The backlash against multiculturalism in Britain from 2001 to 2010.

(A paper presented to the Historical Materialism Conference, London, Sunday 9th November 2014)


Multiculturalism is a slippery term with multiple meanings, and is often used to describe societies where there are a number of cultures associated with different groups.

In western Europe at least, this is typically associated with groups of racialised minorities descended from immigrants.  Multiculturalism is also used to describe a set of state policies designed to promote accommodation between these groups on the basis of group belonging and continuing cultural difference.[1]  It is this aspect of multiculturalism as state policy that I am focusing on in this paper.

This paper has four parts.

  1. A brief look at the political theory of multiculturalism.
  2. A summary history of multiculturalism up to 2001.
  3. An analysis of the backlash in the press over this period.
  4. Government policy from 2001 to 2010.

The shortness of this paper means that I have done this in isolation from immigration policy which continued in this period to be the most clearly racist and racialising area of government policy, but do bear in mind that the incessant drum beat of the campaign to limit the right to asylum in the UK runs through this period.  Nor have I directly focused on anti-terrorist measures which continued to ensure that the other great pillar of British state racism, the police, kept much of its reputation.[2]  Nor have I looked at the third pillar of state racism which is public housing policy.  This paper is not about racism as such, but multiculturalism, although the two are in reality inseparable.[3]


One. The political theory of multiculturalism.

There[4] is very little Marxist writing about multiculturalism.  Even the most critical works tends not to have any strong conception of class or class society in their understanding.[5]  Particularly, this means there is a failure to interrogate all cultures (including the culture of racialised minorities) as ideologies in a class society.  The culture of a minority no more belongs to them than the culture of any class society belongs to all it members, these cultures are not libratory.

There are a number of caveats to this that a thorough analysis would have to consider.

  1. As Maykel Verkuyten has shown in Identity and Cultural Diversity[6] it is oppressive to disrupt people’s sense of who they and this should not be casually done.
  2. While it would be wrong to present minority cultures as a form of resistance to the dominant ideology in society, people do struggle through their existing culture as well as against it.
  3. Race, racism and multiculturalism are all part of the political economy of modern Britain.

Particularly, the way that migrant labour was integrated into the working class (both though the agencies of capital and the labour movement) has had lasting consequences, although I will have no time to explore this in this short talk.[7]

What this implies is that the ideological front of class struggle is a multicultural one although the question of agency is key, and while it is not true that all liberation is self-liberation, that should at least be the default position.

Another layer of care also needs to be exercised.  So far I have talked of cultural groups (ethnic minorities if you prefer) and cultures as if they are clear and distinct.  But cultures cannot be considered to be like billiard balls with hard boundaries and undifferentiated insides, unchanging and united in their interactions with other cultures. [8]  I would suggest that cultures are more like liquids, fluid and changing without clear boundaries with the ability to mingle and mix, although in some cases like oil and water retaining elements of their separateness.

One aspect of these porous borders is us.  The labour movement is (or at least should be) engaged in ideological battle to increase working class solidarity.  For many years the labour movement displayed varying degrees of hostility to minority workers, but under a variety of pressures, not least the struggle of minority workers themselves, from the 1970s onwards this was lessened, not under the banner of multiculturalism but anti-racism and workers’ unity.[9]


Two.  Multiculturalism in Britain before September 2001

When mass black and Asian immigration to Britain started in the 1950s there was a confused mess of underlying assumptions, with some thinking it was temporary, and others believing minorities would culturally assimilate.  At the same time the government did nothing to counter the racism that ensured that assimilation could not possibly happen.  If there was no racism, there would at least be a merging and hybridisation of cultures to a greater extent than there has been, and that multiculturalism is an attempt to reconcile the tensions of a divided society created in part by racism.

