19 May 2000 - 21 May 2000

Making multicultural societies work

Chair: Baroness Usha Prashar CBE

Over the weekend of 19-21 May we met, as a diverse group from many backgrounds and cultures, to discuss the large question of how to make  multicultural societies work.

The first problem to preoccupy us, and discussion returned to it throughout the conference, was to find an adequate definition of multiculturalism.  We were told that there was, as yet, no fully developed political or social theory of multiculturalism.  We were also warned against thinking purely in terms of race or colour.  In a sense, in a globalising world, all nations and sovereign states were minority groups within a wider cultural space.  We were obliged to live, and be at ease with, many different identities – local, regional, national and international.  The advent of European citizenship had made this clear to all members of the EU.  In Britain the process of devolution had set in train a re-examination of what it meant to be British.

We looked at the historic progression of attitudes to minority communities.  Tolerance had been an early response followed by integration – in one sense the US motto – e pluribus unum – echoed this.  Assimilation had been another approach.  At the end of our analysis, however, many seemed to prefer the idea of celebrating cultural diversity.  But we recognised that this was not yet the majority view in many societies.  Nevertheless, if studies in other fields seemed to indicate that monocultures were potentially vulnerable to single threats or situations with which they were ill-equipped to cope, then diverse societies might be better able to find the talents and qualities which could help them thrive in a fast-moving and fluid world.

It was suggested that multiculturalism could be regarded as a threat or an opportunity.  Those who saw it as an opportunity took the view that it was a way of expanding human freedom.  One of its advantages was that exposure to a diversity of other cultures could lead to a deeper appreciation of one’s own.  Taken to its conclusion this would require not just tolerance and respect for others but even a need to cherish the differences between cultures.  At a less philosophical level it was argued that three ingredients were important in gaining acceptance of multiculturalism in a society.  The minorities themselves had to feel confident.  They needed to be helped to do this and needed to help themselves, both individually and collectively.  A feeling of threat should be absent, both for the minority as well as for the majority communities.  And finally there should be an appreciation of the benefits – cultural, economic and others – of a diverse society cooperating to mutual advantage.

Against this complex background we considered some of the instruments and organisations which could assist or retard the development of multicultural societies.

We looked first at the role of Governments.  Opinions were divided over whether Governments should reflect opinion in their societies or give a lead.  The majority view was that Governments should give a lead both in terms of the rhetoric they used as well as their actions.  Governments could insist that public services should cater to some extent for cultural differences.  Employment policies in the various branches of the Civil Service would give another strong indication of its attitude to multiculturalism.  Perhaps Governments’ most important task was to find the difficult balance between diversity and unity in a society.  Only Government could do this, we thought, because only a Government had the democratic authority to make such decisions.  This, however, raised a problem for some of us because, in a democracy, the majority view would be reflected in the composition of the Government which could therefore ignore, either deliberately or inadvertently, the views of minorities.  A reason, argued one participant, for trying to encourage a fair proportional representation in Parliament of minority communities.

This led us to consider the merits and roles of constitutions, the law and the judiciary in relation to multiculturalism.  A passionate advocate of constitutions claimed that constitutions could restrain as well as empower.  They acted as repositories of rights and obligations against the blinkered actions and short term interests of politicians.  It could be, as had been the case in the US, that rights anchored in the constitution might not be enforced because the majority view against their exercise prevailed at any one time.  But they remained available against the day that a determined civil rights campaigner like Martin Luther King coincided with a liberal Supreme Court judge like Earl Warren.

The UK, it was claimed, was about to receive a form of constitution when, later this year, the European Human Rights Convention was enacted into domestic law.  This, it was argued, would represent a statement of common values, a basis on which both the minorities could rely and in which the majority would have confidence.  But once again the question was raised – who decided on the human rights to be enacted.  If they were chosen by the majority, then might there not be prejudice to a minority?  Where should the line be drawn and by whom?  How should the refusal by Jehovah’s Witnesses to allow their children to receive a potentially life-saving blood transfusion or the practice of female circumcision among some groups, be treated?  We agreed that the question of group rights versus individual rights gave rise to great difficulties.  No hard and fast rules could be set.  Attitudes to gender, race, language and other attributes of minority groups, changed.  While we concluded that Governments had a duty to “draw the line”, it was not an immutable line.  If minorities could change public attitudes, then laws reflecting those changes would eventually be passed.

In these circumstances, we thought that an increasing burden of interpreting general laws in specific cases would fall on judges.  It would be desirable if the judiciary, without loss of quality, could reflect more or less the ethnic composition of their societies.  Experiments in Canada which allowed the Inuit community to operate their own courts, within the framework of Canadian laws, had proved remarkably successful.  Some cautioned against legislating unless it reflected “the settled will of the people”.  Others maintained that laws were in a sense symbolic and did change public attitudes in an incremental way.  Finally our attention was drawn to the fact that national parliaments were not the only source of legislation.  In the EU, the Strasbourg Parliament was entering this field with the possible effect, in the long term, of harmonising standards among EU member states.

Institutions came in for close scrutiny.  Their remarkable strength and ability to exclude alien cultures, was underlined.  One participant emphasised that it would be a mistake to assume that institutions only discriminated against colour or ethnicity.  They were perfectly capable of excluding members of their own society on grounds of background or class.  One answer, it was suggested, was that institutions should become reflective bodies capable of learning new ways of changing their practices.

