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p. 71. What is multiculturalism?locked

  • Ali Rattansi


An acceptable definition of multiculturalism is notoriously elusive. ‘Multiculturalism’ entered public discourses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It has never been about encouraging separation and segregation; rather it has involved the creation of structures in which the incorporation of immigrants and ethnic minorities occurs fairly and with respect for those minorities wishing to retain elements of their cultural diversity. Why have ‘multicultural’ and ‘multiracial’ become interchangeable, especially in Britain? What part do cultural rights specifically and multiculturalism generally play in the international human rights agenda? What varieties of multiculturalism exist?

Perhaps what is clearest in recent public debates about multiculturalism is that not much is clear when it comes to the key terms involved. An acceptable definition of multiculturalism has been notoriously elusive. In turn, proposed alternatives such as ‘integration’ have also remained vague. It is best, then, to begin with some brief historical and terminological preliminaries to which the discussion will return at various points in the book.

Cultural diversity and multiculturalism

‘Multiculturalism’ entered public discourses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when both Australia and Canada began to declare their support for it. That these countries at this time felt the need to embrace the identity ‘multicultural’ and declare their support for multiculturalism provides important clues as to the general meaning and significance of these terms.

This was the period in which Australia and Canada had begun to allow a new immigration that was now ‘Asianizing’ these nations. Until then, Australia had a whites-only immigration policy as set out in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Both Asians and Jews were regarded as inassimilable. In 1971, there was an official recognition of the need to assist in the creation of p. 8a ‘multicultural’ society, paving the way for a complete abolition of ‘racial’ qualifications in 1973.

Immigrants were encouraged to ‘integrate’ rather than required to assimilate. This meant that they were to be enabled to retain elements of their ‘home culture’, and ethnic community associations were seen as important vehicles of integration.

I have highlighted the element of integration within multiculturalism, and will do so subsequently, to emphasize that multiculturalism has never been about encouraging separation and segregation. It has involved the creation of structures in which the incorporation of immigrants and ethnic minorities occurs fairly and with the recognition that the desire of immigrants and minorities to retain aspects of their cultures is reasonable, and that cultural diversity is itself desirable and benefits the nation in a variety of ways. Also, as we shall see, it has an equal opportunities and anti-discriminatory strand that is often ignored in debates about the meaning and effectiveness of multiculturalism.

In Canada, the debate began with troubled relations between the English- and French-speaking regions in the 1960s. A Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism recommended that English and French be regarded as official languages. But the 1969 Bicultural and Bilingual Act also opened up the question of other minorities in Canada, and the Royal Commission’s further recommendation that wider cultural pluralism be added to Canadian identity became established as official policy. This was initially accepted within a bilingual English and French framework, but by 1988 there was a Multicultural Act that widened the terms of inclusion.

Similarly, the arrival of immigrant populations from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Caribbean islands into Britain and the growing numbers of North African migrant workers in France and elsewhere in Western Europe after the Second World War p. 9placed ‘multicultural’ questions on their public agenda as the immigrant communities began to establish a permanent or semi-permanent presence. While France in particular rejected any policy that gave official recognition to the new immigrants, in Britain a 1966 statement by the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins set out a general framework for the inclusion, indeed integration, of the new immigrant communities into the British national cultural and polity:

Integration is perhaps a rather loose word. I do not regard it as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own national characteristics and culture. I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’, which will turn everyone out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman…I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of uniformity, but cultural diversity, coupled with equality of opportunity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance…If we are to maintain any sort of world reputation for civilised living and social cohesion, we must get far nearer to its achievement than is the case today.

Note the emphasis on both cultural diversity and equal opportunities.

Multiculturalism and racialization

Despite the wording of Jenkins’s statement, it is important to note that the response to the incoming populations all over Western Europe, as well as in Australia and Canada, generally regarded the immigrants as racially distinct from the majority white populations, although by then the legitimacy of the idea of ‘race’ had already been seriously challenged. The issue of multiculturalism was racialized from its inception. To a large degree, multiculturalism has its origins in responding to populations that had previously resided in Europe’s colonies and which had by and large been regarded as innately inferior races. p. 10And it is still common practice, in Britain especially, to use ‘multiracial’ and ‘multicultural’ as interchangeable descriptions, although in Germany the racist nightmare of the Nazi period had led to a public discourse that, officially at least, debated the issues in terms of the ‘foreigner’ (Ausländer).

In most debates on multiculturalism, in Europe especially, ‘race’ is the elephant in the room, so to speak. Racism is more often than not the unmentioned and, for many, the unmentionable dark shadow haunting attacks on multiculturalism, to the point that in popular media and culture critiques of ‘multiculturalism’ often function as a euphemism for hostility to ‘coloured immigration’ and ‘coloured immigrants’ of South Asian, African Caribbean, North African, and Turkish descent. The strongly entrenched structure of global inequality may be regarded as the second elephant in the room. It is this inequality that has been the driver for the migrations to Western Europe.

Secondly, and partly because of racialization, the origins of the multicultural debate lie in the perceived difficulties of assimilating these newer communities to the host national cultures.

‘Assimilation’ came to be regarded as difficult, if not impossible, on three grounds: supposed racial distinctiveness which, in practice, related to superficial physiological differences such as skin colour but which seemed to signify an insuperable biological and cultural barrier which, if breached, would end up completely changing the national character; secondly, the obvious hostility exhibited by the host ‘white’ populations to the ‘coloureds’; and finally, the unwillingness of the migrant communities themselves to simply give up all facets of their cultural distinctiveness – for example, language and religion – and somehow become the same as the host populations in all cultural respects.

There has also been another political and cultural trend that has assisted the development of multiculturalism: the growing p. 11acceptance within Western liberal democratic states that ethnic minorities have the right to retain their distinctive cultures, although always within certain limits. And arguments about precisely what these limits should be have been at the heart of many debates about multiculturalism. The idea of ‘cultural rights’, as we shall see, is part of a larger narrative about the emergence of an international human rights agenda.