It was thus in a society where immigrants were marginalised that multiculturalism was first introduced.  The term multiculturalism started to be used in the 1960s to describe a situation of non-assimilation structured by white racism to make such a situation more bearable.[10]

However, little positive policy followed.  While the 1965, 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts contained some anti-discrimination measures, programmes to promote the accommodation and recognition of group identity remained rare.  What began to emerge were programmes funding local initiatives aimed at minorities.  This was encouraged by central government part funding spending by local councils, firstly through section 11 funding from 1966 and then through the Urban Programme from 1968 which had the additional element of attempting to foster local minority political leadership through which the local state could negotiate.[11]

This approach was not rejected by the Conservatives after they were elected in 1979.After the 1981 riots Michael Heseltine boosted the amount of money going into inner-city areas, some of it focused on building minority based community organisation and with the goal of creating community leadership.  By 1996 £86 million was disbursed annually in s11 funding,[12] a slight but not negligible redistribution of funds towards minorities.

One area where multicultural policy grew was in schools which conceptualised differentials in achievement as resulting from cultural obstacles that could be overcome by strategies of accommodation and recognition within the curriculum and school organisation.  From the mid 1970s there was a sharp conflict between advocates of this approach, and more radical practitioners who favoured an approach that started from an analysis of racist discriminatory practice and unequal treatment.  That it was the multicultural approach that won is at least in part due to the defeat of the left in general and the absorption of much of the self-organisation of minorities into Town Hall multiculturalism.  Nor should it be imagined that that this educational multiculturalism was the sole province of the left.

When in 1984 the headteacher Ray Honeyford came into conflict with Bradford council when he rejected their multicultural policies, the Conservatives were the biggest single group on the council with the education committee being chaired by one Eric Pickles.[13]

New Labour came to power in 1997 without a clear policy on racial equality or multiculturalism.  Race in general was an area where Labour trod with caution,[14] it being part of the toxic ‘loony left’ mix that the party had been attacked with in the 1980s.  Even Labour’s equality agenda (which led to the 2005 and 2010 Equality Acts) was not part of Labour’s programme, but came from campaigners outside the party.[15]

The inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was announced by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, in July 1997 shortly after Labour were returned to power,[16] this can thus be seen as a convenient way of sending out the right signals without stepping on the wrong toes (particularly given the Lawrence campaign had been supported by the Daily Mail).

Despite its attenuated wording, the resulting Macpherson report was a turning point in that it recognised state racism.  The government was hesitant to take strong proposals forward, and it was only after a rebellion by many black and Asian peers in the Lords (most of whom were Labour appointees) that Straw agreed to redraw the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill to give at least some legal underpinning to opposing institutional racism by creating a legal duty on all public bodies to promote racial equality. [17]

There was certainly no surge of multicultural policies at this time.  There was pressure to end section 11 and Urban Programme funding from some in the Labour government in 1998[18] and revisions to the National Curriculum in 1999 were criticised for not promoting a multicultural agenda. [19]  Herman Ouseley, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, was repeatedly critical of the new administration. [20]

The multiculturalism that existed by 2001 was a build up of rough and ready tools, professionals practices and political fixes.  They certainly were not systematic but they were substantial.

I don’t have time to go into detail here, but the sense that 2000 was a crossroads is underlined by the publication Parekh report by the Runnymede Trust that attempted to systematise multicultural policies in Britain.  It was not the path that was followed.


Three:  The backlash in the press 11

This section examines the backlash in the press against multiculturalism.  This is currently based on quite a small sample of the press – all the material here is based on the Sunday Times and this is underpinned by material from the Observer and Guardian which I have not included here.[21]


The point to note is that both racism and multiculturalism were increasingly discussed in the press in this period.  So looking at the number of articles containing these and similar words in the Guardian and Observer:

image 2

What we see is a peak in the use of the word racism in 1998 and 1999 with the Macpherson Inquiry, and some peaking in 2004-2005 for use of multiculturalism suggesting some greater focus on the concept.


So, drilling down a bit.  The interesting question is when and where critical articles can be found.  Here I will present only the analysis the Sunday Times articles in detail and the interesting thing is that most of the uses of the term multicultural are entirely anodyne, in a “Hackney is a multicultural area” way.  Those that contain an argument against multiculturalism are a small minority.

