A fundamental difference over multiculturalism could be the issue that breaks the coalitionby Philip Collins / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Nick Clegg meets pupils at Mauldeth Road School, Manchester. Multiculturalism, according to him, involves “respect and communication”
At Prime Minister’s Questions recently, for the first time in an age, something interesting happened. While the prime minister was busy explaining why the sky would fall in if the country consented to change the electoral system, behind him the deputy prime minister was pulling a face and vigorously shaking his head. The coalition has entered a new phase, in which open disagreement is permissible.
Clarity is one of the unfortunate casualties of coalition. Privately, the Lib Dems in government cannot abide the Tory themes of family, faith and flag. The Conservatives wish the Lib Dems would be quiet about immigration and Europe. Partly out of courtesy and partly out of political necessity, both sides have a tendency to delete those sections in their speeches. The values that animate their politics tend to go missing; the consequence is that coalition seems like an intellectually bloodless compromise.
The truth is that Lib Dems and Conservatives come from different, and in some ways opposing political traditions. There is enough intellectual overlap and political will to ensure the divergence does not open into a chasm into which the government will fall. But the differences still count and, as the coalition matures, they will open up, especially on issues like crime. The home office has been a quiet department during the first year of the coalition. This cannot last. It never does. If crime starts to climb there is no question that conservative and liberal impulses will pull the coalition in opposite directions. Along with the NHS, crime could be the issue that divides the Conservative from his Lib Dem partner.
The tension is already audible in the speeches of the two party leaders. Recently, in an address to a conference on terrorism in Munich, David Cameron veered strangely from the topic at hand to his critique of British multiculturalism. He was answered a few weeks later by Clegg who chose Luton as his backdrop, the town of the banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun, the site of a recent march by the English Defence League and the place from which the 7/7 bombers departed for London. Naturally, the two speeches shared a lot and much good sense was said in the overlap. But the philosophical interest lies in the differences.
It was clear from Clegg’s words that liberals worry a great deal about proscribing certain parties, organisations, and people: “You don’t win a fight by leaving the ring… proscription must always be a last resort.” This is the authentic voice of the liberal speaking, embodying the philosophical point made by John Stuart Mill: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as a great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
The true conservative’s self-advertisement as a sceptic about the power of the state is quite inaccurate. He is much more certain that he knows what is good and right and, correspondingly, more eager to use the power of the state in the service of that certainty. Cameron is explicit: “We must ban preachers of hate from coming to our countries. We must also proscribe organisations that incite terrorism against people at home and abroad.”
Clegg’s account of multiculturalism is both positive and individualistic. Multiculturalism, he says, is “a process by which people respect and communicate with each other.” It is an open society in which “individuals are free to live in the manner of their choosing, so long as they do not harm others.” This is profoundly different from Cameron, who berates the “passively tolerant society which says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”
Quite what else citizens are obliged to do beyond obey the law Cameron never makes clear. More than a little fancifully, he also suggests that rootless young Muslim men are tempted towards terror because of the absence of a common view of British life to which they can subscribe. Unfortunately, the politician who demands state action in pursuit of cultural goals always encounters the same difficulty: what can he actually do? Having complained that Britain has a weak sense of identity, Cameron unveiled the National Citizen Service, a voluntary scheme by which 16 year olds from different backgrounds will spend two months together. He ends up in a place that is saved from being illiberal only by being useless.
The problem is that Cameron isolates those people who, in his words, “may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview including real hostility towards western democracy and liberal values.” The liberal would say simply that those people are free to think what they want, so long as they don’t act violently in pursuit of such thoughts. Clegg was happy to use Cameron’s term, “muscular liberalism,” but he did not mean that the state would be doing the flexing. On the contrary, says Clegg, “muscular liberals flex their muscles in open argument.”
Cameron is not so sanguine about the force of argument. He believes that engaging with people who think unpalatable thoughts is to lend them legitimacy. This issue was dramatised by the most recent Global Peace and Unity conference, which attracts 50,000 Muslims each year. Among the throng are, without question, some people with highly unsavoury views. The Conservative inclination was to send no representative. The Lib Dems in government thought it was important to be present in the congregation. The compromise was that Andrew Stunnell, the Lib Dem communities minister, attended.
Cameron likes to describe himself as a liberal conservative. This is not without meaning, as the former term qualifies the latter. But the two ideas will always be in tension. The thoroughgoing conservative takes an authoritarian view in response to crime. He says that tough sanctions will work as a deterrent to crime and, even if they don’t, criminals deserve what they get. Liberals are not necessarily limp on criminality—that is a caricature. But there is no doubt that, among Lib Dem activists, there will be more people disposed to worry about the causes of crime than might be found in the equivalent gathering of Conservatives.
For the moment, the tension can only be glimpsed in the margins of speeches, but it cannot stay there indefinitely. In his belief in a common way of life, and his assumption that he has the power to help this into being, Cameron speaks the language of conservatism down the ages; a tongue he shares with conservatives of the social democratic left. Clegg, meanwhile, makes the tougher case: that nasty ideas need to be argued away, not banned. It is the right one. The tension in the coalition is still creative, but if this is a liberal conservative government, the credit for the first term in that couplet belongs not to the prime minister, but to his deputy.