In the United States, the African Americans’ fight against racial discrimination transformed itself into a cultural struggle as well, by asserting a distinct cultural blackness and sense of self-respect typified by the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’. Soon, Mexican Americans and other ‘Hispanics’, and the long-suppressed indigenous population of American Indians (so-misnamed because Columbus thought he had landed in the Indies), also demanded public cultural recognition as distinct communities separate from the dominant white Anglo-European mix that had come to define American identity. Multiculturalism entered the public vocabulary only in the 1990s with demands for cultural recognition in school and university curricula by these non-white ethnic groups. Thus issues of race have always been significant, and sometimes paramount, in US debates about multiculturalism.

The meaning of multiculturalism: a first approximation

It is not surprising, then, that the dominant meaning that ‘multiculturalism’ had acquired by the 1980s and 1990s, as set out in the HarperCollins Dictionary of Sociology (1991), for example, referred to

the acknowledgement and promotion of cultural pluralism… multiculturalism celebrates and seeks to promote cultural variety, for example minority languages. At the same time it focuses on the unequal relationship of minority to mainstream cultures.

p. 12Thus we also have other important points to note in addition to issues of racialization and assimilation. Multicultural questions are also to do with a celebration of cultural diversity and pluralism, and redressing the inequalities between majorities and minorities. And these are questions of majority and minority ethnic groups within modern nation states.

Multiculturalism thus usually refers to policies by central states and local authorities that have been put in place to manage and govern the new multiethnicity created by non-white immigrant populations, after the end of the Second World War. Confusingly, the term ‘multicultural’ is also used descriptively, to refer to societies that are multiethnic; but the debates considered in this book are about multiculturalism, that is, about the policy response to the diversity created in increasingly multicultural (multiethnic) societies.

Extending the meaning of multiculturalism

In discussing the origins of what one might call the ‘turn to multiculturalism’, I have referred to several types of minority groups whose existence, growth, and, in most cases, claims and demands have led to the emergence of multiculturalism in modern Western nation states. So far, I have referred primarily to immigrant minorities, which would include groups such as the Turks in Germany and South Asians and African Caribbeans in the UK, as well as what has been called a substate national minority such as the Québécois, or French Canadians, and also African Americans, who are not a substate national minority but a dispersed, racialized population that was already present at the birth of the American nation state and therefore also quite distinct in origins from immigrants into Western Europe or North America. Moreover, there are other types of minority groups that are also relevant to the general turn to multiculturalism, most especially indigenous peoples such as the Maori in New Zealand, p. 13the Inuit and First Nations in Canada, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and the First Nations in the United States.

Thus, while the most recent debates about multiculturalism have primarily concerned recent immigrants into Western Europe and the USA, and to some degree African Americans, the fact that indigenous peoples and substate minorities have also been relevant means that the description of multiculturalism as involving majority and minority relations must be elaborated to reflect its true complexity.

The point is that the histories and demands of different types of ‘ethnic minority groups’ vary quite considerably. Substate national minorities such as the Québécois in Canada, the Scots and Welsh in the UK, the Catalans and Basques in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium, and the indigenous peoples mentioned above, have claims that are different from those of recent immigrants such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the UK, Moroccans in the Netherlands, or the Turks in Germany. The national settlements that have been made regarding territorial autonomy, land rights, separate legal and educational systems, and so forth in relation to substate minorities are distinct in many respects from the ways in which recent immigrant minorities have been accommodated in Western Europe, Australia, and Canada.

Given the constraints of space, and the very different histories of Western Europe and North America, I am primarily going to be concerned with the issues and debates concerning the immigrants who have migrated to Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century. The terms of settlement whereby older religious and ethnic populations were incorporated into the nation state has meant that different national cultural, legal, and institutional frameworks were created for minorities, and these have had lasting influences on the reception, treatment, and accommodation of relatively recent immigrants. And these different national trajectories have led to somewhat different versions of p. 14multiculturalism. While it is not appropriate to refer to completely different ‘national models’ of multiculturalism, multicultural settlements in different European nations and in North America have distinctive institutional arrangements.

The international human rights agenda and multiculturalism

The part played by the struggles of indigenous peoples and substate national minorities in the debates about multiculturalism also point to the significance of a larger narrative about the development of multiculturalism. It is possible to see the origins of multiculturalism in a wider struggle for human equality that followed the end of the Second World War, as Kymlicka in particular has pointed out.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 ushered in a new era which in principle distanced itself from pre-1945 ideas of racial, national, and ethnic superiority and inferiority, typified by, and especially identified with, the Nazis against whom the Western allies had fought in their war with Hitler’s Germany.

The real novelty of this principle of human equality should be recognized. In 1919, when Japan had tried to introduce a clause regarding human equality into the covenant of the League of Nations, this had been immediately rejected by the Western nations. This is not surprising. The Europeans, after all, were involved in defending empires in large parts of Asia and Africa based quite explicitly on racial principles which deemed whites superior to other ‘races’.

As I have recounted in some detail in my book on racism in this series of Very Short Introductions, the discrediting of racial ideas had begun in the inter-war period of the 1920s and 1930s, especially by American anthropologists, a process that gained great impetus from discoveries in the biological sciences, especially p. 15genetics. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though, marked a major symbolic reversal for racist ideologies and a global political rebuff for movements that championed racist policies.

However, the establishment of an international cultural climate sympathetic to human rights and equality only followed in the wake of sustained struggles on the part of a variety of subordinated groups, including the populations of European colonies.

Of course, the period since the 1960s has been one of myriad social movements and campaigning struggles which have had a profound impact on the political and civic culture of Western democracies. The women’s movement, the campaign to transform the status of gays and lesbians, and a growing environmentalism, to mention only the most obvious, have intersected with anti-racism and multiculturalism to create what its critics especially have referred to as a period of ‘identity politics’. Claims for cultural recognition have been advanced, which have either complemented the earlier Left and Liberal struggles for wealth redistribution or cut across them and sapped their energies, depending upon the different points of view, which are discussed later.