(There is an interest aside here: one of the central points made in by Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley in their book The Crises of Multiculturalism is that discussion of multiculturalism has forced out discussion of racism, and thus as the backlash against multiculturalism came about, the whole subject of racism became a taboo, swept under the carpet.[22]  They make these claims without the slightest empirical backing, and as these results show, the claim is entirely false.


Small sample, but nonetheless interesting.  It is possible to pick off the articles against events.  One article in 1984 (Ray Honeyford), three in 1989 (although only one of these is directly related to Rushdie).  From the early 1990s until 2001 the criticisms bubble along at a low level, mostly focused on education and fuelled at second hand by the culture wars imported from the USA.  But there is a slight surge in 2001, with four articles and this falls back until there is a strong surge in 2004, there is then a number of critical articles through to 2007, and then interest drops off again.  It is this strong surge in 2004 that is interesting, suggesting that the anti-multiculturalism agenda is not entirely linked to the War on Terror or domestic terrorism.  The 2004 peak is in part associated with the publication early in that year of David Goodhart’s “Too Diverse?”,[23] but is not entirely due to it.

The next stage of the analysis is to ask how these articles criticise multiculturalism.  An analysis of the articles suggests that there were eight arguments that were used with any regularity.

  1. Divisiveness: The idea of multiculturalism fosters social divisions, and potentially conflict.
  2. Relativism. That multiculturalism leads to moral relativism, often posed as appeasement of illiberal ideas (often in relation to women)..
  3. Overarching culture, where the argument is for the need for more British culture, or more liberally, social cohesion.
  4. Elitism: Multiculturalism is seen as the anti-democratic imposition of a metropolitan elite.
  5. Segregation. Most often in terms of housing and education
  6. Language. The foundational nature of a common language for integration.
  7. Welfare dependency.  Most commonly that the failure to integrate immigrants and their descendents has created a welfare dependent underclass.
  8. The above problems are presented in relation mainly as issues relating to Muslim people in the UK.

With this typology, it is possible to map how the arguments against multiculturalism have developed over time.


The result of this analysis shows something about the shape of the backlash.  Pre 9/11, the criticisms tended to be that multiculturalism divided society and created moral relativism but the arguments tended to be thin with only one of two points made in each time.  This was not fundamentally changed by 9/11 other than strengthening these views and bringing out the flip side of divisiveness and relativism, that so-called British values should be reasserted.  The situation had changed by 2005, the abstract notion that society is divided is replaced by the idea of social segregation (and this was probably down to Trevor Phillips “sleeping walking to segregation” speech).  Importantly, Muslims are only now problematised.  But is also notable that the arguments become progressively thicker, deploying a wider range of criticisms.  It seems unclear that the nature of the arguments was changed by 7/7, and I will need to work a much bigger sample before I can do some proper statistical tests to assess this.

Probably, the main conclusion is that it was not the press driving events, but rather this is one case at least wherein political actors set the tone and agenda.  There is, however, a build up of criticism in the press and this becomes increasingly focused on Muslims around 2005.


Four: Government policy and multiculturalism from 2001

Lastly we come to the policies pursued by government.  It is certainly the case that after 9/11 there was a sharpening of rhetoric.  For example, in December 2001 David Blunkett who had been Home Secretary since June, stated that he would no longer “tolerate the intolerable under the guise of cultural difference” in relation to forced marriages.[24]  However, the policy does not match the rhetoric.  The Home Office’s Forced Marriage Unit, which mainly offers a helpline and access to emergency accommodation, was not established until 2005.[25]  Only in 2007 was the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act passed.  These were reasonable and liberal protective reforms, although legal measures against forced marriage have been denounced by some as Islamophobia.[26]

Here I will track the changing agenda of the government only in outline, and I will look at three documents.  They are

  1. The Cantle report into the riots of 2001, commissioned before 9/11 but delivered late in 2001.
  2. The report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion of 2006 to 2007.
  3. Tackling Racial Inequality: a statement on race, a policy paper published in January 2010.

The Cantle Report.

