By Martin Parsons
In this week’s speech on immigration David Cameron raised an issue which seems to have escaped the headline writers. This was a subtle, though highly important shift in government attitude towards culture.
Whilst clearly emphasising how much ‘good immigration’ had contributed to Britain, Mr Cameron also made it clear that there were broad, though distinct limits to the level of cultural diversity the government is prepared to tolerate. In particular, he emphasised that certain ‘cultural practices’ were simply beyond the pale:
"For a start there are forced marriages taking place in our country, and overseas, as a means of gaining entry to the UK. This is the practice where some young British girls are bullied and threatened into marrying someone they don't want to. I've got no time for those who say this is a culturally relative issue – frankly it is wrong, full stop, and we've got to stamp it out."
Which he followed by:
"There are other problems with what's called the family route. We know, for instance, that some marriages take place when the spouse is very young, and has little or no grasp of English. Again I don't believe we should allow cultural sensitivity to stop us from acting…So however sensitive or difficult a subject it may be, we are tightening up the family route."
Mr Cameron is of course absolutely right and chimes in with what many ordinary British people have intuitively thought for a long time about so called ‘cultural practices’ such as forced marriages.
However, what is hugely significant is that by emphatically describing such cultural practices as ‘wrong’ and needing to be stamped out David Cameron has signalled a a subtle, but nonethess incredibly important and long overdue shift in government attitude towards culture.
He has in one speech removed the foundation of multiculturalism that under Labour no one was allowed to question – the dogma that ‘all cultures are equally valid’ and therefore implicitly ‘good’.
Yet the simple fact is that not everything in every culture is ‘good’. Take for example the practice of Suttee – the expectation placed on some Hindu widows that they should burn themselves alive on their husband’s funeral pyres. Today few would deny that the British Governor General Lord Bentinck was right to ban it in 1829, although there were certainly British voices at the time arguing that it was a cultural practice that ought to be tolerated.
Do not get me wrong, I am not for one minute suggesting that British culture is somehow superior to all other cultures. There is both good and bad and much that is morally neutral in every culture, including mainstream British culture. In fact, it is only when you have lived in another culture that you can properly evaluate your own culture. It was only when I lived in Pakistan that I could both see the strengths in British culture – such as respect for privacy, and the weaknesses – the Pakistanis seriously put us to shame when it comes to hospitality!
When it comes to immigration it is against key historic British values that we need to assess cultural practices. These are in effect the conscience of British history, values that we have over time and many generations developed and which as a nation we have come to believe to be right. They include most fundamentally the equal dignity of all human beings, which is reflected in the protection which British law offers indiscriminately to all people regardless of gender, religion or even nationality. It also includes such values as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, values which historically have attracted to our shore many fleeing persecution overseas.
However, it is evident that whilst the cultures prevalent in some countries share very similar values to our own, others are more distant from these values. For example, in Somalia the practice of female genital mutilation (euphemistically called ‘female circumcision’) is widely imposed on girls. Somalis are also one of the immigrant communities that as a whole have integrated much less than many other groups into mainstream British society.
The implication of this for community cohesion is that we need to start paying more attention to the cultural impact of immigration, rather than primarily focusing on its economic impacts. In particular:
- We need to focus not just on net migration, where the number of new arrivals is offset by the high volume of British people emigrating. At a time when almost one in eight people living in Britain were born abroad, we clearly also need to look at total immigration and its impact on community cohesion to historic British values.
- We may need to look at whether the immigration cap should have a positive bias towards people from countries whose cultures have the greatest degree of convergence with historic British values.