David Cameron’s speech to an international conference on terrorism, in which he announced the death of state multiculturalism, has caused something of a furore. It has allowed far-right groups to claim that their agenda has been adopted into the mainstream. It has inevitably been attacked on the Left. More interestingly, it can be seen as a deeply political statement to the right of the Conservative Party, which has been attacking Cameron for failing to press core Tory values in the context of the coalition. Too much Lib-Demmery, says a certain faction of the Tory party still clinging to the belief that it won the last election and has a radical mandate on the Right.
I think it’s a fascinating speech because it exposes so much of the thinking – much of it of course contradictory and hopelessly muddled – that characterises the Tory position on race, religion and identity. It’s worth reading in full for precisely that reason.
A number of thoughts:
- Context – it is notable that Cameron’s first major pronouncement on race and identity as Prime Minister should be made in the context of a speech on terrorism. Since the speech focussed on Islam, the implicit inference is obvious and monumentally insulting. Either it’s deliberate, in which case it’s a particularly obnoxious piece of racism, or it’s stupidity, which simply reinforces the growing impression that this is a Government run by and for extremely privileged men whose narrowness of background and failure of understanding becomes clearer every time they run into the complexities of life outside their tiny little clique.
- Cameron doesn’t know what multiculturalism is – a more subtle problem, because it’s a difficult concept to define but, in the best traditions of the tabloid press, he’s making it mean what he wants it to mean. Indeed, the speech is full of empty phrases – state multiculturalism? Muscular liberalism (what does that mean? Lying more loudly to students?). It’s the old straw man trick. Take a word whose meaning is unclear, define in a way that suits your prejudices, and use it to demonise those who disagree with you.
- It’s all about Islam – there are of course passing mentions of non-Islamic fundamentalism, but that isn’t the point. Part of the internal dynamic of the Conservative Party is that the dissatisfied Right is closely linked to fundamentalist Christian groups and their agenda on issues like education, immigration and sexual health. For example, at the election we had the spectacle of a Conservative candidate, Philippa Stroud, arguing that homosexuality could be “cured” by prayer. Although she lost the election, she was immediately appointed as Ian Duncan-Smith’s highly-paid special adviser at the DWP, suggesting that the Tory party was quite relaxed about this particular piece of fundamentalism. There is a quite basic question hanging in the air about whether fundamentalist Christianity counts as an ideology in the same way as fundamentalist Islam. The answer appears to be – here as elsewhere – that ideology is what other people do.
- It’s an attack on the state – the speech contains a sudden, unsupported assertion that common identity will be forged if we get the state out social policy. It’s a statement that is not only completely unsupported but conflicts with comments he makes elsewhere in the speech; which is all about state intervention, restricting certain types of speech, and so on. What he really means is Government should strengthen the apparatus of coercion and surveillance while removing expenditure that promotes social equality. After all, “muscular liberalism” has to get its muscles from somewhere, and a Citizen Service run according to the public-school ethos is unlikely to provide it. It’s a position of such unmitigated imbecility that we ought to be profoundly embarrassed that our political leader is spouting such drivel in front of a high-powered international audience.
In conclusion – it’s a nasty, dishonest speech, aimed at appeasing the tabloid press and the fundamentalists and empire loyalists in Cameron’s own party. As a contribution to the debate over identity and nationality – where there are real questions to be discussed – it is negligible and will divide rather than promote the unity that Cameron claims to want. And it allows extremists on the far right to claim that Cameron has mainstreamed their agenda.