Domestically, the situation has the potential to become infinitely worse. Just one consequence of having ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’ rather than ‘colour blindness’ and proper integration as a goal is that Europe in the twenty-first century is obsessed with race. Rather than diminishing, the subject grows larger by the day. It is the same story in politics, sport and even television, where not a single reality-TV programme seems immune from the endless obsession with race. If a non-white, non-European does well he or she is hailed as an example to everyone and a model of successful integration. If that person is voted out there is yet another national debate about racism and whether the individual was voted out because of their ethnicity. On a more serious level, nobody has any idea long term where any of this will go.
For instance, in Britain it might have been thought that since the 1980s at least, racial divisions have significantly diminished. Yet thanks to the internationalising of societies, nobody can predict the consequences of events happening anywhere in the world and their effect on domestic politics. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement that started in the United States in 2012, as a result of a number of killings by police of unarmed black men, eventually spread to Britain and other European countries. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the BLM movement in America, almost none of the circumstances for such a movement exist in Britain. In 2016 I watched a BLM protest of several thousand people marching through the centre of London giving black-power salutes and chanting, among other BLM themes, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’. All the while they were escorted along the route of their march by British police officers, who of course do not carry guns. Whatever was comedic about this evaporated weeks later when on one of the hottest nights of the year a large crowd chanting BLM slogans met in Hyde Park. By the end of the evening one police officer had been stabbed and four other officers injured. Elsewhere the protest spilled over into one of London’s busiest streets where a man was set upon by three men armed with a machete. It was the most serious violence in the capital for years.
The virulence with which such basic demands were debated was a reminder that absolutely none of this had been planned for in the post-war years. It was just the latest part of a ‘make it up as we go along’ process. And it meant that even the terms being used were constantly changing. As the historian and critic of multiculturalism, Rumy Hasan, said in a book published at this time, the distinct phases of Britain’s post-war immigration was one demonstration of this fact. During the first phase (from the 1940s to the 1970s) non-white settlers from the Commonwealth were known as ‘coloured immigrants’ and recognised as different from the rest of society. Then during the 1970s and 1980s, partly in an effort to tackle discrimination, these people became ‘Black British’ and began to be viewed as normal and equal citizens. Soon afterwards the country became characterised as a ‘multicultural’ society in the sense that it contained people from different cultures. As Hasan says, a ‘multiracial’ or ‘multi-ethnic’ society would have been a better description, but the discrediting of the idea of ‘race’ by that time meant that ‘multiculturalism’ seemed to be the best term on offer. However, if its intentions were to unite people under one national umbrella, the new definition ended up having the opposite effect. Indeed, rather than leading to a unified identity it led to a fracturing of identities, where instead of making society colour- or identity-blind, it suddenly made identity into everything.
A version of ‘pork barrel’ politics entered society. Organisations and interest groups were thrown up that claimed to represent and speak for all manner of identity groups. The ambitious, generally self-appointed figures who claimed these roles became the middlemen between the authorities and a particular community. They were not the only ones to benefit from this approach. Local and national politicians were also able to gain from a process that made their lives so much easier, giving as it did the impression that it was possible to pick up a phone and get a particular community. Of course, to be on the side of a particular community created the potential for getting that allegedly monolithic community’s votes, and in some cases the communities delivered.
Inevitably, local councils and others funnelled money to particular ethnic and religious groups. And although some of this was done to win votes, some of it was also done for nobler reasons, not least a genuine desire to tackle any existing discrimination. Yet even ‘anti-racist’ groups tended to be political beyond the realms they had at first set out to address. Those groups that aspired to tackle actual discrimination in time sought increasing influence, access and funding. And they were aware that they could only get this if the problem was not solved. In time this had the effect of making discrimination appear worse – and needing to be fought harder – at the very points at which things were getting better. Complaints against society presented an opportunity to grow. Satisfaction became a dying business.