The Cantle report[27] into the 2001 riots (those in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford) was published late in 2001 but was rooted before 9/11 but is a key document in the backlash against multiculturalism.

The report does not contain the word multiculturalism at all, instead the word diversity is used 50 times.  On occasion however, the idea of multiculturalism is clearly present in the document with group cultural difference being recognised.  In some ways therefore, this is a remodulation of the existing multicultural policy in an attempt to seek greater social order.

The findings of the report focused on the degree to which the towns covered in the report were ones where there truly were separate cultural communities living parallel lives with few points of contact.  It is important to note that Cantle did not recommend assimilationist measures, but rather that policy be designed to lessen the barriers and create greater contact between the communities.  Not to eradicate the cultural differences but to create some understanding and tolerance – an approach has been called interculturalism.

Thus the report stated that:

“It is also essential to establish a greater sense of citizenship, based on (a few) common principles which are shared and observed by all sections of the community.  This concept of citizenship would also place a higher value on cultural differences.” [28]

This backlash against multiculturalism is measured.  Following on from the Cantle Report a Community Cohesion Unit was established in the Home Office to push the policy recommendations in the report, but it was not considered a great success and was disbanded in 2004.  Now, note, it is 2004 where a more strenuous questioning of multiculturalism begins in the press, it is this moment, prior to 2005, that a more fundamental questioning of these policies begins.

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion 2006-2007.

This was appointed in 2006 by the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke but it was Blair’s close ally, the Local government minister, Ruth Kelly who was central to the Commission’s functioning.  Unlike the Committee that produced the Cantle report, which was actually a classic exercise on multicultural representation, this was a carefully selected committee designed to produce the desired result.[29]  The report, Our Shared Future[30] was published in 2007.

It is notable that this is the only one of the three documents that I am looking at that mentions multiculturalism.  Thus the report notes that “There is no doubt that migrants have changed Britain, and that most people think this is a good thing” and that a “MORI Poll … found that 62% of people thought multiculturalism made Britain a better place to live”[31]

but this is to put these changes in the past but also with a flavour of hybridisation.

The other references are much more negative and focused on divisiveness.  So we have “ the multiculturalism of the past at times placed an emphasis on the different routes that brought people into local communities in the UK, rather than keeping sight of the shared concerns that matter to everyone” [32] and the report states that wider debates about multiculturalism were unhelpful. [33]

Again, this report explicitly rejects the idea that cultural assimilation should take place, [34] but rather sees cohesion as something that holds together diverse individuals rather than being the management of different cultural groups.  Notably, one of the few intermediate groups that the report casts in a positive light are faith groups, hardly surprising given the importance of Blair’s ally Ruth Kelly in the framing of the report.

Tackling Racial Inequality

Tackling Racial Inequality: a statement on race[35] was a Department of Communities and Local Government document published in 2010 in the dying days of the Labour government.  It is notable in a number of ways.  Its overt focus on equality is perhaps one of the consequences of the move from Blair to Brown.  The document does not mention multiculturalism, but it does contain the word diversity 33 times.  The general tenor of the document is that progress is measured not by equal recognition of cultures, but by equality of opportunity between diverse individuals, for example in terms of access to employment and resources.  The term ethnicity continues to be used, but in an entirely denatured form without any implication of minority and majority culture.

The movement through these documents is clear.  In Cantle’s 2001 document multiculturalism is implicitly part of the approach as it is cultural groups that are the main focus.  This is overtly rejected by the 2007 report where the language has changed to diverse individuals who are cohered into a whole by some vague telos of a shared vision of the future.  The 2010 document continues this individualised approach, and extends it by expanding diversity to include all features covered by the 2010 Equality Act: gender, disability, sexuality and so on.  The cohesive force is now seen as the idea that diverse individuals have equality of opportunity which gives this form of equality a highly neo-liberal flavour.  The competition for resources has been uncoupled from group identity and become individualised with the state acting as guarantor of the fairness of the rat race.

There are many other policies that could add a degree of complexity to this picture.  The rise, particularly under Blair, of the idea of faith communities and the moderate growth of non-Christian faith schools is one.  The attempt to co-opt Muslim groups to police and forestall radicalisation is another.  A closer focus on these would create a more nuanced picture.



