John Rentoul: Let multiculturalism speak for itself

The country's future is too important to be lost in loose talk about race. It's time to address population stability in plain English

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Multiculturalism has become the great boo-word. No one is in favour of it. At one level, though, it simply means respecting different cultures. Nearly everyone is in favour of that. At another it means the opposite of integration, and in that sense nearly everyone is against it.

In practice, nothing is as simple as either meaning. Should pupils be allowed to speak Punjabi in schools where the majority speak Punjabi at home? Most people might say that schools should not have multilingual signs, that English should be required in classrooms, but that what pupils do in the playground is their own affair.

What is significant about that, though, is that the line has moved, fairly recently. Many London schools do have signs in two languages. Some of them, in fact, have signs that look like the ingredients panel on EU-wide food products. But the supertanker of the educational consensus is turning against translation. Two years ago there was a media flurry when the BBC found out how much local councils were spending to translate leaflets into other languages. Suddenly, an unquestioned assumption of liberal orthodoxy was questioned, and everyone realised how misguided it was to assume that translating things for new immigrants was doing them a favour. The noun-as-verb liberals realised that client groups could "access" council services – not to mention the attributes of meaningful citizenship – better if they learnt English. Why not spend the £100m on English lessons instead?

This change was reflected in attitudes to the idea of requiring English as a condition of citizenship. When David Blunkett, as Home Secretary, first suggested it in 2002, The Independent carried a leading article of high liberal dudgeon accusing him of being "too deferential towards popular xenophobia". I know, because I wrote it. But even as I did, I accepted the specifics of his argument.

So something has changed in the past decade. As a Labour government grapples with sensitive issues of race and immigration, liberal orthodoxies formed in opposition, before 9/11, or before the arrival of 1.5 million new workers from abroad, have changed.

But just because some parts of liberalism have undergone a reformation does not mean that any old reactionary nonsense now holds sway. Last week, some old reactionary nonsense was repackaged as an assessment of the security threats to the country by the Royal United Services Institute. And what was the No 1 threat to national security? Multiculturalism or, more specifically, "the lack of leadership from the majority which, in misplaced deference to 'multiculturalism', failed to lay down the line to immigrant communities".

As a result of our "loss of cultural self-confidence", we British "look like a soft touch. We are indeed a soft touch."

The institute is such a respected defence think tank that this permitted the Daily Mail to lead its front page on Friday with "Soft Touch UK". The article at the centre of the furore was presented as expressing "the consensus" of a series of private seminars attended by the great and good of retired diplomats and top brass.

No doubt it does, but one of its main authors is Robert Salisbury, better known as the former Lord Cranborne (now the 7th Marquess of Salisbury). As Conservative leader in the Lords he was sacked by William Hague for striking a deal with Tony Blair over the phasing-out of hereditary peers. With a family title dating from 1605, one wonders if he were responsible for the article's quotation from Shakespeare: "This England that was wont to conquer others hath made a shameful conquest of itself."

The funny thing about multiculturalism is that it brings out the most tangled of muddled thinking from people with a reputation for being too clever for their own good. First it was the ABC, as the Archbishop of Canterbury's own office calls him; last week it was Robert Gascoyne-Cecil. First we had "liberal" nonsense about accommodating sharia in British law; then we had jihadist terrorism blamed on the soft touch society that fails to stand up to the "firm self-image of those elements within it who refuse to integrate".

This is nonsense not just on stilts but in a helicopter gunship some distance above the Earth's surface. The reasons why Mohammed Atta flew his plane, or why Mohammad Sidique Khan put on his backpack, did not include the separation of their families from mainstream society by misguided policies of multiculturalism. Their hatred of the West was, if anything, driven by the opposite: by their fear of a culture of consumerism, hedonism and sexual equality that seemed to them to be all too attractive to their largely integrated fellow Muslims.

So when Baroness Neville-Jones, a Tory shadow minister, went on the radio to defend the Gascoyne-Cecil-Cranborne-Salisbury article, she could not have been more beside the point when she talked about "a requirement to speak English to come to this country". The 7/7 bombers spoke English; that was almost the main point about them. They were not the creations of multiculturalism but a reaction against its opposite, integration.

That is the trouble with questions of race: the left and right often talk nonsense and those in the middle cannot get a word in edgeways without either being denounced as racist by the left or welcomed as fellow-preservers of Shakespeare's England by the right – or both.

The most striking contribution to the debate last week, though, came from an unexpected quarter. Lord Turner, the former Adair Turner of the CBI and the architect of the great pensions settlement that was one of the last acts of the Blair-Brown dual premiership, was quoted as saying that the benefits of immigration had been exaggerated.

One striking thing about this story is that it reported a lecture delivered by Lord Turner in November and submitted as evidence to a House of Lords committee some time ago. However, its main interest lies not in it as an exhibit for a "How Journalism Works" seminar, but in its attempt to separate the issues of immigration and race. In the lecture, Lord Turner does "not talk at all about the cultural issues involved in the integration of immigrants," he says. "They could be positive (the benefits of diversity) or negative (the difficulties and costs of integration) but they are not my concern tonight".

Instead, his aim is to consider two arguments in favour of immigration, namely the "problem in supporting an increasing population of elderly people" and the "manpower and skills gaps that need to be filled". And he concludes that "these often-made assertions are broadly untrue". This is an important argument, and his suggestion that "something like population stability" should be the aim of policy ought to be discussed without race or multiculturalism coming into it. To take just one example: will Gordon Brown's ambition to build three million more houses reduce house prices, or simply act as a magnet for further EU migration?

So I have a modest proposal to make. Could we drop the word multiculturalism, and just say what we mean instead?

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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