Varieties of multiculturalism

Although it is not appropriate to talk of different national ‘models’ of multiculturalism, in part because this implies well-thought-out national variations, it is nevertheless the case that the trajectories of multiculturalism in different countries have varied for a wide range of reasons. Before embarking on a brief discussion of the differences, it is as well to create a foundation for comparison by listing the policies that are generally identified as multiculturalist. Kymlicka and his co-authors have compiled an inventory which is useful for identifying the degree to which countries may be regarded as ‘multiculturalist’, in the sense of having adopted multiculturalist policies.

p. 16The list has been compiled on the basis that multiculturalist policies incorporate two basic principles: firstly, that admissions criteria should be race-neutral, so that immigrants to multiculturalist countries came increasingly from non-European and more often than not from non-Christian, and fatefully, from mostly Muslim countries; and secondly, that immigrants can retain and express their ethnic identities, therefore placing an obligation on the part of public institutions such as the police, schools, media, museums, hospitals, welfare services, and local authorities more generally, to accommodate these ethnic identities. These principles yield eight multiculturalist policies that have been adopted to varying degrees in different countries:


Constitutional, legislative, or parliamentary affirmation of multiculturalism at the central and/or regional and municipal levels.


The adoption of multiculturalism in the school curriculum.


The inclusion of ethnic minority representation and sensitivity in the mandate of public media or media licensing.


Exemptions from dress codes, such as allowing Sikhs to wear turbans instead of helmets or school caps, and exemptions from laws banning Sunday trading, and so forth.


Allowing dual citizenship.


The funding of ethnic group organizations to support cultural activities.


The funding of bilingual education or mother-tongue instruction.


Affirmative action for disadvantaged groups.

This is not an uncontentious list. Especially, the last item should more appropriately be referred to as the creation of anti-discrimination legislation, such as Britain’s series of so-called Race Relations Acts which increasingly barred discrimination against ‘coloured’ minorities in access to employment, housing, bars and restaurants, and other resources and amenities.

p. 17Nevertheless, the list allows a reasonable comparison of the strength of commitment to multiculturalist policies in different countries. On this basis, Kymlicka and his co-authors argue that those adopting 6 out of the 8 policies should be categorized as ‘strong’ adopters of multiculturalism; those that scored between 3 and 5.5 (the half-mark indicating more tokenistic policy adoption and implementation) should be regarded as ‘modest’ adopters; and those scoring under 3 are ‘weak’ adopters of multiculturalist policies.

This classification yields the following grading:


Australia, Canada


Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, UK, USA


Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland

However, the list gives only the briefest indication of the responses of different nation states to their newer ethnic minorities. Especially, it obscures important institutional differences between the policies of countries in any one category and between categories, does not illuminate the different historical paths of multiculturalism, and therefore also cannot form the basis for any explanation for the differences. And the differences, and reasons for these divergences, are significant. Key influences in the development of different patterns of multiculturalism in European nation states have been existing church–state relations and what have been called ‘citizenship regimes’, as we shall see.

The more widespread adoption of multiculturalism in Australia and Canada has been attributed to their search for what has been called a ‘founding myth’ of the kind that is elsewhere supplied, for example, by the US’s self-conception as a nation of immigrants, or the ethnic and religious identities that make up a significant part of the national narrative of other states such as the UK, the p. 18Netherlands, and Sweden. This has also meant that in Canada and Australia the conception of a positively multiethnic, multiculturalist nation has been fostered as an identity for the whole nation. In most European states, in contrast, multiculturalism has often been primarily aimed at integrating the ethnic minorities as a subordinate, sometimes very minor, part of the national narrative. In some countries, this is no doubt part of an imperial legacy in which, despite the close relationship between colonial subjects and the metropolis in the formation of the metropolitan nation state, the role of the colonies economically and in key wars and in culture and so forth has always been hugely devalued, a point I shall come back to.

And an examination of the different historical trajectories of multiculturalism in Britain and the Netherlands, for example, in the context of their histories before the immigration of the second half of the 20th century is crucial in enabling a proper understanding of the differences between them that are obscured by simply labelling both as ‘modest’ adopters, as in the grading exercise attempted by Kymlicka et al.

The Netherlands: ‘pillarization’, polarization, and integration

The Dutch created a system in which the newer ethnic minorities, who came from the previous colonies of Indonesia and Surinam as well as Turkey and Morocco, were given considerable cultural autonomy and resources with which to retain their cultural identities. By 2000, nearly 9% of the population was foreign-born and 17% had at least one foreign-born parent. Already by 1980, it had become clear that most immigrants were going to stay – belying the hope that they were ‘guest workers’ who would eventually return home – and the Dutch government developed what it called an ‘Ethnic Minorities’ programme of policies. Minorities were given even more resources to retain their mother tongues and their cultures via support for their own newspapers p. 19and separate channels on television. In doing so, the Dutch were following a well-worn national path in the governance of different cultural groups within the nation. They had an already institutionalized structure of ‘pillarization’, involving separate cultural spheres, which from the 19th century onwards had allowed Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and different politically inclined groups – Liberals and Socialists – to live peaceably together, but with the minimum of contact between them. By the 1960s, pillarization had lost much of its relevance, as Entzinger has pointed out, because of the forces of secularization, especially, but also general individualization. But the effect remained particularly strong in education. Even in recent times, only one-third of Dutch primary schools are state schools, the rest being privately run either by religious groups or those having particular educational perspectives.

The more explicit policy towards the newer ethnic minorities from 1983 onwards had as its objective ‘achieving a society in which all members of minority groups in the Netherlands, individually and in groups, are in a situation of equality and have full opportunities for their development’, or what commonly became known as ‘integration with retention of identity’.

However, the particular history of ‘pillarization’ in the Netherlands meant that the minorities policy did indeed lead to more formal institutional separation than in other countries, with the minorities being given greater freedom and resources to develop their own schools, newspapers, broadcasting facilities, and cultural associations.

The Dutch rarely referred to their policies as ‘multicultural’, a fact confirmed in my private exchanges with the distinguished scholar Han Entzinger. Even in the 1980s, with a more explicit encouragement of pluralism for the newer minorities, the initiatives were called ‘ethnic minority’ policies. It was only in retrospect, and often from outside the Netherlands, that the p. 20policies were referred to as ‘multiculturalist’. Ironically, the Dutch version, heavily influenced by the previous history of consociational democracy or pillarization, is the only one of all the European multiculturalisms that can be genuinely charged with fostering separation between ethnic groups, the accusation now habitually levelled at all forms of multiculturalism.

