Janet Daley: Integration will take more than a hyphen

Absorbing migrants involves more than taking in strangers and leaving them to it


A quick fix for the ethnic problem: as multiculturalism sinks into disrepute, the Home Office offers us hyphens. Alienated Muslims are to be known as Asian-British, plagiarising the American model for incorporating immigrant groups into the national identity. This risible semantic exercise, like multiculturalism itself, is a non-policy: a vacuum, a substitute for thought.

The idea that many cultures could co-exist side by side in one country, going their own ways, cultivating their own disparate and distinct identities, was always a cop-out. It assumed that coming to live in a country was rather like lodging in a rooming-house: new tenants could keep to themselves and do what they liked so long as they didn't make too much noise or block the toilets. How they lived their lives was nobody's business, not even the landlady's.

Well, as we have apparently now realised, being a country that absorbs migrants involves rather more than taking in strangers and leaving them to get on with it. Multiculturalism may have been dressed up as cosmopolitan virtue but, at heart, it was a rationale for not really giving a damn, and a cover for the least attractive British traits - intellectual laziness, indifference to the needs of other people, complacency, and contempt for any sort of energetic commitment to a social ideal.

Well, the serious thinking starts now. The lodgers - or, more to the point, their children - clearly need to be offered a bit more than a key to the front door and a reminder not to leave the landing light on.

Much has been made of this country's failure to give any instruction to incomers on the essentials of Britishness - whatever that is - and the consequent lack of any sense of national identity. Acres of newsprint and hours of broadcasting time have been devoted to producing a defining sense of what it means to be British.

The results have been banal, embarrassing, and pointless. We are, or like to see ourselves as, tolerant, law-abiding, humorous and fair-minded. Yes - and how far does that get us in dealing with cults which actively preach intolerance, urge people to break the most fundamental laws, are deadly serious about their aims and opposed to fairness (that is, social equality) as we understand it?

This failure to inculcate some mysterious core of national pride is being contrasted unfavourably with the practice of my home country. In the United States, it has been noted, waves of immigrants from vastly differing parts of the world have been successfully integrated by a determined, conscious programme of "Americanisation" in the schools and throughout the wider society.

Somehow, the US with its pledge of allegiance and its "civics" lessons, has cracked the problem of inducting people into a more-or-less unified society within one generation. Ah yes, snigger the British, but we don't go in for that sort of thing here. We don't make children rise up every schoolday morning, put their hands on their hearts and pledge allegiance to the flag. No super-patriotism please, we're British.

Sorry, but you've missed the point. American primary schoolchildren may salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance, but a few years later, it is the Constitution they learn to revere and its preamble (which begins "We the people") that they memorise.

Their high school civics classes require them to write letters to their congressmen in Washington and to their state senators, to study specific pieces of current legislation whose progress they can follow through Congress, and to campaign or canvass for the party of their choice in elections.

And the politicians to whom they write are all primed to respond in a helpful and generous way, because it is their responsibility, as much as the schools', to educate children in the democratic process. What American children learn, in other words, is not some amorphous concept of "American-ness" but how their system of democracy works, and by implication, what its value is to them and to the nation.

Britain, too, has a system of government and principles of law, such as the independence of the judiciary, which need to be explained to school children (and not just the ones born of immigrant parents) in order to give them some understanding of the part that they should play in their national life if it is to be sustained. It too has institutions and processes that must be participated in, if they are to have meaning.

Feeling alienated from your surroundings generally begins with not understanding them. Curing that is going to take more than a hyphen: it needs national confidence, fervour and concerted effort. All those things that laid-back multiculturalism disdained.

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