The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Same old ideas for the "Big Society"

Eric Pickles puts in the knife
Eddie Ford

Last month the [UK] government launched its so-called "integration strategy" in a paper entitled Creating the conditions for integration.[1] According to the document, "integration means creating the conditions for everyone to play a full part in national and local life" and "our country is stronger by far when each of us - whatever our background - has a chance to contribute". Very worthy sentiments indeed.

In order to advance integration, the paper argued (albeit rather tautologically) that "core values and experience must be held in common" - values like democracy, the rule of law, equality of opportunity and treatment, freedom of speech, etc. It is these, we read, which "make it possible for people to live and work together" and to "bridge boundaries between communities". Going on, the publication notes that there are five "key" factors which "contribute" to integration - common ground, responsibility, social mobility, participation and empowerment, tackling intolerance and extremism.

The paper asserts that the government's role in achieving a more integrated society is "strongly shaped by localism and the Big Society", as opposed to "past approaches" based on "expensive programmes dictated from Whitehall", which "made integration the preserve of narrow interest groups" instead of the "everyday business of communities, public services, the private sector and wider civic society". In this way, the authors conclude, "we want to inspire and enable civil society and local areas to take action on integration issues that are important to them".

In other words, the sort of 'big society' garbage we have heard so much about from David Cameron - which itself is an ad hoc or improvised 'philosophy' designed, to a very considerable degree, to act as a cover for cuts and austerity. The central government will implement a policy of economic scorched earth, whilst the private sector and "local communities" will do their patriotic duty - if all goes to theory - and step in to supply the appropriate, and prudent, level of sticking plaster, balms and palliatives to the unfortunate victims.

Shared values?

Creating the conditions for integration was, of course, spearheaded by the communities secretary, Eric Pickles - who only a couple of weeks ago boasted about how he had "fast-tracked" the 2011 Localism Act so as to defend the 'right to prayer' at local council meetings in the light of the Bideford ruling at the high court.

Explaining the scheme to the Daily Mail - which should immediately alert you to the reactionary nature of the project - he said the fundamental aim was to "restore" the English language and "Christian faith" to the "centre of public life".[2] Bad luck then for non-Christians, secularists and atheists, who presumably will find themselves on the margins of "public life" - but it serves them right, we suppose, for subscribing to those quixotic, unBritish ideas.

In pursuit of this goal, he vowed to "stand up" for "mainstream" values by "strengthening national identity" contra state-sponsored multiculturalism, which only stresses, as Pickles put it, "what divides us". In fact, as he saw it, multiculturalism was responsible for a situation where incoming migrants in some areas had shown themselves "unable or unwilling to integrate" - meaning there were just "too many people still left outside" or "choosing to remain outside" mainstream society. But those who "advocate separate lives are wrong", he emphasised.

Rather, he claimed, we should instead "celebrate" what "people in England" (forget the Scottish or Welsh) "have in common" and unite around "shared values".

What are these "shared values"? You guessed it - faith/religion, the crown and by extension the glorious imperial past of bloodshed, plunder and robbery. Therefore he called upon "local communities" to use events such as the June 3 Big Lunch (the aim of which is to "get as many people as possible across the whole of the UK to have lunch with their neighbours in a simple act of community, friendship and fun"[3]) or the queen's diamond jubilee - happily the two events coincide this year - to "bring together" people of "different backgrounds".

For Pickles this is how to achieve 'integration', more "inter-faith activities" uniting around the 'shared' figure of the monarch and the imperial system she represents - something that the Smiths, Patels, Adebayos and Khans can mutually enjoy and appreciate. Therefore, as far as Pickles is concerned, religious faith should be "part of the solution" in easing community tensions rather than being seen as a "barrier" to better relations - it needs to play a more visible role in "public life".

Indeed, Pickles tells us that the dark days of the state "trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths should be over" - echoing the paranoiac tone of Baroness Warsi, the Muslim Conservative Party co-chairwoman, who informed us that in "recent years" a "succession" of governments have "undermined" or even "attacked" religion.[4] A fantasy history, of course, set in an alternative Britain, where the ungodly forces of "militant secularisation" have eroded all decency and common sense - if not set up a semi-totalitarian state determined to crush the faithful and devout.

More practically, or anti-democratically, the number of official documents translated into languages other than English will be reduced. No more, Pickles declared, will we see public bodies "bending over backwards to translate documents up to and including their annual report into a variety of foreign languages" - monolingualism is the future. Furthermore, he informs Daily Mail readers, "new education standards" will "bar" schools from teaching anything which "undermines fundamental British values". Like perhaps anything which sheds a less than favourable light on the role or history of British imperialism or maybe suggests that Jesus was not actually a man-god born of a virgin? Additionally, the "diversity" targets or "national indicator" system introduced under Labour will be scrapped - which had been set up with a view to measure how well people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds got on with each other in various parts of the country.