It is important to emphasise that neither multiculturalism or the diversity that has followed it are part of our politics, they are both programmes to ensure social order in a capitalist society.

Multiculturalism is a form of decayed late period social democracy, where underlying tensions are not resolved by ameliorated policies by moderately redistributive policies.  As ever, this redistribution was utterly insufficient, and anyway was a palliative measure that did nothing to tackle the underlying pathology.

Cantle’s report was both the last gasp of this approach, and the first breath of a new one.  The last gasp was that it attempted to maintain the idea of balancing the interests of culturally distinct groups but without any element of redistribution.  It thus lacked any sense of agency for creating multicultural compromise.

What has emerged is a neo-liberal successor.  Society is no longer conceptualised as consisting of cultural groups, but individuals who are diverse in a number of ways.  The glue holding these individuals together is no longer the false promise of a share of the resources, but the false promise of a chance to equally participate in the free-market.



[1] For example, eight possible definitions are listed in Stephen Vertovec, “Multi-multiculturalisms” in Marco Martinello (ed) (1998), Multicultural Policies and States: A comparison of two European Societies (Utrecht: ERCOMER,), p28-34.

[2] See Derek McGhee (2008), The End of Multiculturalism? Terrorism, Integration and Human Rights (Maidenhead; McGraw Hill/Open University Press.)  McGhee argues that the war against terror is the driving force against multicultural policies.  There is not time to fully assess this perspective in this short paper, but the centrality of anti-terrorist measures and the change in the ideological context after the 2001 New York and 2005 London attacks while real is over emphasised by McGhee.  Implicitly this paper suggests a correction, although not an outright rejection, of this conclusion.

[3] I have to note that part of the drive behind this project is a dissatisfaction with both the history of both multiculturalism, state-led anti-racism and the racialising actions of the state and other social actors.  Many recent works are reflexive works of radicalism that are driven more by their conclusion or theoretical conceits that an attempt to start from the empirical data and through that generate an understanding of the underlying social and political dynamics as work.  Much of what passes for history is little more than a collection of received wisdoms, passed down through secondary sources.  Similarly, much of what passes for modern sociology has such a slight relationship with empirical reality as to be worthless.  A fuller and more critical survey of this literature will be included in the expanded version of this paper.

[4] There is a large amount of liberal writing on multiculturalism, mainly supportive, that it would serve little purpose to review here.

[5]  The most notable radical analysis in recent years, Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, The Crises of Multiculturalism:  Racism in a Neo-Liberal Age (London: Zed, 2011) is a dense thicket of academic language, that draws from sources from Žižek to the Jesuit theorist Michel De Certeau, but in the end it has no underlying coherence in its approach.  Pathik Pathak, The Future of Multicultural Britain: Confronting the Progressive Dilemma (Edinburgh: EUP, 2008) is not so obtuse in its language, but also suggests that it is now possible to talk about multiculturalism in a radical language derived from Sivanandan, Gilroy et al, without thinking much about the class nature of society.

[6] Maykel Verkuyten (2014) Identity and Cultural Diversity: What social psychology can teach us (London: Routledge), pp65-66.

[7] These two points need much greater elaboration than I give them here.  There are analyses that I can point to that have an adequate summary of these important points.

[8] Anne Philips (2007), Multiculturalism without culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press). p162

[9] See my paper “The remaking of the British working class: trade unions and black and Asian workers in Britain 1949-1984”,

[10] See for example Brian Lapping, ‘The choice for immigrants’, The Guardian, 20th July 1965.  For a taste of the process happening within government, in this example, in housing, see The National Archive CAB134/1505, CI(IN)(65)1st, 15/03/1965 and TNA: PRO CAB21/5290, Rogers to Howard Drake, n.d and reply 19/2/1965

[11] Again, there is no clear footnote that I can put on this.  While these ideas are certainly not original, there is too little written about them in a systematic and historically grounded way.  These unfootnoted assertions are, on the whole, based on my own unpublished research.

