Cameron enters national identity minefield

Prime Minister claims multiculturalism has left us segregated. Britain needs stronger national identity, he says, but many disagree.

'Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism,' said David Cameron in a speech certain to spark debate.

He was talking about religious radicalisation and the causes of terrorism at a security conference in Munich, and blamed 'state multiculturalism' for many of our problems. He believes it's left the UK as a nation of unrelated groups.

The UK needs a stronger national identity, he says, which can be owned by all people, whatever their beliefs. 'Freedom of speech; freedom of worship; democracy; the rule of law; equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. This is what defines us as a society,' he says. 'To belong here is to believe these things.'

The threat of terrorism from Muslim fundamentalists lay at the heart of Cameron's speech, though he was keen to distinguish between Islam the religion and 'Islamist extremism'. 'We need to be clear,' he said, 'Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing.'

The British Muslim community has not found his comments helpful, however. Dr Faisal Hanjra, Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council for Britain, described the speech as 'disappointing', feeling that once again, the Muslim community 'is being treated as part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution.'

Such feelings were heightened by the fact that, while Mr Cameron spoke in Munich, there was a large rally in Luton by the extreme far-right group, the English Defence League.

They were not mentioned by the Prime Minister.

David Blunkett, a former Home Secretary, also accuses the government of inconsistency. He is concerned with the government's removal of 'Citizenship' from the school curriculum in secondary schools 'at a time when we've never needed it more.'

And others are uneasy about the Prime Minister questioning Muslim identity. They believe people need to feel secure in their own identity before they can reach out to others who are different.

Salad Bowl

Fearing the 'racist' label, with its colonialist echoes, English politicians have been timid in addressing this subject.

Labour leader Tony Blair edged away from multiculturalism in the years after the 7/7 bombings in London, and 'Britishness' was always on Gordon Brown's agenda as well.

Mr Cameron has been more direct than either but, as a community worker points out, being British is not about all being the same. 'We want integration but not assimilation. We want to be like a salad bowl and not a soup.'

You Decide

  1. What does it mean to be 'British'?
  2. Is it OK for someone define themselves purely in terms of their religion?

Activities

  1. Design a poster or a graphic on the theme of 'Britishness'.
  2. Write a letter to David Cameron about national identity. Do you think it's as important as he does? If not, why not? If so, give your suggestions as to what would help create a healthy national sense of identity.

Some People Say...

“There's no such thing as Britishness.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what is multiculturalism?
It depends who you ask. Those who favour it would say it's the principle that allows those of different faiths and cultures to live alongside each other peacefully. No one can question anyone else; that's the rule.
And those against the idea?
They'd blame it for accentuating social division, reinforcing Muslim separateness and undermining national identity.
And does that matter?
David Cameron would say it matters if it destroys a sense of the things we all share. He believes that's why some people turn to extremism; they don't feel they belong in Britain – just to their own little group.
And the soup and the salad bowl illustration?
In a soup, everything is mushed together; in a salad bowl, everything keeps its own identity, but joins to make something tasty.

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