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.