Tony Blair is back again. And this time, he has bright ideas about how to defeat the far right – by forcing migrants to integrate, and focusing on civic education around ‘British values.’ He is trying to rehabilitate failed ideas of integration – but a brief look at his tenure in office and its legacy shows how policies justified by the same means have alienated minorities, driven up social inequality, and further normalised a distinctly far-right world picture which paints migrants and BAME people as the problem.
In July 2005, just days after the 7/7 terror attacks, Tony Blair called a delegation of senior Muslim community leaders to 10 Downing Street in what appeared a gesture towards a show of national unity. He was seeking confirmation of the position that these bombings were neither a consequence of British foreign policy, nor an expression of Islam, but rather the product of an extremist ideology that all present were invested in defeating. He also wanted the people gathered to acknowledge that it was from their Muslim community that the problem had arisen and the business that he charged them with was to take responsibility for finding out why, so that collectively a solution could be achieved.
Designated as the Preventing Violent Extremism Taskforce, the group reported back within weeks with a list of 4 factors that its members had agreed on as underlying causes of extremism. Largely social and economic, they included inequality, deprivation and discrimination, but there was also foreign policy, that moot point of the political that was meant to remain off the agenda. Shortly after, Blair called a press conference in which, at length, and suggesting the full support of this taskforce, he proceeded to jettison their recommendations altogether, outlining instead a bold new approach to counter-extremism, founded on the institutionalisation of a distinction between moderate and radical Islam. One, he said, could be found compatible with British values, the other not.
In a sense that moment marked the end of an illusion. Central to New Labour’s rise to power had been a new narrative of nation, crassly spun out as “Cool Brittania” and Robin Cook’s ode to tikka masala, but a narrative, in any case, that lay in stark distinction to the racist overtones of a Conservative party that had never really demonstrated itself at ease with Britain’s multicultural reality. The Conservatives were a party where people still believed that your citizenship could be linked to the international cricket team you supported. New Labour’s modernisers, for all their faults, had promptly put in place an inquiry into the Met Police’s handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. That report would recognise, momentously, the truth of institutional racism that is a daily fact of life for Black British citizens.
The writing was on the wall though from very early on. The 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, for example, would establish the idea that your Britishness could now be filtered through (much like a school exam) a Citizenship Test and it was actually in November 2005, as new counter-extremism measures were coming into effect, that the Life in the UK Test was finally introduced as well.
Blair’s impulse though, that July, to seek counsel from and co-operation with Muslim leaders in his response to 7/7 was, in a sense, a final gesture towards that multicultural vision that had launched him into power 8 years before. It gave way, perhaps predictably, to tokenism and that inability to follow through on this impulse, the old tactic, instead, of exploiting the idea of Britain and Britishness to steer a tricky political course, is very much part of the legacy that we are still dealing with to this day.
Because what is a British value exactly? Who gets to be the judge of that? And over who?
These are the questions that, over the next 5 years, Labour governments struggled to define as most members of the taskforce that had been convened after 7/7 (including the Muslim Council of Britain, the organisation placed effectively at the head of it) responded passionately against the logic of this new approach, arguing that it would only alienate British Muslims further, that it would feed the causes of extremism at the root.
The government did not listen. Instead, their policies propped up divisions and institutionalised an exclusionary picture of ‘British values’ which easily cleaved to far right. This didn’t work at tackling ‘extremism’. And it certainly didn’t diminish the threat of the far right. Instead, it helped normalise their racist world picture: that true Britishness, and the health of the nation, was defined against the spectral threat of Muslim influence.
Relations between the government and organisations like the MCB grew increasingly strained until, in 2009, shortly after the divisive events of Operation Cast-Lead in Gaza, communication channels were severed entirely (by the government).
Instead, under the PREVENT strategy, generous funding was made available to Muslim community organisations ready to accept the government’s premise of counter-extremism based on the defence of British values. Part of a bid to establish a new Muslim leadership for the nation, the same logic, however, increasingly began to reflect itself in the rhetoric and organisational strategy of Britain’s far-right. Tommy Robinson, for example, who founded the English Defence League in 2009, has described how he was inspired to do so by the sight of Muslim extremists protesting in Luton against the War in Afghanistan. The story of Britishness at odds with a kind of enemy within was itself beginning to evolve from an apparently moderate to a more extremist form.
