Ken Livingstone: To defend multiculturalism is to defend liberty

It is claimed that community relations are deteriorating. Far from it
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The Independent Online

Multiculturalism versus its opponents is simply one manifestation of the age-long struggle between liberty and its opponents. It is not about personal differences of opinion but between the values of an open and a closed society.

The principles on which multiculturalism rests are not new. The foundations of liberalism and multiculturalism were outlined with great clarity in what is justifiably the most famous political essay in British history, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. In Mill's original formulation: "The sole end for which mankind are warranted ... in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection ... the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a ... community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." This, the classic formulation of liberalism, is, of course, what is frequently paraphrased as, 'You should be able to do anything you want provided it does not interfere with others'.

Its basis is simple. Every individual who exists is unique, and wishes to pursue their life in a different way. The individual must be able to choose for themselves. Those who oppose "multiculturalism" - that is, the right to pursue different cultural values subject only to the restriction that they should not interfere with the similar right for others - are merely playing the same roles as those who previously thought Protestants should be prohibited from practising their religion in Catholic countries, that Jews were not entitled to vote, and atheists should not be allowed to be MPs.

Multiculturalism has nothing to do with an assertion that there are no universal values. The very statement that people should be able to do only such things that do not interfere with others is clearly an assertion of a universal value. It merely states that insofar as they do not interfere with others, people should be able to choose freely which values they wish to pursue and they may not have these imposed on them. A person, for example, may wish to wear a yarmulke, a turban or a hijab or none - they are free to choose.

What is prohibited is one group or person imposing their will on others. The endorsement by Christian churches of slavery was a barbaric infringement of the rights of others, regardless of whether its acceptance was a "cultural norm" - as it was. Female genital mutilation is another such imposed act of violence and equally should not be tolerated.

Multiculturalism merely asserts that the right of a person to live their life as they wish includes the cultural dimension. If they wish to live in the most (supposed) classically of "English" styles - tea at 4pm, eating fish and chips or going to an English pub - they should be able to do so. Likewise if they want to live a more Jamaican lifestyle or to organise their life more around Buddhism or Judaism.

Currently, it is claimed that community relations in Britain are deteriorating and that there is an increasing polarisation in society threatening our safety - therefore the classic values of liberalism and multiculturalism should be abandoned.

It is striking that those who participate in this campaign are forced to falsify their evidence, invariably a sign that an argument is not merely wrong but intellectually disreputable. For example, the claim that we are "sleepwalking into segregation". Or the approach reflected in the CRE's conference this week, including sessions such as "Rivers of Blood: Did Enoch Powell get it right?"

A recent study by Dr Ludi Simpson from the University of Manchester found that British society is becoming more mixed, not more segregated, with the number of mixed neighbourhoods increasing from 864 to 1,070 in the decade to 2001. Far from ethnic groups becoming more separate, there is more mixing today than there ever been. According to Dr Simpson, inter-ethnic couples and children of mixed ethnic parentage have risen 20 per cent in 10 years, and there are four times more children than adults of mixed ethnicity.

The 2001 census shows that it is non-white residents, such as Indians, Caribbeans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who are on balance leaving inner cities rather than moving into or staying in them. In other words, what is taking place is dispersal of ethnic groups - the opposite of segregation. And in London, racist attacks have declined by almost 40 per cent in six years.

This multicultural approach has helped make London astonishingly economically successful - it is by far the most international city in the world, beating even New York as the world's most important international financial centre. Even more importantly, multiculturalism has made London a diverse city with the greatest range of individual choice on earth.

The writer is Mayor of London