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- Arts + Ents
Monday 7 February 2011
British values in a multicultural society
I agree with David Cameron that there are risks when cultural groups refuse to integrate into wider society. But to single out Muslims is to miss the wider point.
If our children are to learn to be part of a multicultural society, then they need to mix with children from other cultures in their schools. Faith schools pose an obvious challenge to such mixing, but "culture" is not limited to ethnic or religious groupings: schools divided by social class play a huge role in fragmentation of British society.
If the Prime Minister is truly serious about ending threats to British ideals of equality and democracy caused by the isolation of certain cultural groups, then he will set in motion a programme which puts an end to private, fee-paying and religious schools.
In this way, not only will he minimise the threat of whichever religious or ethnic group is seen as the scary monster of the day; he will also minimise the very real threat resulting from an isolated, privileged social class which continues to exercise an undue amount of control.
David Cameron may be too young to remember the days when British identity was so deeply ingrained that we needed no citizenship classes to instill it. It was one reason why many thousands of people (including Muslims) chose to make their homes here.
I am unshakeably confident in my identity as an English Catholic European resident of Birmingham, having grown up in a stable society whose roots went deep into the history of my country and my locality.
This stability, shared by communities across the UK, was provided by a multiplicity of links to a shared past, present and, we thought, future: local industries, regiments, schools and football teams, local and national landmarks, newspapers, shops and banks. Where are they now? Industries destroyed, banks globalised, regiments merged, schools closed or amalgamated under strange new names, foreign-owned football clubs buying and selling foreign players like cattle, great newspaper titles owned and misused by an Australian-American, landmarks torn down or overshadowed by speculative builders and shops full of merchandise imported from China.
No wonder the young, whatever their religious or ethnic backgrounds, look in vain for a distinctive national identity. Do not blame Islam or multiculturalism for the process started by Margaret Thatcher and continued by every greedy and short-sighted government since1980.
The beliefs of Muslims living in our midst are not different in kind from those which existed in our own society up to the 19th century. We treated women as chattels to be controlled by men, and forced marriages were by no means uncommon. Separate codes applied to the sexes when adultery was committed. Public executions were treated as spectacles. No discovery or belief could be tolerated if it went against the Holy Word, and people were even persecuted for not attending church.
None of these things exist in our present society. The discoveries of Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein have forced the retreat from absolute religious certainty that maintained the church's power for many centuries.
Unfortunately the same cannot yet be said of Islamic beliefs, though I believe the process is under way. In many countries from which our Muslims emigrated, anything which contradicts the letter of the Koran cannot be true. While we should tolerate any beliefs held by minorities, the proviso must be that they conform to the law and the freedoms our ancestors fought so hard to establish, and which protect these same minorities from persecution today.
The threat by David Cameron to withdraw funding from Muslim groups – or any group – that does not subscribe to British values is a major assault on the democratic fabric of British society.
It is a view that taints the work of thousands of groups working to help the disadvantaged. Social organisations and networks that have emerged from ethnic constituencies within our civil society play a fundamental role. They provide a voice for those not represented in the mainstream of British politics, especially at a time when the British political elite remains closed, segregated and drawn from the higher social echelons.
These social and immigrant groups assist with delivering social services and employment support in a highly targeted and effective manner. These groups also provide a network for social enterprises and independent small businesses which allow them to contribute to our society and economy.
The Government talks of a big society but is unable to understand the rich, complex democratic spaces within society to which immigrants and especially Muslims contribute.
Professor Miguel Martinez Lucio
Manchester Business School
David Cameron posed a series of questions to Muslim groups: "Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration?"
The answer in every case is available in the Koran, and is a resounding "No".
We now have an admission that decades of state multiculturalism has failed. How long will it take for our politicians to admit that state funding of religious schools is divisive and encourages people to live separate lives?
Heathfield, East Sussex
If young Britons from a range of cultures are to identify with a set of unambiguous values, then these have to be "caught" from the rest of us, not simply left to the schools to teach.
John Milton, writing amid the carnage of the Civil War, called for "a complete and generous education that equips a person to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices, public and private, of peace and war."
While the Coalition might wish to legislate for such values in the public space, unless these are the values we demonstrate in our private lives, nothing will happen. Therein lies the problem.
How depressing to hear Cameron behaving like Tony Blair – equating terrorism and Muslims. Cameron's words provide fuel to groups like the English Defence League. Most Muslims are not terrorists and do not support extremists but want to get on with their lives in peace.
I have many Muslim friends and very much appreciate their company; we exchange ideas and learn from each other. Whenever I hear them speak about Islam, I wish our politicians would take the time to share a similar experience and realise the richness that different cultures and religions can add to our lives in Britain.
There is one sub-cultural group that I wish would become more "normalised", and take on the values of the general population – and that is the old Etonian group, and the private school old-boy network. Perhaps they would then have a firmer grasp of what exactly being "all in it together" entails, when you don't have £5m or so tucked away in some offshore bank.
Pension and tax traps for women
"But it's fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load." A noble sentiment from David Cameron, speaking in October 2010 about the forthcoming spending cuts. However, it now transpires that those broad shoulders belong to a small group of middle-aged women.
In order to raise the state pension age by one year (from 65 to 66), women born between 6 April 1953 and 5 April 1960 will see their state pension age deferred – yet again. These women are a sub-set of those who had, relatively recently, quietly accepted that their SPA would rise from 60 to a point somewhere between 60 and 65 in the interests of gender equality.
Yet even within that sub-set some are affected more than others. Women born between 6 April 1953 and 5 April 1954 will have their pension deferred by a further 18 months to two years (peaking at 6 March 1954). Is it fair to disrupt the retirement plans of these women and their families yet again at such short notice?
