Ed Miliband has something of a knack for finding interesting “gurus,” from American academic Michael Sandel to community organising expert Arnie Graf. Now another one, Harvard scholar Danielle Allen, may have created a vital tool in the effort to build greater unity in our deeply diverse society. Her work on “political friendships” could help to guide British policymakers in forging a more practical multiculturalism, as my report for Theos, Making Multiculturalism Work, argues.
For Allen, the grassroots relationships needed to connect people of disparate backgrounds are not quite the same as traditional friendships. “I do not argue that we should all just be friends,” she says, for “[Political] Friendship is not an emotion, but a practice: a set of hard-won, complicated habits used to bridge differences of personality, experience and aspiration.”
This focus on localised relationships and the skills needed to build them makes a refreshing change from the usual debate on multiculturalism, which is far too often an abstract realm inhabited by self-appointed “experts.” As debates rage in ivory towers about whether to replace “multiculturalism” with “interculturalism” or how to define “Britishness,” on the streets tensions are rarely far from the surface—as seen in the EDL marches following the recent Woolwich attack. That’s why my research focused on two projects that are already proving successful in building political friendships in diverse areas—the government-funded Near Neighbours programme and the civil society campaigning of community organising as practiced by Citizens UK.
One of the most noticeable features of these projects is their focus on working together. “Dialogue” is all very well, but if there is no tangible common action then it is hard to create any sense of shared destiny. Near Neighbours is a good example of how governments can help in this—giving small grants with the sole criterion that projects bring people together from different faiths or ethnicities. This allows people to engage in the ways that make sense to them, without anybody telling them what they should be doing or how.
If people are going to get beyond surface level co-operation they need to be free to share their deepest motivations. Citizens UK has been quick to recognise this, giving its participants chances to share “testimony” in public meetings. This often involves personal stories, where themes that aren’t always permitted in public like family and faith are particularly in evidence. The result is that campaigners can trust each other to stick together when challenges arise because they know exactly what their collective efforts represent to each person involved.
Pursuing political friendships across difference is likely to lead to some tough choices. For too long political parties have been paranoid about who counts as “acceptable” to work alongside, with those that don’t pass a “progressive test” barred from serious engagement. The reality is that refusing to work with people is hardly likely to result in the softening of extreme views, and the experience of Near Neighbours and community organising is that unlikely alliances can have a transformative effect on all involved. They have pioneered a different approach by using “relational” rather than “progressive” tests—picking partners according to whether they can work with others rather than whether they tick the right ideological boxes.
In the same way, a renewed openness to core motivations will challenge those who claim that discussion of religion in public is inherently divisive. Near Neighbours and Citizens UK have found instead that people are more than capable of handling fundamental disagreements without having to stop working together. Political friendship is not tested by how well we can avoid areas of dispute, but how we deal with them when they come up.
These more practical approaches to multiculturalism put political friendships above new paradigms and clever one-liners. Given their divergent political homes—Near Neighbours is a coalition creation whilst community organising has been embraced by Labour—it will be interesting to see whether it will be Ed Miliband or David Cameron who embraces this approach as the way to turn Britain’s deep diversity into a source of strength rather than a flashpoint for extremist agitators.