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…