The shape of the backlash in the 1990s against the ethnic minority policies in the Netherlands prefigured the form it has taken in other European countries. Overall, the policies were criticized for failing to integrate the ethnic minorities both economically and culturally. It was felt that insufficient proficiency in the Dutch language and lack of familiarity with Dutch society had been particularly strong obstacles. As a result, new immigrants were required to attend new language and civic integration courses, the conditions for which became more draconian in the new century, with immigrants required to finance the courses at their own expense, and responsibility for integration being shifted more strongly to the immigrants themselves. At the same time, though, there was an official recognition of the Netherlands as an immigration country and a multicultural society.

As Prins and Saharso have pointed out, the critics also initiated what came to be regarded as a timely ‘new realism’. This was framed in a perspective that posited an absolute difference between Western liberalism, with its principles of free speech and secularism, and the repressiveness of, especially, Islamic minority cultures. In part, this was informed by events outside the Netherlands, especially the Salman Rushdie affair in Britain. This polarization was allied to the charge that permissiveness towards minority cultures had allowed them to separate themselves off from mainstream Dutch society – a lament echoed subsequently in much of Europe – and had also made them more welfare-dependent.

p. 21The reaction against the ethnic minorities policy gathered force, as elsewhere, after 9/11. In the Netherlands, this was given special impetus initially by the rise of Pim Fortuyn’s Leefbaar Nederland party and his attacks on the welfare state, European unification, Islam, liberal toleration, the liberalism of the Church, and the continual arrival of other immigrants and asylum-seekers. The controversy provoked by his popular interventions was later given further fuel by the assassination in November 2004, by a Muslim, of the film-maker Theo van Gogh (more on this later) and the threats against his co-documentary-maker and member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself a Muslim immigrant and fierce critic of Islam.

The intensity of anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric has been toned down since 2007, and there has been a more compassionate policy towards asylum-seekers, no doubt influenced by the fact that the Netherlands was condemned by the European Council and Human Rights Watch for violations of the rights of asylum-seekers and immigrants. However, the rise of the virulently anti-Islamic Freedom Party has now introduced a further destabilizing dynamic into Dutch politics.

The UK: ‘race’, ‘essentialism’, and the changing politics of recognition

In the case of Britain, there is an oft-repeated shorthand history that suggests that the country treated its post-1945 immigrants from its former colonies – and many that were still colonies until the 1960s – rather like it had treated them when they were ‘natives’ in the colonies. That is, as Favell puts it:

Britain ruled by letting the natives be as they were, civilizing [sic] them through…institutions that were…often modifications of the ones they found in the native culture…Britain saw its Empire as a dominion of generic British civilization in which all the cultures of the world could flourish under the never-setting sun.

p. 22But more sceptical commentators have also added that the British learned much about divide and rule policies in conquering India and Africa, and the advantages of co-opting local leaderships to subjugate colonial populations, and then domesticate the colonial and post-colonial immigrants it imported to augment the labour force in post-war reconstruction. Moreover, the British Empire had also fostered notions of Britain as the ‘mother country’, a notion that was naively believed by many West Indians in particular as they boarded first the SS Windrush in 1948 and then other ships to fill the unskilled jobs, especially in declining industries, that white Britons had begun to shun in favour of better-paying, less onerous, and more skilled employment.

The idea of Britain as a mother welcoming her overseas children seemed to be borne out by the 1948 Nationality Act which had granted citizenship and free entry to all from the colonies and the self-governing white Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

But as I have also recounted in some detail in my Racism: A Very Short Introduction, all was not what it seemed on the surface. We now know from the archives that the 1948 Nationality Act which guaranteed citizenship and free entry was actually put in place to allow whites from the Dominions to come and settle or travel to and fro as they wished. There was little inkling that those who would take the opportunity would be ‘coloureds’ from the West Indies, India, and Pakistan. The British Labour Government tried to prevent the SS Windrush from sailing because the preferred policy was to recruit white Polish and other displaced East Europeans. When the ship sailed anyway, Colonial Office civil servants were sent to the West Indies and India to prevent any further migrations, and every attempt was made to convince would-be migrants that there were no jobs in Britain.

But the growing National Health Service and a desperate London Transport soon began recruiting drives in the West Indies and p. 23

1. West Indian immigrants arriving at Victoria Station, London, 1956

India. Eager employers in manufacturing industries in the North, Midlands, and London also snapped up migrant workers, leading to ‘chain’ migrations as news about employment opportunities reached the West Indies, India, and Pakistan. As with such colonial and post-colonial migrations into the Netherlands and France, even skilled workers were forced to take the unskilled, dirty, and dangerous jobs, and those involving night shifts, which white British workers were able to spurn in a booming economy. And the ‘coloured’ immigrants found cheap housing in poorer neighbourhoods, their choices not only constrained by income and the desire to send money home, but also by direct discrimination against them by private landlords and public authorities.

The common usage of ‘coloured’ and ‘black’ in the UK, not to mention more insulting slurs such as ‘wog’, are symptomatic of the more explicit racialization of the vocabulary and attitudes with which the newer minorities have been governed, compared to elsewhere in Europe. While the Netherlands has always had an p. 24ethnic minorities policy, the British have framed issues in terms of ‘race relations’. A key 1969 report by Rose was uncontentiously entitled Colour and Citizenship: A Report on British Race Relations. ‘Multiracial’ and ‘multicultural’ continue to be used synonymously.

However, this racialization of public discourse, which has the unfortunate effect of giving legitimacy to the wholly discredited idea of ‘race’ and allows a space for the baggage of racial ideology of innate white superiority to stay just under the surface, has also been accompanied by ever-stronger anti-discrimination measures, referred to as Race Relations Acts (the first in 1965) which have been far in advance of measures in the rest of Europe. One of the most significant was the Race Relations Act of 1976 which recognized unintentional and indirect discrimination as requiring reform and redress. Of course, given that races do not actually exist, anti-racist legislation faces difficult dilemmas about how ‘racial groups’ are to be defined. It is worth noting that under the influence of civil rights struggles in the USA, anti-racist activists in Britain had readily adopted the race-inflected category of ‘black’ to unite both South Asians and African Caribbeans in a joint struggle to fight discrimination in employment and public services, a strategy that eventually collapsed as Asians developed myriad ethnic associations and addressed issues around immigration and service provision that were of more specific concern to them.