Then came the election of 2010. Labour fell, and the coalition government was formed, and under the leadership of David Cameron, this question of Britishness, of what’s a British value, began to assume greater clarity as, just months into his premiership, Cameron expounded his theory that it was multiculturalism itself that had failed, that the practice of state multiculturalism had led to segregation when what we needed was integration. While Cameron delivered this message, speaking at an intergovernmental security conference in Munich, at the same time, in Luton, the EDL was on the march again and, when asked to comment, by a news reporter, on David Cameron’s speech, Robinson was ebullient, telling him: “David Cameron is saying what we’re saying… ’cos he knows where his base is.”
It’s important to recognise that the spike in racially motivated hate crime that followed the Brexit referendum this summer is part of a continuous trend that, carried by the twin phenomenon of an emboldened far right, has seen hate crime in Britain rise year-on-year since 2010. It was this story, in fact, that Jo Cox MP had been preparing to present in the House of Commons when, just days before the EU referendum, she was murdered outside her constituency surgery in Birstall.
What she was planning to tell us was that 2015 had seen an 80% rise in anti-Muslim attacks across Britain, that it was a cause for serious concern that her native Yorkshire was becoming a “hot-bed of far-right activity”. When, weeks later, her murderer identified himself in court with the phrase, “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, he was effectively articulating the radical edge of a narrative that pits loyalty to Britain at odds with the multicultural values that Jo Cox was working to defend.
It’s important to recognise too that this is a narrative that has been on the ascendant for more than a decade now. One to which successive British governments have helped to lend an air of respectability. When David Cameron tells us, for example, as he did in July 2015 in front of an audience of Asian school children in Birmingham, that “our values are so great that we should want to enforce them for all”, isn’t he speaking precisely of a kind of nationalism that doesn’t readily embrace difference at all, one that proudly, even forcefully, imposes itself on otherness and others?
And when Theresa May speaks, as she has done in relation to the Citizenship Test, of focus on the “values and principles at the heart of being British”, what is it that she is referring to exactly? According to an IPSOS Mori poll commissioned by Channel 4, 7 out of 10 British citizens consistently fail that test. The dominant narrative of nation that we have inherited today is an impossible dream. Its logic points inexorably towards a kind of anti-nation, one that seeks to discriminate where it should attempt to unify. It’s a path that points ineluctably towards violence.
Sadly, this narrative was the domain of both camps during the Brexit referendum, as visible in the insignia of Remain’s “Britain Stronger In” posters as in Leave’s “Boiling Point” campaign. Little wonder then that a festival of violence was what followed. The referendum was, in many ways, a kind of celebration of a vision of Britain and Britishness that doesn’t add up, a broken promise, one that breeds, invariably, an irrational response.
When Tony Blair steps forward to talk about the importance of ‘integration’ and ‘unity’ – strengthening ‘British values’ in order to beat back the threat of the far right, it can look innocuous enough. But the straight line between his divisive policies and the hyper-nationalist narratives at the heart of today’s government betrays just how quickly an attachment to reactionary ideas of ‘British values’ becomes an excuse for xenophobia. His commitments to unity are shallow and counterproductive – belied by a policy record of marginalising migrants and doubling down on racial divisions. His prescriptions simply don’t work to combat the threats of extremism. They prop up far right discourse about migrants failing to integrate, whilst brushing aside real evidenced-based solutions.
We urgently need new narratives of nation, better ones. We need stories that awaken us to the cause of our collectivity rather than, like they used to say of the empire, divide and rule. In July 2005, sent away to consider where to start on tackling extremism within its own community, a delegation of Muslim leaders came back with the suggestion of 4 key factors that, if taken seriously, might help to forge a more cohesive society in their own backyard. These were: inequality, discrimination, deprivation, and foreign policy. Key issues touching the lives of millions of Britons, irrespective of their ideological commitments. If we want to start healing the divides in our society, and truly combatting the far right – we need to be looking beyond easy soundbites about integration. We need to focus on combatting the socio-economic causes at the heart of our overlapping crises, and using those to tell a better, more hopeful, more just story about what our nation could look like.
A version of this article was originally published in Soundings 64
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