crime only if it can be proven that its contents were to be acted upon, and the five young men have emerged from prison full of righteous indignation. Boys will be boys, their defence successfully argued, and inquisitive boys doing their utmost to educate themselves about the niceties of violent political Islam should not be thwarted in their researches. It is a reasonable position to assert in a free democracy, and it is hard to argue with. Once again it is plain to see that "multiculturalism" is more easily railed against than practically challenged. Its consequences are deeply embedded, whatever direction we stalwartly take now.
The Royal United Services Institute's report is as enthusiastic in its railing against multiculturalism as the next report is. It contends that "misplaced" and "flabby and bogus" policies have failed to "lay down the line" to immigrants, leading to a "fragmented post-Christian society" opposed by "implacable" terrorist enemies, with "a firm self-image".
Certainly I agree that multiculturalism is "flabby and bogus". Mostly, it is just lazy a primary-school ideology that pronounces that it is nice to be nice; offers an intellectual framework to the business of leaving people to do what comes naturally and surround themselves with what is familiar from their past; and leaves communities facing the consequences of their inability to integrate on their own because it is easier to do that than to make a real effort to counter the development of social or cultural ghettoes. This hasn't happened only with immigrant communities, anyway, as the lack of educational attainment among poor white boys attests.
The Government does recognise that it was a mistake to be so passive, along with increasing numbers of the moderate left. What should be troubling us now is that the new ideology of "community cohesion" is also "flabby and bogus", inspired not by a desire for "social justice" or to thrash out a meaningful understanding of "British values" but by the need to "counter extremism". This soft and gentle approach is undermined or even countermanded by terrorism laws that seem tough and straightforward but are really, as illustrated this week, "flabby and bogus" as well.
The difficulties faced by Britain are not unique, and they are not all caused by the failure of multiculturalism. One of our "problems" is that Britain is rich, but is wedded to the idea that low pay for unskilled work should be defended. Huge disparities in income don't promote cohesive societies, but there is little or no political appetite even to acknowledge this. Mass immigration was prompted in the first place by the wish to resist the need to attract workers to modest jobs by paying them well, and is still stoked on these grounds. Making sure that young people can earn a living wage from an honest day's work would promote community cohesion, yet the Government prefers to target "problem families" for cash bonuses, while the unproblematic families scrape by.
This is not to say that the relative economic neglect of some Asian communities is the main or only cause of British Islamic extremism. It is blindingly obvious that Islamic extremism is a global problem, and that Britain's historic links with Pakistan, and the way they have played out, are a significant driver of "home-grown" extremism. Multiculturalism has been a factor here, and continues to be. But it is only a factor. Young Muslims around the world are attracted by the ideas promulgated by political Islam, because young Muslims are encouraged to perceive themselves as heroic victims.
I hardly think that the five who appeared in court this week consider themselves any less as heroic victims now than they did back in the days when they were busy studying jihad, before they were arrested. It is a hell of a mess, indeed.
Clap your hands, or else
On Monday, at the Royal Festival Hall, I played my small part in what Newsnight called "the musical event of the decade", and sat down to enjoy Daniel Barenboim's sublime interpretation of four of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, all of which he, pictured, is playing in a single series in London. Each of these performances has received a standing ovation, and this one was no different.
Standing ovations are a funny beast. I've seen quite a few and they are seldom spontaneous. Usually, they begin with a bold gesture from just a few audience members, and it takes some while for the rest of the room to catch up. People start to stand gradually, until there is a critical mass of upright bodies, and anyone still sitting down feels like an ignorant lowbrow who wouldn't know a stand-out performance if it smacked him in the chops.
I've only ever attended one cultural event that inspired mass booing and barracking, and the same routine ensured. It was a performance of Les Huguenots at Covent Garden in the mid-1990s, and at first only a few souls made their view plain. Gradually more and more people joined in, until eventually the entire auditorium was baying for blood. I'm afraid it was even better fun.
Too many staff, not enough responsibility
There is amazement that no single person is being held accountable for the death of Jessica Randall, apart from her father, Andrew Randall, pictured, who abused and murdered her. The 54-day-old baby died at his hands, even though she had spent half of her life in hospital, had seen more than 30 health workers, and had been visited at her home on 10 occasions.
No one saw fit to suggest during this time that she should be on the at-risk register, even though her mother was schizophrenic and Jessica was born premature and with a heart defect. The primary health trust responsible insists that it is right that blame should fall on no single person. What it doesn't seem to realise is that if one single person had been responsible, properly responsible, for Jessica's case, then it would not have been nearly so likely to happen.
The trust has offered the usual stuff about lack of communication, seemingly unaware that if 30 people are involved in a case on not even double as many days, communication is bound to be a challenge. One of the most striking problems with structures in the NHS is the lack of leadership in individual cases, and the vast array of different people who become involved, often fleetingly and ineffectively, in a case. There is never, even when you are pregnant, in my experience, a single person identified as one's main point of real contact.
I don't know how much this reluctance to give somebody overall charge of a case is due to considerations of legal responsibility. But I do know that the trust appears to have learned little from its mistakes. One response, for example, has been to train a total of 2,000 staff at Kettering General Hospital, where Jessica was treated, in how to spot child abuse. This seems to be diluting responsibility even more, instead of getting on with making sure that a small group of people in the hospital monitor children's admissions. The NHS has lots of staff, but a real lack of focus or organised teamwork. Perhaps a little accountability might help health workers to care a little more passionately.
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