Long-discussed plans for restricting ‘coloured’ immigration were finally implemented from 1962 onwards with Commonwealth Immigration Acts and Nationality and Citizenship legislation which choked off further immigration, except family unification, from the so-called new Commonwealth. This basically distinguished the ‘coloured’ post-colonials from the whites of the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The 1981 Nationality Act was also significant for ending the practice of ius soli, or the automatic granting of citizenship to children born in the UK of non-citizen parents.

p. 25British multiculturalism, then, has always had a self-consciously twin-pronged approach which has married ‘integration’ of the immigrants already in the country with strict restrictions on further ‘coloured’ immigration.

That Britishness has a white racial connotation has been hotly disputed by the mainstream media, already hostile to multiculturalism, and even by Centre-Left politicians generally sympathetic to multiculturalist initiatives. This became clear in the public furore over just this suggestion by the Parekh report on Multi-Ethnic Britain published in 2000. But there is an important truth in this insight. Britain’s multinational state, uniting the English, Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish, under English cultural hegemony, has always found it difficult to grant the status of ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’, or ‘Irish’ to its non-white citizens, who have to find an identity within an ill-defined ‘Britishness’. British Asians and British African Caribbeans are made acutely aware of this non-acceptance by the question that a brown- or black-skinned person routinely faces: ‘But where are you really/originally from?’ or ‘But where are your ancestors from?’ The identity of ‘Paki’ or ‘nigger’ regularly and rudely overrides claims of genuine belonging by people of Asian or African origin, and the conflation of ‘multiracial’ and ‘multicultural’ means that in Britain, opposition to immigrants and immigration is often expressed through opposition to ‘multiculturalism’.

Multiculturalist and anti-racist initiatives in schools and the delivery of local authority services, especially, together with the setting up of community associations for ethnic minorities, often wholly or part-funded by the minorities and many with sympathetic provision of buildings by local authorities, began to suggest that important cultural transformations were perhaps beginning to take root. Nationally, what began as the Rampton Report into West Indian under-achievement in schools became the 1982 Swann Report which recommended the implementation of multicultural schooling for all. Urban disorders involving black p. 26youth in London and the Midlands in the 1980s put black urban disadvantage, under-achievement, and unemployment squarely on the public agenda, especially as the Scarman Report into the Brixton disorders in London blamed general disadvantage and inequalities, rather than institutional racism amongst the police and other agencies, for the frustration and anger amongst black youth.

Hopes of serious multicultural progress suffered serious blows under the Thatcher government elected in 1979. The recommendations of the Swann Report were shelved. A National Curriculum with a strong emphasis on white British history and a Christian ethos was imposed. Repeated central government and media attacks on Labour-controlled local authorities with a strong public commitment to multiculturalism, especially in London, and which usually had Leftish leaderships, led to the phrase ‘loony Left councils’ becoming firmly embedded in the national consciousness as a byword for supposedly insane proposals to impose forms of ‘political correctness’. As media researchers subsequently pointed out, the tabloid press even invented stories, such as the ones about proposals for banning the phrase ‘black dustbin liners’ or the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Baa baa black sheep’.

Symbolically, the most powerful move against multicultural and anti-racist initiatives was the Thatcher government’s abolition in 1986 of the Left-leaning Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone which had formally put an anti-racist ethos at the centre of its radical agenda for promoting equality, especially in education, allied to initiatives informed by feminism and a more militant egalitarianism in relation to class inequalities.

The more radical anti-racism of the GLC variety also began to alienate liberals. A division opened up between self-styled ‘anti-racists’ and those derided by them as ‘multiculturalists’, again particularly evident in conflicting perspectives on interventions in p. 27schools. The anti-racists, often identified with the Institute of Race Relations, questioned whether the liberal multiculturalist policy of teaching about ‘other cultures’ could ever effectively mount a direct challenge to racist attitudes and practices, pointing out that knowledge about minority cultures did not address the issue of racism within the majority culture. In any case, as the critics argued, the teaching about minority cultures was trite and superficial, focusing as it did on giving white children exposure to Indian and West Indian cuisine, music, and forms of dress – which came to be called the ‘saris, samosas, and steel drums’ syndrome. This was seen as simply diversionary activity by the anti-racists.

Moreover, as the critics of these early attempts at introducing multiculturalism pointed out, they were underpinned by an unacceptable level of ‘essentialism’.

Most students of multiculturalism have now come to recognize that cultural essentialism is one of the biggest obstacles to a constructive debate about multiculturalism, while also hindering the creation and implementation of multiculturalist policies. Many forms of multiculturalism, including ones that were being developed in British schools and in social services provision, did operate in an ‘essentialist’ manner, that is, with simplistic versions of ethnic minority cultures and a tendency to see them as having a small number of unchanging key characteristics and as being tightly bounded entities – which has been called the ‘billiard ball’ syndrome. Anti-racists and other critics were quite right to point up this deficiency. Conservative critics who argued from a more assimilationist viewpoint, on the other hand, operated with essentialist versions of the Britishness into which immigrants were supposedly to be assimilated, an issue that is addressed mainly in Chapter 5.

At a national level, multiculturalist and anti-racist initiatives continued to be rebuffed throughout the 1990s when the p. 28Conservatives were in power in Britain. To take just one instance, in January 1997 the John Major government vetoed European Union plans to set up a European Monitoring Centre on Xenophobia and Racism which was going to mark the launch of the European Year Against Racism. It was with the arrival of a Labour Government later that year that progress was made on such issues. The new government also allowed Britain to have European-agreed human rights legislation and an inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which exposed deep-seated cultures and practices of racism within the London Metropolitan Police that had allowed the murderers to escape prosecution.

