David Cameron was right to say that multiculturalism has failed, echoing similar statements by Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. It was undertaken for the highest of motives. It was intended to create a more tolerant society, one in which everyone, regardless of colour, creed or culture, felt at home. Its effect has been precisely the opposite.
Last week the Community Security Trust, the body that monitors antisemitic incidents, published its annual report, showing that the figures for 2010 were the second highest since record-keeping began. Jews especially in London and Manchester have found themselves attacked on their way to and from synagogue, or abused by passers-by. Jewish students feel themselves so intimidated on campuses throughout the country that last week they were in Westminster lobbying their MPs, something I cannot recall happening before.
The Jewish community in Britain is small, and antisemitism only one form of hatred among many. But the Jewish story is worth telling if only because the re-emergence of antisemitism in a culture is always an early warning signal of wider breakdown. The alarm has been sounding loudly for some time.
Many Jews of my parents’ generation owed their lives to this country. It took them in when they faced persecution elsewhere. They loved Britain and deeply internalized its values. The inscription on the tombstone of a former President of the United Synagogue summed up the entire Anglo-Jewish experience. It read, “A proud Englishman and a proud Jew.”
The role model was Sir Moses Montefiore, the Victorian philanthropist and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Times, in an editorial written on his hundredth birthday in 1884, said that he had shown that “fervent Judaism and patriotic citizenship are absolutely compatible with one another”. That might sound condescending now, but considering what was happening to Jews elsewhere in Europe, it was a lifeline.
My parents lived those values and taught them to us. They became the first Jews in their families for perhaps a thousand years not to teach their children Yiddish because they wanted us to be English and identify with the wider society.
They were not naive. They remembered vividly when Mosley and the British Union of Fascists marched through London’s East End. They knew the genteel anti-Semitism that was almost ubiquitous in certain literary and social circles. They knew that England was a class bound society with many faults.
But they admired the British for their tolerance and decency, their sense of fair play and their understated but indomitable courage. They were proud to be English because the English were proud to be English. Indeed in the absence of pride there can be no identity at all. They integrated and encouraged us to go further because there was something to integrate into.
At some time that pride disintegrated, to be replaced by what Kate Fox amusingly calls “one-downmanship.” TheBritish started seeing their own history as an irredeemable narrative of class, snobbery, imperialism, racism and social exclusion. It was in this atmosphere that, in the 1970s, multiculturalism was born. It said: there is no need to integrate.
The first people to try multiculturalism, the Dutch, were also the first people to regret it. The Princeton sociologists Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn found that the Dutch favoured tolerance and opposed multiculturalism. When asked what the difference was, they replied that tolerance ignores differences; multiculturalism makes an issue of them at every point.
Multiculturalism is part of the wider European phenomenon of moral relativism, a doctrine that became influential as a response to the Holocaust. It was argued that taking a stand on moral issues was a sign of an “authoritarian personality”. Moral judgment was seen as the first step down the road to fanaticism. But moral relativism is the deathknell of a civilization. In a relativist culture, there is no moral consensus, only a clash of conflicting views in which the loudest voice wins.
That is where we are today. The extremists command attention and capture the headlines, and they become the role models for the young. Since there is no national identity to claim their allegiance, there is no contest. Hence the phenomenon, widespread throughout Europe today but rare in the past, that the children of immigrants are more hostile to the host society than their parents were, and feel themselves more alien to its values.
I have never known the British Jewish community, especially its university students, more anxious about the future than they are today. But I have heard the same from many Hindus and Sikhs. They feel that the more they seek to integrate, the less attention is paid to them by the government and the media. They are no problem, therefore they can be ignored. That too is terribly dangerous for the British future.
Multiculturalism, entered into for the noblest of reasons, has suffered from the law of unintended consequences. By dissolving national identity it makes it impossible for groups to integrate because there is nothing to integrate into, and by failing to offer people pride in being British, it forces them to find sources of pride elsewhere.
Without shared values and a sense of collective identity, no society can sustain itself for long. I fear the extremism that is slowly but surely becoming, throughout the world, the siren song of the twenty-first century. We have to fight it here before we can convincingly oppose it elsewhere.
(First published in The Times)