The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain

In a plural society, it may also be necessary to get away from talk of a majority and a minority. The report The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain said, one needs to move away from the discourse of majority and minorities

‘If one sees Britain as a 94 to 6 society – where ninety-four per cent are thought to belong to one vast majority since they are white and six per cent to various minorities since they are not – one will misperceive oneself and one’s immediate surroundings. Homogeneity in the so-called majority is a myth, not a true story. Minorities do not necessarily have more in common with each other than with the majority and the majority is really an amalgam of many minorities. We need a far more dynamic model of society in which many different groups are in constant and ever-changing relationship with each other and all have equal access to the decision making processes.’

For more information about the report, also known as the Parekh Report, go to: Runnymede Trust

The interview below with Lord Parekh was printed in The Hindu on 23 March 2001

Democracy through diversity By Garimella Subramaniam

Lord Bhikku Parekh is a member of the British House of Lords. He was earlier Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Hull and authored among others two major books on the political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. In an interview, he dwelt on the Parekh Report, on race relations, the shift in conceptual focus in the discourse on multiculturalism and on India’s policy on Kashmir. The following are excerpts:

Question: Could you explain the shift in your intellectual position from anti-racism to multiculturalism?

Bhikku Parekh: It is not so much a shift of positions as a difference in emphasis. The standard understanding of racial discrimination in Britain during the 1960s was in terms of the Marxist explanation: that racism is largely an epiphenomenal product of the deeper class forces and hence it must be attacked head on, locating it within the class struggle. But many of us soon began to realise that the matter was not as simple as this. For if capitalism was to be taken as the causal explanation of racism, it was clearly faulty because, racism (a) historically has preceded capitalism and (b) in the contemporary situation, capitalism is incompatible with racism since once white workers begin to discriminate against black workers, capitalism suffers. The alternative explanation from within the liberal tradition is that racism is linked with colonialism, not with capitalism.
It is necessary to engage in a systematic critique of the dominant culture with a view to showing how it is underpinned by profound racist sentiments. Now that leads to the multiculturalist doctrine. You critique the dominant culture, build up the self-confidence of the dominated culture and you make sure these cultures accept each other as equals. If you accept cultures as equal, you accept people as equals and this is one way of tackling racism. But the question why some cultures regard others as inferior cannot be answered in terms of cultures alone. Anti-racism had grasped one important facet, namely, economic and political power is important in determining relations between individuals. Multiculturalism had grasped another, that power relations are culturally mediated and cultures are needed to justify power relations and it is through ideology of culture if you like that power relationships reproduce themselves.

Q: Are you in other words saying that anti-racism and multiculturalism are two ends of the same continuum?

A: Exactly; or if you like, they are complementary perspectives and each is strong where the other is weak. What we need to do is find a way of integrating them into a single theoretical framework.

Q: What were the recommendations of your Commission on Race Relations?

A: We insisted that Britain needed a commission on human rights and on equality; something I would also recommend for India. An equality commission whose job it would be to see that there is a parity in the economic prospects of different communities. We said Parliament, Civil Services and the media should be periodically subjected to “ethnic audit” to ensure adequate representation of Asians and blacks.

Q: What was the substance of the opposition to the report?

A: It was for three reasons. First, the report suggested that British society, despite its protestations, contained a deep racist streak and that had to be tackled. Second, elections were round the corner and the right wing media wanted to discredit the Labour Government and one way to do that was to identify the Labour Government with our report and that was understandable because I was made Labour Lord by Mr. Tony Blair. Many members of my Commission were also active members of the Labour Party. Third, the Macpherson report which had come out the year before last was hard hitting. The right wing media was unhappy over that; but they could not attack it as it was concerned with the death of an innocent 18-year-old. So our report became a proxy target.

Q: Could you tell us something about your new book, “Rethinking Multiculturalism”. How much of the report is there in this book, or how much of the book is there in the report?

A: The report is the work of a commission of 23 people and inevitably there are ideological compromises and accommodations, whereas the book is entirely my own. However, since the report is my report, it is inevitable that I wanted to make sure I was happy with its overall position and therefore, it is broadly in line with my book. In the book I am doing something like this. In my view, the entire tradition of western political philosophy from Plato is vitiated by one fundamental belief. This is that there is only one way of life which is truly human and the best and it judges all other ways of life in terms of it. In other words, it has a strong monistic and anti-pluralist impulse. Then we come to the liberal tradition which believes the modern liberal way of life alone is truly human and the rest of the world is muddled and confused which is why liberalism was used to justify colonialism. When you come to Marx, though he rejects the political and economic principles of liberalism, he shares its cultural premises that modernity is the only answer. My first thesis in the book is that the entire western tradition of political philosophy is anti-pluralist. I argue that every culture is limited. It captures some aspects of the good life and not others. It highlights some features of the human predicament and not others. So, if every culture is limited, then it can only enrich itself by entring into dialogue with others. My contribution is in saying that cultural diversity is a value in exactly the same way as liberty and equality are because it enriches each culture; gives it an opportunity to become aware of its own strengths and limitations. It also cultivates respect for other cultures. That is the second thesis. The third thesis follows from this; that if cultural diversity is a good thing and if intercultural dialogue is the only way to get at the truth about human affairs, then human societies should be so constituted that they constantly nurture dialogue; between individuals in the micro level and groups, communities and cultures at the macro level.
Therefore, rather than talk about liberal democracy, I talk about a dialogically constituted democracy. Democracy is significant not simply in terms of free speech and other things; it is significant because its overall purpose is to bring different points of view, different sensibilities into constant creative interaction… truth can only come out of an intercultural dialogue.

Q: Is there anyone in your view who exemplified the spirit of your definition of multicultural democracy?

A: I can think of many other examples, but Mahatma Gandhi would be the foremost. Here was a man who was profoundly Hindu and rooted in the Hindu tradition; but deeply influenced by Judaism, but more importantly by Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism. And if you look at his major ideas like satyagraha, fasting unto death; they do not spring from any one tradition. Take fast unto death. It implies that I take upon myself the burdens of the sins and the failings of my countrymen and torture myself in order to awaken their sensibilities. Now the idea of taking over the burden of others is Christian. But suffering oneself is a Hindu idea.

Q: What are your thoughts on India’s contemporary political problems?

A: The Kashmir issue worries me greatly for a variety of reasons. We seem to think that come what may, we must hold on to it. People are even saying Kashmir belongs to us. I do not understand. The territory belongs to you, but Kashmir is not territory. How can one people belong to another people. Are they ever slaves and are we ever going to hold them at ransom simply in order to save our secularism? India led the greatest anti- colonial movement in history. But here we are now a semi-colonial power in Kashmir, holding that part of the country against the wishes of the people. I think we should have a long term goal as well as a short term advantage. As far as our part of Kashmir is concerned, we should resume a genuine democratic process, hold free elections and make every attempt to win over the people. We will give a commitment to holding a plebiscite if Pakistan and China first disgorge their portions of Kashmir and unite with our portion.

Are these ideas relevant to your country or situation? What local, governmental, institutional practices in your area encourage and support multiculturalism as outlined here?