[12] Section 11 funding, TES, 22nd November  1996 [ (accessed 5/11/2014)]

[13] Again, this is an area that awaits a thorough history.  Sally Tomlinson (2008) Race and Education: Policy and Politics in Britain (Maidenhead: Open University) is too sketchy and too prone to error and over-generalisation to rely on.

[14] Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, ‘Black Britain and Labour, for better or worse’, The Guardian 11th February 1997;

[Accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers]

[15] Bob Hepple (2011) Equality: The New Legal Framework (Oxford: Hart, 2011), chapter 1.

[16]  Nichola Rollock (2009) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry 10 years on: an analysis of the literature (London: Runnymede Trust),p8.

[17] Alan Travis, “Straw extends race bill” The Guardian,  27th January 2000 [accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers]

[18] “Ethnic aid cash to go to others in need”, The Observer 21st June 1998 [accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers]

[19]  Rebecca Smithers ,“Curriculum ‘lacks cultural balance’”, The Guardian 3rd November 1999 [accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers]

[20]  The earliest example may be Alan Travis, “Blacks ‘losing out in Blair’s new Britain”,  The Guardian 22nd July 1997 [accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers]

[21] The Guardian and Observer were accessed via the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database for material up to 2003.  Material after this date is accessed.  The Sunday Times to 2006 was accessed via the Sunday Times Digital Archive [Gale Ceenage Learning].  For later dates different databases were used.  The results gained from this did not match, and the period of overlaps between the databases were used to realign the result, a somewhat dubious and unscientific exercise.  The later results are found using ProQuest NewsStand , which date back to 1993.

[22] Lentin and Titley, Crises of Multiculturalism, pp49-67.

[23] David Goodhart, “Too Diverse”, Prospect 20th February 2002. [ (accessed 5/11/2014)]

[24] See Amit Roy, “Blunkett ‘ignorant of marriage practices’”, The Telegraph, 12th December2002. [accessed 5/11/2014]

[25] Forced Marriage Unit, Statistics January to December 2013, [accessed 8/11/2014]

[26]  This is a popular theme amongst some academics who argue that it is not forced marriage that is the problem, but that forced marriage constructs the Muslim as other.  For example, C McAlpine, A Gill & P Hegarty, (2007) “Why criminalize forced marriage? Islamophobia and assimilation-based justifications.” British Psychological Society Psychology of Women Section Review 9 (2), 15-28.  Also see Richard Phillips’ 2009 seminar, “Intolerant others? : confronting forced marriage and homophobia in Muslim communities and Islamophobic imaginaries” (the PowerPoint, but not the text, can be accessed via  The criminalisation of forced marriage under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (2014) see Armit Wilson “Criminalising forced marriage in the UK: why it will not help women” in 50.50 Inclusive Democracy(Open Democracy) (13th January 2014), [ (accessed 5/11/2014)]  The same theme is developed in general terms in Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg, Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007)

[27] Home Office (2001), Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team Chaired by Ted Cantle [accessed via (accessed 5/11/2014)]  (henceforth, The Cantle Report (2010)

[28] The Cantle Report (2010), para 2.13.

[29] “Singh’s Cohesion Colleagues Named”, Local Government Chronicle, 24th August 2006 [ (accessed 8/11/2014)]

[30] Commission for Integration and Cohesion (2007), Our Shared Future, final report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion (CIC: Wetherby) [accessed via (5/11/2014)] (Henceforth, Our Shared Future (2007)]

[31] Our Shared Future (2007), Para 2.40

[32] Our Shared Future (2007), Para 4.3

[33] Our Shared Future (2007), Para 3.9

[34] Our Shared Future (2007), Para 3.6

[35]  Communities and Local Government (2010), Tackling Racial Inequality: a statement on race (London: Communities and Local Government ) [  (5/11/2014)]

One response to “The backlash against multiculturalism in Britain from 2001 to 2010.

  1. Pingback: The backlash against multiculturalism in Britain from 2001 to 2010. | British Contemporary History

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