Naturally, Pickles was committed to "tolerance" and insisted that the government remained vigilant in relation to any manifestation of racism or "hate crimes" directed at Muslims and Jews - by banning, for instance, marches which could "cause racial tension". This will not be tolerated. Needless to say, the new 'integration' strategy - if you can call it that - is a pristine example of institutional anti-racism: an ideology built on the post-World War II appropriation of anti-racism by the bourgeoisie. Equally, Pickles has "no truck whatsoever" with bed and breakfast owners who claim their faith should allow them to turn away gay couples, as "in my way of thinking" you do not "create equality by persecuting a particular religion or a particular race" - or gays presumably.

Pickles further elaborated his ideas in an interview for the weekly The House Magazine, a publication which some Weekly Worker readers might previously have been unaware of. Pickles warned of a developing "sub-class" in Britain made up of people unable to speak English "like a native" and hence are "virtually unemployable" or "stuck in a ghetto" - this needs to be urgently reversed by "encouraging people to be part of British society".[5]

Trying to scare us with numbers, the communities secretary pointed to official statistics which suggest that around 17% of pupils in state primary schools and 12% in state secondary schools do not speak English as a first language. The equivalent figures six years ago, it is claimed, were 12% and 10%. Hence he announced a £10 million grant to "actively encourage" the teaching of English.

Other initiatives include programmes run through the National Citizen Service, Youth United and A Year of Service. By such methods, Pickles stated, the government can bring an end to "politics of division" - the malign legacy of state-sponsored multiculturalism - and "real integration" in a society where people "mix" and are generally engaged in activities "beyond their ethnic group".

For this to happen, crucially, schoolchildren should be educated in a "common culture" - with the diamond jubilee and the Olympics, of course, a golden opportunity to "fly the flags of Britain" with pride. Encouraging national pride will help to overcome ethnic and racial differences, he optimistically forecasted, as part of the process - now getting to the heart of the matter - of constructing a "British identity" that "crosses class, colour or creed" (my emphasis). Putting nation before class is the rallying cry of reactionaries and exploiters everywhere.

Divisive

The first thing to say about all this is that communists think that some of comments made by Pickles contain a kernel of truth, no matter how twisted or disingenuous the intent. State-sponsored multiculturalism has sowed the "politics of division" amongst the working class - that is surely self-evident.

For more than a decade the bourgeois ideology of multiculturalism has acted to divide the British working class into numerous, and seemingly ever-subdividing, supplicant groups competing for the largesse and favours of central government. This required the bureaucratic machinery of tick-box multiculturalism and 'equal opportunities' schemes (which in some respects are a parody of what genuine equality is or should be about). In turn, this acceded a disproportionate amount of political influence to all manner of democratically unaccountable petty patriarchs and local power-brokers operating from the local community centre or church/mosque (or whatever). Such people, for the most part, were then viewed as a valuable asset by the establishment - for the ability to 'deactivate' local militancy.

We should hardly be surprised by such a political phenomenon, whereby the politics of top-down establishment anti-racism and multiculturalism has generated divisive communalism. After all, that was exactly the result the Thatcher government intended when it introduced the beginnings of multiculturalism as deliberate state policy in reaction to the 1980s inner-city riots.

For a moment, back then, parts of the black and Asian population looked dangerously out of control and some way had to be found to put them back into the box. Many boxes, in fact. However, over the years the establishment consensus on multiculturalism has broken down - as personified by Eric Pickles. To put it crudely, multiculturalism has now lost its usefulness for large sections of the bourgeoisie: in fact, many now regard it as dangerously counterproductive. Maybe even a Frankenstein's monster. The ideologies of state-sponsored multiculturalism and official anti-racism have parted company.

Therefore, we profoundly disagree with our Socialist Workers Party comrades when they say the experience of multiculturalism has been "overwhelmingly positive" (Socialist Worker December 21 2001), because it "means the desire to live in a society rich with cultures and people from across the world" (April 17 2004) and other such blatant nonsense.

Yes, as time has passed, the SWP has come out with a few minor quibbles or mild criticisms of official multiculturalism and some of its less than desirable effects for working class politics. But these occasional reservations are normally predicated on the assumption that in and of itself multiculturalism is an inherently progressive idea that has somehow become 'corrupted' - whether due to insufficient rigour when it come to implementation or a treacherous departure from the original ideal.

In this manner, for those like the SWP the debate around multiculturalism often becomes an unsavoury proprietorial scrap over 'authenticity' and who can claim to be the most 'holier than thou' practitioner or advocate. More damaging still, as we graphically saw with the Macpherson report into so-called 'institutional racism', the SWP ended up constituting itself as the extreme left - or conscience - of bourgeois or establishment anti-racism, instead of acting as the voice of independent proletarian anti-racism. Multiculturalism is not just another word for 'anti-racism', however much the SWP comrades may imagine it to be. If it was and nothing else, then we in the CPGB would obviously be the most militant and consistent defenders and advocates of multiculturalism. But we are not. We oppose it.

