Report from The York Union: “This House Believes that Multiculturalism has Failed Britain”

Trevor Phillips
Image credit: The Guardian

Multiculturalism, colour-blind liberalism, separatism and several other -isms were the order of the day in last night’s York Union debate.

Arguing that multiculturalism had failed Britain were Trevor Phillips OBE, the former leader of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and David Goodhart, the author and former leader of Demos; in opposition, praising multiculturalism, were Professor Tariq Modood of Bristol University and Zoe Williams, the Guardian columnist.

The debate began with David Goodhart, who defined multiculturalism not just as the appreciation of other cultures and tolerance to their opinions but the management of a society of more than one culture. At some point in the 1970s – 1980s, “we got the balance wrong” and we have been living with the ill effects ever since. Colour-blind liberalism was abandoned in favour of separatism, in which cultures were encouraged to separate themselves, keeping their values strong and proud.

The Brixton Rioters of 1981 wanted to join British society; the proponents of the Rushdie affair wanted to leave it. Despite this, Goodhart ended on a positive note, assuring us that we are heading towards a better balance. It was not clear what exactly had redirected us to Goodhart’s “better balance” – was it the backlash to multiculturalism first felt under the Blair government following years of ‘uncontrolled’ immigration? Or was this response something much more recent? I recalled the Prime Minister’s comments of some months ago:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.

Next came Professor Modood. To call something a failure, he said, comes usually after one of two causes. Either the policy was a dismal mess, contradicted in both theory and practice (Soviet communism, he suggested); or the policy had failed because it had not been taken far enough (feminism, he said). Equality, he said, included the fight against racism and social ‘othering’ and multiculturalism was leading that fight. In studies by the academic Stephen Burgess, London’s schools do 10% better than the rest of England because of the presence of children from other cultures, a finding controlled for class, wages, backgrounds and all other factors.

Professor Modood concluded with his satisfaction that British multiculturalism had prevailed over France’s opposition to it or Germany’s tough measures against its Gastarbeiter, some of whom had waited for generations to be considered citizens of the nation.

Phillips stood, too lazy, by his own admission, to take to the podium. The debate was not about whether we as individuals like to see bits and bobs of other cultures, he argued. This was about the failure to “square a very difficult circle” maintaining diversity and equality simultaneously. Difference is sustained: Phillips referred to the generally outstanding performance of Chinese children wherever they study in the West.

Phillips was throughout his speech frank, conversational and entertaining, providing interesting examples of cultural difference that he thought would not budge, from Chinese schoolchildren’s excellence and OK Cupid users’ racial preferences to black footballers and white managers; but then the tone changed to something quite cold and thought-provoking. Phillips’s ancestors and community believe that homosexuality is an abhorrence. He went on:

Multiculturalism tells you that my community ought to be able to believe that, and we ought to be able to do what we do back home, which is beat up homosexuals, lock them up for twenty years, which is the law in the country I come from. Now, is that what we want in society? I don’t think so.

Multiculturalism defends diversity at all costs, its proponents unwilling to commit the mortal sin of condemning the beliefs of another culture. This can cost lives. Stretching over his time limit, Phillips asked the audience what we thought about Tyson Fury, who said that “a woman’s best place is in the kitchen [or] on her back.” The audience gasped. Multiculturalism would let Fury (with his own wife and his community who would agree with him) off the hook.

Last came Williams. She asked us to imagine a very particular American student on exchange to York. Heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, a follower of the Tea Party, capitalist through and through with a shrine to Ronald Reagan in his bedroom, he would outrage Williams and her commitment to social democracy, the welfare state and social cooperation; but she would not demand him to assimilate. The arguments against multiculturalism gloss over important factors such as economic inequality, ignoring multiculturalism’s quest to alleviate the struggles of minorities.

The evening proceeded to questions from the floor. The panellists were asked whether everyone should be compelled to speak English in Britain, whether colourblind liberalism could be improved and whether the burqa should be banned. On the choice of members of a community to live with their own kind, Professor Modood said that this was a reflection of demographic change: white communities age and leave, replaced by younger blacks. Goodhart countered that perhaps whites were just following the separatist path that multiculturalism, in his opinion, encourages.

Overall the debate was informative and enthralling, though tit-for-tat exchanges, particularly between Phillips and Williams, dotted the discussion. The Guardian writer referred to the Phillips’s story of his culture’s disgust at homosexuality. She alleged that homophobia was a British export to other nations. “Oh,” quipped Phillips. “So we only think things because white people tell us to think them? Thanks.” At another point, a question came from someone who was concerned about the sacrifice of British and Christian values to prevent offence. Elaborating, the questioner said that “we shouldn’t have to accommodate for other [people’s values] since we’ve been here since… whenever.” Phillips was blunt: “Stop reading the Daily Mail.” Williams was just as quick to describe all religion as “a bit daft.”

This is not the first time that multiculturalism has been discussed on campus. Peter Hitchens, the author and columnist for the Mail on Sunday, was invited to speak on the matter by the Club of PEP last term. With nationalism expanding in Scotland and Wales, many refugees and migrants causing disruption in Calais and around Europe, PEGIDA in Cologne and the EDL in London, and Islamist attacks around the world, multiculturalism’s successes and failures will continue to be on the minds of many. In the message I believe should be taken Phillips implored the audience not to vote one way to appear to be a nice person. Yes, we do not give up on something because it makes mistakes, but neither should we continue making those mistakes.

The motion was ‘This House Believes that Multiculturalism has Failed Britain.’ Prior to the debate, twenty-nine supported the motion, eighty-four opposed it and thirty-five abstained; by the end, fifty supported the motion, eighty opposed it and nineteen abstained. Based on the number of swing voters, the House won the debate.

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Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018 and acting, 2018/2019. Waiting to graduate with MA in Philosophy at University of York in 2019.