The International Writers Magazine: Community
Issues about Community
In the early eighties I spent three years working for Sheffield City Council, then led by David Blunkett. There, I learned that all men are sexist, at least the white ones, and that racism is peculiar to whites.
That last piece of wisdom was given to me by a Ugandan Asian whose family had been kicked out of their African home by Idi Amin. The irony of his remark escaped him. I was also advised, rather forcefully, that all cultures are equally valid and that we should embrace multiculturalism as an enriching process.
It appears now that some people have had second thoughts on the matter. ‘We were wrong : all cultures are not equal’. So ran the headline of a recent article in the Daily Telegraph by Allison Pearson, who asked ‘how we came to be where we are’. It isn’t clear to me who Ms. Pearson’s ‘we’ includes, but I certainly don’t count myself as part of it. I have never believed that all cultures are ‘equal’, and when one reads of some of the practices in various parts of the world, it is difficult to understand how such a notion ever took hold. I suspect that ‘we’ applies to the oligarchy by which the rest of us are governed: the professional politicians, media bosses and the metropolitan ‘elite’ who mix only with their educated cosmopolitan equivalent from elsewhere.
It is from such sources that the dogma of multiculturalism was imposed on an often protesting British people. It was a view pressed in the teeth of opposition from the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’. As Lord Longford once said, ‘The man on the Clapham omnibus, what does he know?’ Well, what he knew, and predicted, was that multiculturalism would change the nature of British society for the worse. That commoner knew because he was aware that his ‘lowly’ culture would be the one most threatened. Of course, those common people who did not welcome multiculturalism were not simply ignored. They were derided and sneered at as ‘racists’. I recall Robin Cook’s lofty advice that multiculturalism would enrich our society, and bring ‘colour’ into our lives.
There is tremendous irony here. The least educated among us were generally opposed to the multicultural concept, while support came largely from those more travelled, better educated elements in society. Yet it was the latter group that should have foreseen the difficulties that we now experience. Integration was never likely, as anyone who has been exposed to other cultures should know. Most people feel comfortable living in the midst of ‘their own kind’, that is, people who share their values and experience of life. That inclination is ubiquitous, observable everywhere on the planet.
My wife and I lived for fifteen years in Normandy. We were the only British people in the village, and as such we were welcomed. Everybody was polite to us, and some were very kind, but were we integrated? The short answer has to be ‘no’. We took care to respect French culture, but we did not share it. We remained distinctly British, and our little peculiarities were put down to our Britishness. The situation worked well for two reasons. As the only Brits in the place we were no threat to local culture, and it worked for us because we are odd-balls, happy with our own company. On the one occasion that some British people living in a nearby town sought us out, the relationship did not work. We had nothing other than our nationality in common. Community is something deeper than nationality, it is the fellowship of interests.
Our situation in Normandy contrasted sharply with what happened elsewhere in France, in the South West. There, in an area known locally as ‘little Britain’ one town we visited is entirely dominated by British migrants. When walking round the market during our visit we heard only English being spoken. Is it merely coincidence that it is the only place in France where we were served coffee with barely disguised hostility? I think not. The dominance of the British ex-pats, and their failure to integrate with French society is resented.
Of course, most proponents of multiculturalism did not expect, or even desire, integration. The expectation was that the natives would learn from their new neighbours, and that curiosity would cause people to reach across the cultural boundaries to be enriched by the experience. The omens even for that modest goal were not good. The resentment that the French waiter displayed to us is reflected throughout Britain, certainly in the urban areas. That antipathy and its causes were predictable, but ignored either because of naïveté or ideological blindness. So, to answer Alison Pearson’s question, that is how we came to be where we are. And where is that? In short, we live in a fragmented society in which, far from integrating or reaching out, each fragment strives to protect its own integrity and competes for space in the face of indifference at best, and hostility at worst, from the other fragments. It is a recipe for unhappiness, and possibly violence.
Where is this war of each against the other taking place? Well, I recently bought a slim volume of poems written by someone living in an old, working-class area of London. Each poem spoke of pain, of bewilderment and threat. They were written by a man who feels trapped as a foreigner in his own land, desperate to leave the area, but unable to afford the move. His new neighbours speak little English, if any, so communication is difficult, and understanding more so. They have brought with them habits and standards that were perhaps the norm in the land they came from, but which shock the few remaining natives. He feels that his culture is passé, yet he is not invited to join the new, even should he wish to.
This man confesses to having once voted for the British National Party, though he swears that he is not a racist, whatever that means. Yet that vote, cast in despair, brands him as a fascist, and therefore unworthy of our sympathy. In the eyes of many living in my monocultural part of Cheshire, or the wealthier suburbs or districts of our cities, this man is beyond the pale. His fears are believed irrational, his perceptions distasteful. Why can he not feel enriched by the experience? Why does he not embrace the newcomers? Is he stupid?
Those of us who can afford to live in the more ‘select’ parts of the country are untroubled by the rise of alien cultures in our cities. We do not find ourselves members of a threatened minority, abandoned by our leaders and unable to communicate with our new neighbours. We can remain smug in the belief that we are not racist, and that we can empathise with the newcomers, at a distance. We are above our poet’s parochialism. Really? How many would remain complacent if told that an estate of social housing were to be built in their locality? How many would be reassured to be told that the new houses would be given mainly to white Britons like themselves? Very few, I believe.
Whether our poet is a racist or not, I don’t know, but I do know that his concerns do not brand him as one. His discomfort, like that of people who would be appalled at the thought of living on the edge of a council estate is no more than a manifestation of that universal phenomenon: the wish to live with ‘people like ourselves’. Whether the ‘others’ be from a different race, caste, age group, or any one of the myriad divisions we perceive in mankind, is incidental. The immigrants are no more to blame for the situation than are the distraught natives. It is in the nature of man to seek community, a consideration overlooked by the ideologues who engineered this social Titanic.
© Tom Kilcourse July 17th 2014
I wonder how J S Mill, and Dickens, would regard the society that they originally inspired. Would Mill approve of what today passes for liberalism?