However, the situation was different at many local levels. While many cities in the North of England used the Conservative years to do little in terms of multiculturalism, a negligence that was soon to be clearly exposed in the wake of widespread urban disorders in 2001, cities such as Leicester quietly continued to invest in a wide range of school and community measures which have now come to be praised as models of their kind. Many London boroughs also continued with multicultural measures, such as the printing of leaflets in several languages and continuing with what was referred to as ‘race awareness’ or ‘diversity’ training for workers in health and social services. There is evidence to suggest that some Labour-controlled local authorities in London, Birmingham, and Leeds, especially, provided community resources to minorities in order to ensure their vote in elections, and that the minorities were aware of their electoral clout and exploited it. This also led to divisions within communities becoming more entrenched, and gave excessive powers of patronage to those who, for a variety of reasons, became accepted as ‘community leaders’. Critics of multiculturalism in Britain, such as Malik and Hasan, have highlighted this uneven process in an attempt to discredit the whole of multiculturalism as a distraction from genuine struggles to redress ethnic and wider inequalities. But it is also clear that there was a genuine, although p. 29variable, commitment to ensuring that ethnic disadvantage was tackled and that there was an integration of ethnic minorities via thriving local associations and other forms of what the distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor was to call the ‘politics of recognition’ in 1992.

Misgivings about essentialism amongst many radical anti-racists and general egalitarians were often allied to the criticism – perhaps most eloquently expressed by the American writer Todd Gitlin – that the drive to establish multiculturalism, together with the development of other ‘new social movements’ such as feminism, gay rights, animal rights, and environmentalism, had led to a form of ‘identity politics’ which distracted attention and energy away from the ‘real’ struggle to reduce class inequalities. Sometimes the debate was played out in slightly different terms via the accusation, most famously made by another American, Nancy Fraser, that multiculturalism and anti-racism were primarily struggles over ‘cultural recognition’, which undermined or cut across the more important need to fight for redistribution of material resources, fears echoed in Britain by commentators such as Malik. Both charges were misleading. The Gitlin-type critique not only failed to understand that even class conflict involved social identities, but also that there had previously been an over-emphasis on class at the expense of inequalities of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, and that these were not trivial side issues but required urgent redress and which in the process would produce a deepening of democracy and more egalitarian social relations generally. Meanwhile, as many commentators – Parekh perhaps most succinctly – pointed out, redistribution and recognition are not opposed but inherently intertwined, requiring each other in strengthening the overall goals of greater economic equality and wider cultural expression and diversity.

The self-styled British anti-racists, as I pointed out in an essay in the early 1990s, also relied on reducing racialized inequalities and racism too much to class in various forms. This meant that, p. 30although their critique of the essentialism of the multiculturalists was well taken, a move away from their class reductionism was also necessary if more sophisticated strategies were to be put in place of the damaging divisions that had opened up between the anti-racist and multiculturalist camps. I also argued that questions of gender, including masculinity, also needed to be addressed by incorporating the concerns of feminists. Some of this critique had been foreshadowed in the 1989 Report into an inquiry into the murder of an Asian schoolboy at the Burnage High School in Manchester, where the school’s anti-racist policy had been criticized for an excessive moralism, for neglecting to involve white working-class parents in the policies, and a failure to address the widespread masculinist culture of violence, all of which had contributed to a situation that led to the murder. The failure to involve whites generally has eventually led to strong resentment, as multiculturalism has been viewed as privileges for black and Asian people at the expense of whites, rather than as an attempt to combat ethnic socioeconomic disadvantage as well as cultural exclusion from the nation’s self-identity.

The outbreak of widespread violence in cities in the North of England in 2001 marked a watershed and had a huge influence on successive Labour governments, first elected in 1997. The disorder was widely blamed on multiculturalism and its supposed effects in allowing ethnic minorities to lead ‘parallel lives’.

A new integrationism, similar in many respects to the Dutch about-turn discussed earlier, increasingly took hold in Britain. A new era of ‘community cohesion’, supposedly the opposite of multiculturalism, had begun to take shape. I discuss this in some detail in Chapter 4.

For the present, it is worth noting that both in the Netherlands and in Britain the forms of multiculturalism that developed were very much pragmatic, top-down creations with little genuine public p. 31debate and involvement from the majority or the minorities, a liberal paternalism that has often found itself rudderless and panicked in the face of explosions of popular resentment or senses of injustice from below. There is considerable truth in Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s sarcastic jibe:

White Britons were failed historically by the political elite who did not prepare them for the changes that came after the war – and who still give out mixed messages about whether immigration has been a good thing for this nation. One moment people in Britain were being taught that they were the imperial masters who had the God-given responsibility to civilize the barbarians they controlled – the next minute these black and Asian people were in the work canteen demanding to be treated as equals. White Britons were told that black and Asian immigration was a threat but at the same time they were instructed to treat those already here as equals.

France: secularism, immigration, and de facto multiculturalism

The public face of the French state and its local authorities is one of implacable hostility to the curiously mis-named ‘Anglo-Saxon’ approach, supposedly typified by the USA and Britain, of public recognition of ethnic minorities, a commitment to the flourishing of minority cultures, and the general celebration of cultural diversity and multiethnicity.

The French approach is particularly influenced by its conception of secularism. French secularism, or laïcité, involving the formal separation of church and state, received important codification in the famous Separation Law of 1905, after a circuitous journey for the laicization process which guaranteed freedom of religious worship but banned the placing of any religious ‘sign or emblem’ on public monuments, although the state agreed to fund chaplaincies in schools and prisons. French lacité, like all secularisms, has always been open to different interpretations and p. 32institutional expressions. Fetzer and Soper distinguish between ‘strict’ and ‘soft’ versions which have held sway in different periods and in different sectors of the state and amongst clergy, educationalists, and politicians. In the strict version, which is supported by teachers’ unions, feminists, and the ‘Republican Left’, praying in public, refusing to eat certain foods in school canteens, and wearing religious clothing or jewellery are all regarded as violations of laïcité. A softer version, popular amongst those on the ‘multicultural Left’, human rights activists, and many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, supports the state funding of religious or faith schools, encourages dialogue amongst faiths, and advocates students’ freedom to express their religious identities in schools as long as they respect religious pluralism. They also argue that the strict version of laïcité violates international law and human rights covenants.

