Richard Kelly is Head of Politics at Manchester Grammar School
As commentators frequently remind us, the Conservative Party is increasingly southern in terms of electoral support (it has no councillors, let alone MPs, in such cities as Manchester and Liverpool). Furthermore, the party still has small appeal to the north’s growing number of ethnic minority voters – a problem unlikely to be relieved by Dominic Grieve’s recent complaints about ‘endemic corruption’ in Pakistani communities.
But radical problems can often be solved by radical measures. And, in this respect, the Conservative Party has form. In the nineteenth century, at a time of huge social and political change, it ensured its survival by extolling “Tory democracy” – or, more specifically, universal suffrage and the advancement of the working class. The question now is whether it might update that approach by championing another concept which, at first glance, seems shocking: Tory multiculturalism.
It may be recalled that, within a year of entering Downing Street, David Cameron explicitly denounced multiculturalism, linking it to the suppression of human rights, and calling instead for ‘muscular liberalism’. But the relationship between multiculturalism and Conservatism is more complicated than many imagine.
Certainly, it is often assumed that the two ‘isms’ are incompatible, owing to Conservatism’s stress on a clear and historic British identity – something dating from the 1860s and 1870s, when Disraeli linked the Party to imperialism and a burgeoning sense of British-ness. But it needs to be remembered that Conservative philosophy has a much older pedigree, and that Burke – not Disraeli – is the true father of Conservatism. And Burke could yet prove the patron saint of Tory multiculturalism.
Edmund Burke (an Irishman, let’s remember) was never afraid to champion minorities. Prior to his seminal critique of the French Revolution, he supported the American colonists against imperial persecution, demanded the impeachment of the Governor General of Bengal for alleged crimes against Hindustanis, and sponsored the cause of Irish Catholics in their battles against English landlords.
All of this reflected Burke’s eclectic political credo, which might help justify the case for Tory multiculturalism. First, as an empiricist, Burke argued that society should be looked at factually and objectively rather than through the prism of abstract theories. This point is crucial today; for as an empirical description of modern Britain, “multicultural” is difficult to resist – especially for those who live (as most of us do) in urban/metropolitan areas.
Secondly, Burke argued that sustainable societies emerge and develop organically, rather than through the contrivances of politicians. And the de facto existence of a multicultural Britain offers striking support for this analysis. For half a century, most British governments attempted “liberal-integration”, an attempt at social engineering, designed to blend immigrants into mainstream liberal culture while according them protection against racial discrimination. Yet, mindful of the 2002 Cantle Report, and the alarm since 2005 about British Islamism, Conservatives might now conclude that liberal integration has failed – and that a fresh approach is essential.
Burke famously wrote that “a state without the means of change is without its means of conservation”. Again, this is germane. For although conservatives might resent our multicultural society, the empirical analysis bequeathed by Burke suggests they should now accept it, and get on with ensuring that multi-cultural Britain evolves peacefully and prosperously.
Burke also argued that at the heart of any viable society lay a multitude of small, organic communities based on families and local networks. These were Burke’s celebrated ‘little platoons’, each with their own peculiar hierarchies, attitudes and rules, imposing restraint and responsibility upon the individuals inside them. Many of Britain’s black and minority ethnic (BME) communities, which lie at the heart of any multiculturalist perspective, could easily be seen as modern examples of such “platoons” in action.
Crucially, these BME platoons are often highly conservative and socially effective.
They often exhibit strong conservative morals and a robust sense of communal solidarity, both of which obviate state assistance. Indeed, far from being a threat to modern Conservatism, BME communities seem to complement the Party’s stress on family values, while providing the “localism” and “voluntarism” implicit to the Big Society idea.
The link between Toryism and BME voters was underlined during the summer riots of 2011. The PM may have felt that “certain parts of society” were “sick”; yet this did not obviously apply to many of Britain’s BME communities. Indeed, many of them – such as the Kurdish community in Haringey, the Sikh community in Southall, and the Bengali and Somali communities in Whitechapel – were among those that appeared to stand up most effectively to mob violence: protecting property and small businesses, shielding families and communities and generally supporting the police and the rule of law.
Indeed, in the space of a few nights, the image of BME communities seemed to undergo a shift in many Conservative quarters – from perceived breeding grounds of terrorism to perceived bastions of renewed Tory values. The challenge for the Party now should be to build on this unexpected rapprochement and create a new basis for Conservative support (and conservative values) in urban, northern areas. But it would involve more than making a few friendly noises. It would require the party to acknowledge fully the existence of diverse cultures in our northern cities, and to accept that these minority cultures drive and define communities.
If the party rose to this challenge, and shed its atavistic ideas of British-ness, it would not simply be helping itself: it would also be fulfilling its national responsibility. It would be giving mainstream representation to sections of society that are currently alienated from our political system: a situation dangerously at odds with the principle of ‘one nation’, and a challenge to a conservative’s rationale for the state – namely, the maintenance of order and security.
A multiculturalist Conservative Party would also be serving the nation by harnessing the huge amount of political energy that exists in many BME communities. As Dominic Grieve’s remarks imply, within Asian communities there is plenty of evidence that local electoral and party politics are taken very seriously. The problem, of course, is that this energy does not always have respectable outcomes.
Nevertheless, there may be something faintly admirable in the fact that people outside the mainstream can be bothered with traditional electoral politics, even when this involves slightly dubious methods. Isn’t it preferable to the apathy, nihilism and witless narcissism seen in much of white, urban working class Britain? Northern Tories might thus regard BME voters in the way that Disraeli regarded the newly enfranchised working class: as “angels in marble” rather than devilish aliens. The task now, surely, is to chip away at the marble.
At the same time, Conservatives might recalibrate their view of what our nation is, instead of was, and start making alliances with those who have hitherto been hostile. Such a strategy would involve change and controversy from Conservative politicians. Yet, as the legacy of Edmund Burke shows, it need not involve the wholesale betrayal of Conservatism.
This article is based on his and Robert Crowcroft’s chapter in Retrieving the Big Society (edited by Jason Edwards).