Citizenship tests

Now, it goes without saying that communists do not subscribe to the notorious Norman Tebbit citizenship test. Namely, which cricket team do you support - England or Pakistan? And you better give the right answer otherwise you are disqualified as a 'proper' English citizen (or subject of the crown, to be more exact). This noxious form of chauvinist 'anti-multiculturalism' we utterly reject. And we also reject the citizenship tests first introduced by David Blunkett in 2005 - the New Labour legacy, if truth be told.

As our readers will know, this takes the form of a 45-minute written test on 'Life in the UK'. There are 24 questions requiring examinees to demonstrate knowledge of "how the nation developed, an appreciation of its institutions and an awareness of its customs and laws".[6] Applicants must also demonstrate progress in speaking English (or, very oddly, Welsh or Gaelic) in order to be rewarded with the status of British citizen. They must answer 75% of the questions correctly to pass and anyone who fails the test will be denied a British passport and the right to vote. No matter if you have been a resident of the UK for many years and may have contributed to the local community or paid your taxes just like everybody else (well, quite unlike the 'indigenous' wealthy and super-rich, as it so happens). You will not be permitted any formal voice in the decision-making or democratic process, insofar as we have one in Britain.

The central absurdity - irrationality - is that the 24 multiple-choice questions are essentially a random hotchpotch that just anybody can fail, whatever their surname, regardless of how long they may have lived in the UK. You could get asked how many parliamentary constituencies there are, the year in which married women got the right to divorce their husband, what the definition of a 'quango' is or the circumstances that trigger a by-election. After quickly taking the test, this journalist discovered that he was no longer fit to be classified as a British citizen - and the same would go for a great many other people in the UK, white-skinned or not.

A point usefully made by the recent Channel Four documentary, Make Bradford British, in which over 100 people were asked questions taken from citizenship tests. True, those from the "Muslim community" only got about 20% of the questions right. But more or less identical results were achieved by the white Bradford residents: those 'born and bred' in the UK (that actually applied to most of the Muslims too) were just as ignorant - or insufficiently British, if you like - as those who originated from the Indian sub-continent (or rather whose parents or grandparents did). Yet it seems very unlikely that the coalition government will announce in tomorrow's Daily Mail that henceforth 80% of the British population will be disqualified as British citizens and will no longer have the right to vote.

Of course, communists strongly favour the assimilation of all migrants: an entirely positive goal and outcome. For us though, this process must be entirely voluntary - there must be no oppressive tests designed purposely to exclude or the imposition of an unfamiliar language.

In actual fact, it is totally natural and normal for newcomers to learn the language - and the customs (in the broadest sense) - of their adopted country, so they can operate effectively within an unfamiliar and perhaps initially unsettling environment. But in order to aid this process assistance in learning to speak, understand, read and write English is of vital importance and should be available as an elementary right. At the same time, though, everybody must have the right to use, and be educated in, their first language.

In reality, however, if you go to Bradford or Southall, the Asian-British can speak English perfectly well. What was noticeable about Make Bradford British was that virtually everybody featured spoke the language fluently and idiomatically in a broad Yorkshire accent. Yes, it does happen that some people born in the Indian subcontinent - usually women and often elderly - spend most of their time at home or with others who share their first language and so have a poor grasp of English.

It was the Thatcher government which abolished the various special schemes to teach English to such people, and respective governments since have savagely cut adult education classes - thereby denying these people the opportunity and right to learn and speak English "like a native" (as their children do). So communists are fully entitled to denounce the ardent Thatcherite, Pickles, for being a hypocrite as well as an obnoxious little-England bigot when he waves around his paltry £10 million to "encourage" the learning of English - yeah, sure, that will really go far.

Being internationalists and militant democrats, communists too have an "integration strategy" - but it is one that would horrify both Eric Pickles and Norman Tebbit, not to mention David Blunkett and Tony Blair. We aim to integrate people, no matter where they are from, into our working class culture, inspired by a vision of a different Britain and a different world. A red world million of miles away from the nightmarish imperial Britain that Pickles still longs for in the dead of night, where the empire imposed 'civilisation' on those "lazy" and "childish" Africans and Indians (as school textbooks doubtlessly would have put it up to the middle of the 20th century) and where the monarch reigns supreme over us for the rest of time. No, our vision - and programme - is the diametric opposite: one that is thoroughly and consistently democratic, republican and truly modern.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

2. Daily Mail February 21.

3. www.thebiglunch.com.

4. The Daily Telegraph February 13.

5. The House Magazine March 9: www.politicshome.com/uk/article/48272/?edition_id=998.

 

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