In recent years the different versions of laïcité have come into play in the various Muslim headscarf, or hijab, controversies that I discuss in some detail in the next chapter.

France experienced, and indeed encouraged, high rates of immigration from other European countries such as Poland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal throughout the period before the end of the Second World War. These waves of immigration had two features that distinguished them from the flows that started from the former French colonies of North Africa after 1945. Firstly, the European immigrants were not racialized and therefore were not regarded as posing any problems of assimilation. This allowed France to continue regarding itself as a country in which immigration played no part in its self-identity. Secondly, the Communist Party and its trade unions played an important role in organizing and integrating the immigrants, and in doing so, encouraged the formation of separate ethnic collectivities and ethnic political machines which endured for a considerable period even after the Second World War.

p. 33However, the non-European, non-Christian immigrants from the colonies of the Maghreb were treated as racially other and more or less inassimilable. As late as 1969, the Calvez Report for the Economic and Social Council recommended that the state should treat workers from the Maghreb as ‘temporary’ workers only linked to specific labour needs and that their entry should be controlled by a process involving formal cooperation with the country of origin. Also, the Communist-controlled municipalities that had previously treated European immigrants on the basis of a ‘tradition of solidarity’, regarded the new immigrants as temporary residents who must be encouraged to return home. As Hargreaves, Schain, and others have pointed out, this even extended to the practice of setting quotas in housing and schools for those of North African origin. Thus, as Schain puts it, the Communists continued to treat immigrants as collectivities, but this time ‘in an exclusionary manner’. The term ‘immigrant’ was exclusively applied to non-whites. Arabic language classes were organized in schools through agreements with the countries of origin. And in June 1974 all non-European Community immigration was stopped, although, as with restrictive measures in the UK, family unification was allowed.

Hostility to the immigrants was tempered by Left attempts to involve the state in ethnic recognition and mobilization in the 1980s. But in general the Republican model remained in place, one further consequence of which was that the policy of not giving official recognition to ethnic minorities, for example in the census, has also continued.

The bulk of the immigrants from the Maghreb were Muslims, and they have found themselves doubly handicapped. The French both racialized them and had a strong tradition of ambivalence and hostility to overt expressions of religious identity that have clashed with Muslim practices of public religiosity.

p. 34In practice, the French state has also practised a form of de facto ‘multiculturalism’, however abhorrent the term has been. A 1981 law lifted the restrictions on North African immigrants that had prevented them from creating ethnic associations along the same lines as European immigrants. Such organizations mushroomed, and by the end of the 1980s there were at least 3,000 of them, acting as intermediaries with trade unions, local authorities, and political parties. At least 1,000 were overtly Islamic, while others, such as SOS-Racisme, were more broad-based. The state also set up zones of educational priority (ZEP) in poorer urban areas which, as in the Netherlands, Britain and elsewhere, were also where immigrants had been forced to settle, and where there had been a series of disorders in the 1980s and 1990s involving immigrant youth.

The contradiction between the public rhetoric of universalism and opposition to multiculturalism and the actual practice of the state is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the 1990 invitation to representatives of Muslim organizations to form a Deliberative Council on the Future of Islam in France. Subsequently, the government has funded training institutes for imams in an attempt to create a French Islam free of foreign influences. In 2003 a nationally representative central Muslim council was set up, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman.

The continuing controversies over the hijab point to the persistent tension in French public culture between pragmatic concessions to ethnicity and public religiosity and the desire to maintain the tradition of Jacobin Republicanism. The rise of militant international Islam, widespread urban disorders in the 21st century involving the young descendants of North African immigrants, mostly Muslim, in protest at unemployment and heavy-handed policing – discussed in more detail later – and the need to liaise with the flourishing ethnic associations, have all kept various forms of de facto multiculturalism alive.

p. 35It seems clear that governments of both Left and Right have come to the conclusion that the best course of action for France is to find ways of combining the recognition of cultural difference with the traditions of French Republicanism. However, that compromise still does not involve the asking of ethnic questions in the census. The actual numbers of ethnic minority citizens is still a matter of informed guesswork. Whether this is a viable basis for social policy remains a divisive question in French public life.

November 2010 saw a potentially significant development, for the French Office for National Statistics issued the first official figures on discrepancies in employment patterns between French citizens with immigrant parents and those with French parents. French men with parents from the Maghreb had an employment rate of 65% compared with 86% for those with French parents; the comparable figures for women were 56% and 74%. The statistics office acknowledged that discrimination potentially played a large part in the difference. And in an equally significant move, President Sarkozy announced the abolition of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, admitting that it had led to ‘tension and misunderstanding’. The setting up of the Ministry had come under criticism from historians and other intellectuals, and from the Left, for stigmatizing immigrants and suggesting that citizens with foreign parents were somehow a threat to the nation. This move came soon after legislation had been passed banning the full veil from all public places.

Germany: an ‘ethnic’ nation comes to terms with the demands of citizenship

Germany had inherited from the early 19th century and even more from the draconian Volk-nationalism of the Nazi period a conception of formal citizenship as well as a more general cultural sense that only those of proven German descent could really belong to the nation. Throughout the period from the 1950s p. 36to the early 1970s, whilst millions of foreign workers from Italy, Greece, Portugal, Turkey, and Yugoslavia came to Germany, the citizenship policy remained one of strict ius sanguinis, descent from ‘blood’. This meant that millions of ‘ethnic Germans’ from all over the world were given automatic rights of citizenship, but the foreign workers had no route to citizenship, and Germany became notorious for its ‘guest worker’ policy of making foreign workers travel to and fro as the economy demanded. Of the 14 million ‘guest workers’ in 1973, some 11 million left in the wake of the oil crisis and the recession. But nearly 3 million Turkish workers stayed and, with the support of German and international courts, were able to bring their families to join them. Germany now has some 7.5 million residents of foreign origin, 9% of the population, and some estimates put it at 14 million.

Tentative changes to citizenship law were begun in the 1990s, with a belated recognition that Germany had to abandon its claim that it was not a country of immigration. More fundamental changes were introduced by the citizenship legislation of 2000 and the Immigration Act of 2005, marking an ever more explicit acceptance of guest workers as German.