At the same time the only culture that couldn’t be celebrated was the culture that had allowed all these other cultures to be celebrated in the first place. In order to become multicultural, countries found that they had to do themselves down, particularly focusing on their negatives. Thus the states that had been so open and liberal that they had allowed and encouraged large-scale migration were portrayed as countries which were uniquely racist. And while any and all other cultures in the world could be celebrated within Europe, to celebrate even the good things about Europe within Europe became suspect. The multicultural era was one of European self-abnegation where the host society appeared to stand back from itself and hoped that it would not be noticed other than as some form of benign convener. It was for this reason, among others, that the celebrated American political philosopher, Samuel Huntington, wrote in his last book, ‘Multiculturalism is in its essence anti-European civilisation. It is basically an anti-Western ideology’.8
In every European country the period in which nothing could be said about this broke down at different speeds over a similar period. In the United Kingdom the work of ‘Race Relations’ quangos helped hold a lid on it until the summer of 2001. At that point, partly as a result of riots in the north of England involving young Muslim men, and partly because of events in New York and Washington, the existence of parallel communities began to be discussed more widely and the concept of ‘multiculturalism’ began to come in for criticism. In Holland the dams broke a little earlier. In France they stayed tight until the banlieue riots of 2005. Germany and Sweden took a while longer. But in the 2000s dissidents from the multicultural consensus began to break out everywhere.
Some of those who broke that consensus were politicians of the left. Their apostasy had a particular impact, because while politicians and commentators of the right were almost expected to have a problem with multiculturalism and could always be suspected of harbouring nativist tendencies, those from the left were generally seen to have less easily assailable motives and could even be believed. Nevertheless, the breakages that were most liberating (not least because they gave cover for other people to speak) came from European citizens from ethnic backgrounds. In Britain the slow apostasy from the race-relations industry of one of its former leaders, Trevor Phillips, opened up territory that others had not dared to walk in. His realisation that the race-relations industry was part of the problem, and that partly as a result of talking up difference the country was ‘sleepwalking to segregation’, was an insight others soon began to share across the continent. Among other dissidents from multiculturalism to emerge during the same decade, some entered politics whereas others remained outside as opinion formers. But the emergence during the 2000s of, among others, Ahmed Aboutaleb and Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Holland, Nyamko Sabuni in Sweden, Naser Khader in Denmark and Magdi Allam in Italy, had a palpably liberating effect. All spoke from within their communities to countries that needed people of such backgrounds to break the ice. They managed to do so with varying degrees of success.
In every country the early criticisms alighted around the same issues. The most extreme and unacceptable practices of some communities became the first way in to split open the prevailing orthodoxies. In each country the issues of ‘honour’ killings and female genital mutilation received massive attention. This was partly because many people were genuinely shocked that such things were going on and had feared saying so if they had known about it before. Partly it was due to the fact that these issues were the ‘softest’ or easiest concerns to express about the multicultural era. If not entirely unopposed, these issues were at least capable of uniting opinion from the widest possible political spectrum: from a left-wing feminist to a right-wing nationalist. Almost everybody could agree that murdering young women was wrong. And most people could unite in expressing their horror at the thought of a young girl’s genitals being mutilated in twenty-first-century Europe.
Over the course of the 2000s the criticisms of such extreme examples of multiculturalism in European society grew. Everywhere the questions Europeans were pondering coalesced around the limits of tolerance. Should liberal societies tolerate the intolerant? Or was there a moment when even the most tolerant society should say ‘enough’? Had our societies been too liberal and in the process allowed illiberalism or anti-liberalism to thrive? Around this time, as Rumy Hasan pointed out, the era of multiculturalism quietly transformed into the era of ‘multifaithism’. Ethnic identity, which had previously been the focus of the multiculturalism debate, began to recede and faith identity, which to many people seemed to have come from nowhere, instead became the crucial issue. What had been a question of blacks, Caribbeans or North Africans now became a question of Muslims and Islam.
As with each of the previous periods of post-war change, the process of seeing through this period did not occur overnight. It had taken European governments decades to recognise that the Gastarbeiter era had not gone as planned. In the same way it took time for European governments to realise that if migrants were staying in their adopted country then they needed laws to protect them from discrimination. The period of multiculturalism also took a couple of decades to burn itself out. But like those previous episodes, even as its death was recognised and in this case announced, it was unclear what all this meant and what might replace it.