David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism has aroused much criticism. But I have a problem with it that I think has been missed. It seems to me to commit a common political mistake - of willing an end, without having much idea of the means of achieving it.
I’m thinking of this:
Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.
This seems reasonable. The law sets out only minimal standards of morality. But all of us think that good conduct requires more than this. Cameron’s words remind me of this essay by Alan Finlayson:
It would be a cold and brittle society that relied on the law for the expression and support of all values…Just as in sport we recognize that something can be within the rules yet still condemned as unsporting, so too most people recognize that behaviour can be wrong even when it isn’t actually illegal.
So far, so good. But how do we actively promote liberal values? Of course, we speak, blog and campaign for them. But such activity is often mere self-expression which does not speak to the people who need convincing - those tempted to embrace Islamism.
Cameron’s “practical” proposals here - “making sure that immigrants speak the language of their new home and ensuring that people are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum” - don’t seem good enough. As Mehdi Hasan says, high-profile terrorists have been fluent English speakers. And some research suggests that Muslims who are well integrated - educated, economically successful and living in mixed areas - are more likely to strongly identify with their religion than less educated ones.
Which leaves me with a problem. Cameron is describing an ideal without having much idea how to achieve it - or, indeed, whether it can be achieved at all.
This failing, though, is not confined to his views on multiculturalism. The same thing is true of those who call for us to have an economy based on investment rather than finance, and of pretty much anyone who thinks a particular social problem requires a change in our culture. In all cases, what we have is a desire for ends without knowing the means of achieving it.
Idealistic daydreaming is not confined to the far left.