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Sunday, 6 February 2011

Cameron's "muscular liberalism"

David Cameron’s speech in Munich yesterday has grabbed headlines. The Prime Minister stating that the “state doctrine of multiculturalism” has “failed” provides a memorable and thought-provoking strap-line for his speech. It should provoke a lot of soul-searching.


Declaring multiculturalism as having failed would not always have been this easy. Tolerant Brits – and there are many of us – would have seen criticising multiculturalism as in itself some kind of attack on Britain, akin to bashing the NHS or the BBC. The multiculturalism that Cameron claims is now harming Britain, was once seen as a very British trait – of treading a careful and tolerant middle ground, not wishing to offend or be extreme.


Now, Cameron says this British trait is a threat to Britain. His remarks prioritised combating Islamist violent extremism as the driver for a re-think. But, in what was a short speech, the link between different cultures leading separate lives and extremists who threaten our national security was not sufficiently clear. Cameron said we should do more to tackle hate preachers. He said we should do more to tackle forced marriages, where the weakness of our challenge “reinforces a feeling that not enough is shared”.


It was a short speech in which Cameron dashed quickly across a political minefield. The basic summary of the speech – that we need to find a more cohesive approach to glue our society together – is right. And we probably do the “muscular liberalism” that he spoke of – arguing strongly for the liberal values that are part of British society.


This is still a problem in search of a solution. The most pressing need is for there to be a higher quality debate. Less polarised. Less defensive both within the Muslim community and outside it. But I can’t help feeling that arguing for greater community integration in the context of tackling violent Islamist extremism, will only make that task harder. It is broader than that. It involves isolating extremists on both sides – including the thousands of English Defence League activists who crowded the streets of Luton yesterday.


If “muscular liberalism” is to work, it cannot point the finger at one part of society. To do so risks entrenching separate communities further. They are defensive. They are polarised. We must criticise where criticism is necessary, but as Cameron says “we are all in this together”. So, Cameron’s approach of saying “to belong here is to believe in these things” needs to apply to everyone – including the dinner party Islamophobes identified by Baroness Warsi who polarise the debate further by failing to separate religion from political ideology.


And if we are to flex our liberal muscles more – it needs to be as much about what values we believe in, as the values we put into practice. It is no coincidence that the majority of areas in which there are racial tensions are deprived areas, where the fight for public services and jobs is more acute. We need a wide debate, but actions will be as important as words.

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