So, well done to our Government for picking on a group who are highly unlikely to have the time, energy or inclination to storm Westminster, climb the Cenotaph or ambush the Royal Family. Well done, too, to our trusty Opposition for allowing these proposals to go unchallenged. Where are all those right-on, feminist MPs when you need them?
These proposals have not yet been approved by Parliament, but time is running short. I hope someone with the power to influence this issue decides to help soon.
Bognor Regis, West Sussex
Child benefit for my two children at home will soon be stopping. I'm OK with that, but with another in his first year of university, and one due to start in 2012, on trebled fees, it seems like a good time to return to full-time work.
I've done my sums and it's just not worth it. I'll only take home an extra £100 a month for an extra 28 hours' work. And the anomaly will be more striking from April, all because I fall on the cusp of the higher rate tax bracket.
I'm a highly qualified, professional person. I'm keen to work more hours and my employer wants me to – but I'd be a mug to do it.
Our bankers and top executives are laughing, and our spineless government does nothing to narrow the widening gap of inequality. What will I do? Become bitter? It's tempting.
Silent forests up for sale
Michael McCarthy ("Nature Studies, 4 February) writes that forests are "whole wondrous ecosystems full of scents, birdsong, light and shade, and peace". Anyone who spends a lot of time walking on Forestry Commission land as my wife and I do will have a good laugh at this.
Yes, there is peace and long may it be so, but the vast majority of Forestry Commission land is covered by commercial conifer plantations which are dark, silent places largely devoid of wildlife. On the other hand, the Commission has often left strips of broadleaf native woodland at the margins of the plantations for aesthetic reasons and this practice should be encouraged when these assets are sold.
It should hardly be beyond the wit of man to devise conditions of sale which enshrine such rights of public access that existed before the sale and to limit the uses to which the land may be put by the purchaser.
Could Richard Branson be persuaded to buy our woodlands for the nation? then we could have Virgin Forests.
Michael J J Day
Settle, North Yorkshire
University fees myth
A top state school is advising its students to study abroad ("Go to university abroad", 31 January). I wonder if they have to pay their fees "up front".
Why cannot any student go to a university in England? After all, the state pays the fees "up front" and these are only repaid when the recipient has graduated and is earning a reasonable salary. I am tired of year 12 students saying "I cannot afford the fees." Do they know already what they will be earning in the future?
The myth persists.
Professor Alan Hibbert
The Coalition Government has argued that graduates have a higher earnings potential than non-graduates (with about five candidates for each place) so students should pay £9,000 a year for the privilege of a higher education. These fees can be commuted into a loan, to be repaid if and when they hit a certain threshold of earnings.
Since this view of higher education is accepted in Parliament, MPs should also be charged £9,000 a year with the same terms. Upon losing a seat former MPs expect to earn a huge amount of money on the after-dinner circuit, on the board of some firm they have recently privatised or as a business "consultant".
Protect our local heritage
I am pleased Jo Evans has highlighted flaws in the Localism Bill (letter, 1 February) concerning the threat to the nation's heritage.
Eric Pickles likes to project his bluff Yorkshire man-of-the-people image, but what he seems not to appreciate is that what local people treasure most and want to protect is the character and history of their local area.
Local Neighbourhood Development Orders stand to override heritage legislation and undermine at a stroke all the gains made over the last 60 years that ensure our valued historic places are not destroyed.
This aspect of the Bill is based on the mistaken belief that everything must be decided locally irrespective of the consequences. Amendment to the Bill to reinstate these national protections is essential if the Government is really listening to what local communities want.
Your photograph of Antony Gormley's sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral (31 January) prompts me to ask is nowhere safe from that conceited man. Not content with using his own image to blight skyscrapers in New York and beaches and mountains, he has now committed sacrilege in Canterbury Cathedral. The words "graven image" spring to mind. I should have thought a better use for old nails from the roof would have been to form a Crown of Thorns.
Worthing, West Sussex
One of your leading articles of 4 February, commenting on an older generation, declared: "Jobs were plentiful. Pensions were sound. House prices climbed inexorably, creating nice equity nest-eggs for owners who sat back and did nothing." I do not recollect sitting back and doing nothing during the 20-odd years that I was working extremely hard trying to pay of the mortgage.
On the shelf
It is unlikely that many of the senior managers at Tesco are old Etonians. George Osborne's only attribute therefore would mean that he is not qualified for the post of shelf stacker in any of their stores (letter, 4 February).
The limits of celebrity
Call me old-fashioned and non-inflammable when faced with one of the day's burning issues, but I had to Google one of the two Kates referred to your big spread "Bouquets at dawn" (5 February). I knew Kate Middleton because I will be going abroad to escape her wedding, but who is Kate Moss and what did she do to earn equal razzmatazz with a possible future queen consort?
She must be some sort of a celebrity. Pop-star? Tennis player? Television chat show hostess? Wikipedia informs me that she is "notorious for her high-profile relationships and party lifestyle" and is paid a colossal amount of money for wearing clothes. I was correct. She is a celebrity.
My innocence must put me on par with the 1930s judge who inquired, "And who is this Miss Greta Garbo to whom you refer?" That is a question likely to be asked by many young people today. Garbo was a celebrity. In asking "Who is this Miss Kate Moss?" am I behind the times, or ahead of them?
Insults and snobbery
I am not a Royalist and have no opinions on the relative merits of the Middleton and Moss weddings . The only thing they have in common is that they are taking place in the same year.
I have seen photographs of Kate Moss falling out of nightclubs looking rather the worse for wear along with several rather dubious boyfriends, none of which I have seen of Kate Middleton. One of the insults your article levelled Kate Middleton was she has perfectly manicured hands. Has your writer Harriet Walker never had a manicure?
The overriding impression I gained from the article was one of inverted snobbery.
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