Not surprisingly in a nation with such a powerful ethnic self-conception, multiculturalism has never had wholehearted official endorsement and has never acquired serious popular support. German Turks have often called for greater moves towards multiculturalism and the celebration of diversity, but even the Greens, who were initially sympathetic, appear to have turned their backs on the idea, although they continue to argue for the benefits of immigration and diversity. In October 2010 the German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism had ‘utterly failed’; this is ironic, given that multiculturalist policies have hardly been tried.

On the ground, in response to local circumstances, a number of concessions has been made, especially in cities such as Frankfurt p. 37and Stuttgart which have large populations of immigrant origin. Frankfurt has had an Office for Multicultural Affairs since 1989. It has acted as an advocate for anti-discrimination measures amongst local authorities, campaigns for tolerance and acceptance of diversity, and provides mediation and conflict-resolution services. At the state level, there have been measures to improve the educational performance of immigrant-origin children and especially to facilitate German-language acquisition. Minority mother-tongue teaching remains a marginal enterprise in the education system. The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and the federal structure have given room for some variation in policies, although the building of mosques and the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women continue to provoke hostility and opposition. The growth of marriages between Germans and those with foreign citizenship, reaching a figure of 16% in 2000 compared to 4% in 1960, are taken by commentators such as Karen Schönwälder as generally hopeful signs of a more bottom-up acceptance of cultural diversity.

The notion of ‘interculturalism’ has acquired some currency in Germany, and much more so than multiculturalism, with attempts at encouraging interaction and dialogue between minorities and the majority. This is a development about which I will have more to say in the conclusion to this book.

I do not have the space here to provide comparative material on Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Spain. Vertovec and Wessendorf’s collection The Multiculturalism Backlash is particularly useful in providing information on these countries.


Several conclusions stand out from any informed survey of immigration and multiculturalism in Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century. A stark and, for many, an uncomfortable truth is that non-white immigrants from the poorer p. 38regions of the world, mostly colonies and ex-colonies of the Western imperial powers, were not welcome and nor were they hospitably received. The otherwise radical Labour government elected in Britain in 1945 was dismayed by the news that the SS Windrush, carrying amongst the West Indian passengers many in fact who had fought for Britain in the war, was about to set sail for the UK. Frantic attempts were made to stop it from sailing, and messages were sent out to the rest of the colonies and the newly independent India and Pakistan that there were no jobs available in Britain. The French tried to treat their North African immigrants as guest workers. The Germans, with ethnically restrictive citizenship laws already in place, created a strict guest-worker system which the French, British, and Dutch governments would probably have liked to establish. The tradition of ‘pillarization’, in any case, allowed the Netherlands to keep non-white immigrants at arm’s length from mainstream Dutch society, and governments and large swathes of the white population of Western Europe hoped that the immigrants would only stay for a while.

Hungry for labour, the manufacturing industries of Western Europe and the public sectors, especially transport and health, ignored their governments and recruited heavily from the colonies and former colonies. But, and this is the second conclusion, these workers, whatever the level of their educational and vocational qualifications, found themselves employed in the unskilled and undesirable jobs that white workers were able to shun in booming economies. Discriminated against by private and public landlords, they found cramped rented accommodation in the poorer urban areas. European imperial entanglements in Arab countries and the Indian subcontinent meant that a large proportion of the migrants were of Muslim origin, although at the time this was not thought to be significant.

More important was the deeply embedded racialization that Western European societies had inherited as part of the imperial p. 39legacy. This meant that the ‘coloured’ workers were treated quite differently from the European migrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Poland who had previously fed the labour markets. The non-Europeans encountered a widespread sentiment that they were inferior and almost impossible to assimilate. The doors had been shut on further such labour immigration by the mid-1970s.

Thirdly, the multiculturalism that eventually emerged in an attempt to create an ethos of acceptance and celebration of the cultural diversity created by the new multiethnicity has constantly had to battle against the imperial legacy of racism. Western Europeans have been reluctant hosts to non-white immigrants and reluctant multiculturalists.

Fourthly, multiculturalism has been largely a top-down project, although many trade unions, political party activists, and anti-racist organizations have tried to mobilize on a popular level and have kept up the pressure for fair treatment and awareness of the benefits of the new cultural diversity. The top-down approach has created resentment, which in turn has led to a white backlash.

The critique of multiculturalism has not only come from conservative nationalists. As I have indicated, from the Left many voices have argued that multiculturalist thinking and policies have been weakened by failing to tackle racism head on, that they have succumbed to a simplistic ethnic essentialism and have failed to combine appropriately with general egalitarian struggles to fight socioeconomic inequality.

And official and popular opposition in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Denmark has meant that multiculturalism is still very unevenly developed in Western Europe. The 21st century has seen the emergence of a backlash against multiculturalism. Note, though, that despite many popular p. 40pronouncements to the contrary, multiculturalism has never been about encouraging separate development between ethnic minorities and the majority. The aim has always been to create fair-minded, non-discriminatory routes to cultural and socioeconomic integration.

Multiculturalism has now to cope with new patterns of immigration and the emergence of what Vertovec has called ‘superdiversity’. This is a consequence of the freer mobility of labour with the expansion of the European Union, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrival of asylum-seekers fleeing failed states, civil wars and the effects of Western interventions in the Middle East, the demands of the new knowledge and financial sectors for highly qualified workers, and declining birth rates.

As I write, the election of Far Right members of parliament in Sweden confirms that even this haven of social democracy and liberal asylum policies is following the European pattern of

2. Island of Samos, Greece, August 2009. Greek coastguards arresting asylum-seekers, most of whom come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eastern Europe, Algeria, Morocco, and Palestine

p. 41acute hostility to the new forms of immigration in deindustrialized cities such as Malmö. The backlash against multiculturalism has gained new momentum.

I argue in the Conclusion that multiculturalism as a paradigm and institutional framework needs to move on to forms of interculturalism if it is to cope with the new situation. The coming period of acute financial austerity, however, by reducing resources for public services, increasing the levels of unemployment, and creating higher levels of inequality, will pose a severe challenge even to the more sophisticated form of interculturalism and the recommendations for redistribution that seem necessary.