The question was posed as to why some institutions changed more readily than others.  We did not find a complete answer although we identified some institutions in Britain and the US which had changed considerably.  In the US Army there were now over 300 non-white General Officers and the British Army was on track to achieve 7% recruitment from ethnic minorities.  Police forces in both countries had changed or were in the process of change.  Some general observations were made.  Institutions where the State had control were more amenable to state influence and instruction.  But, it was pointed out, what also mattered was the level in the organisations which minority workers reached.  Pressure for change could come from Governments but could also be generated by specific traumatic events which forced society to face up to ethnic or cultural discrimination.   A further comment was made about international institutions like UNESCO.  They had an important role to play in looking at many cultures and many experiments and in distilling and disseminating examples of best practice.  Finally we looked at a good example of the law of unintended consequences.  Large business corporations were finding economic advantage in employing talented workers from all backgrounds.  They were also susceptible to consumer pressure to introduce fair employment policies.  Both pressures had achieved, in a very short time, large changes in practice and attitude in what had previously been relatively impervious structures.

Not surprisingly education was seen as a major determinant in attitudes to other cultures.  What was taught, how it was taught and to whom, were all considered to be important factors in enabling young people to understand and accept a range of opinions and attitudes.  Unfortunately it was possible that what was taught at school could be reversed on leaving school.  One participant regretted the segregation of children into single faith schools, Muslim schools, Christian schools, Jewish Schools, which, although they reflected parental choice, nevertheless meant that young people could grow up without meeting people from other cultures and ethnic backgrounds.  Another commented that, although potentially capable of providing inclusive and tolerant systems of values, religions had often been used as pretexts for division and discrimination.

The media was seen as playing a crucial role, for good or ill.  The way in which ethnic minorities were described in some of the popular press in Britain was thought to exacerbate tensions and mistrust.  There were, however, opportunities for minority groups if they were prepared to exploit some of the characteristics, including laziness, of the media industry.  Carefully researched and balanced pieces written by ethnic minorities were likely to be accepted by correspondents with minimal editorial changes.  It was pointed out that minority communities in the USA had targeted the media to ensure that biased comment was not allowed to go without objection.  They had also encouraged and helped members of these minority groups to reach senior positions in the writing and TV media.  This coupled with similar encouragement for their sons and daughters to enter influential professions like the law and politics, meant that their views could not be ignored.  We also discussed the increasing influence of the IT revolution.  The internet linked groups and transferred ideas and experience within countries and transnationally in a way which had hitherto been impossible.  Young people, whose alienation from, or indifference to, traditional political parties we regretted, were increasing rallying to single issue groups on the internet.

Looking back at what had been a fascinating pooling of experience and ideas we concluded that multiculturalism was a moving picture not a snapshot.  No-one could be certain of the outcome of widespread intercultural penetration.  There were dreadful examples like Sri Lanka or Yugoslavia where apparently well ordered multi-ethnic societies had descended into violence and bloodshed.  We were grappling with the intensely difficult question of balancing diversity and equality against a background of accelerating change which we called globalisation.  We were beginning to understand the importance not only of a deep sense of personal identity but the fact of multiple identities.  We needed a strong legal framework, and strong leadership, from politicians and other leaders in society.  Accountability and a sense of justice, as well as a sense of belonging to a community, were important.  Education faced the challenge of equipping young people to manage uncertainty and diversity.

In a subject as wide and as rich as this, we acknowledged that we had not had time to consider the question of immigration adequately nor had we given enough time to positive action programmes which had worked in some countries.  We also were reminded that our discussion had been somewhat anglo-centric.  Experience and attitudes in other countries, some in Europe, would not necessarily chime with those in Britain or the USA where, we were reminded by one participant, we at least had the luxury of discussing solutions in terms of action by willing and committed governments.

We were told of a report on multiculturalism in Britain which would be published later this year and looked forward to seeing what conclusions this eminent body might draw and whether they coincided with, or diverged from, the views we had expressed at Ditchley.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Baroness Usha Prashar CBE
Mr John A Fraser

Master, Massey College, University of Toronto.

Mme Céline Sachs-Jeantet

City Planner and Senior Lecturer, Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Paris.

Professor Abdurrahman Momin

Head, Department of Sociology, University of Bombay.
Professor Bhikhu Parekh
Emeritus Professor of Political Theory, The University of Hull.

Dr Nils R Muiznieks
Director, Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

Dr Qudsia Chandran

General Practitioner, Nottingham.

Dr Raj Chandran

Commissioner, Commission for Racial Equality.

Professor Muhammed Anwar

Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick.
Mr Ashish Bhatt
Special Assistant to the Rt Hon Paul Boateng MP, Minister of State, The Home Office.
Dr Carolyn Browne
Head, Human Rights Policy Department, Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Brigadier Andrew Craig OBE
Commander, Recruiting, Army Training and Recruiting Agency.
Mr Glyn Ford
Member, European Parliament.
Professor Paul A Singh Ghuman
Department of Education, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Dr Simon Green
Lecturer in European Studies, University of Portsmouth.
Professor Bob Hepple QC
Master, Clare College, Cambridge.
Mr Gerard Lemos
Partner, Lemos and Crane.
Dr Shamit Saggar
Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.
Mr Anthony Sampson
Writer and journalist.
Mr Robin Searle
Assistant Chief Constable, Nottinghamshire Police.
Miss Carolyn Sinclair
Director, Constitutional and Community, Home Office.
Mr Linbert Spencer
Minority Ethnic Liaison Team, Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Mr Henry Steel CMG OBE
Consultant to Foreign & Commonwealth Office on Human Rights reporting.
Professor Sally Tomlinson
Research Associate, Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford.
Baroness Whitaker
Life Peer.
Ms Lorna Whyte
Youth Justice Board for England and Wales.

Ms Gail Larminaux

Program Specialist (Intercultural Dialogue), UNESCO.

The Reverend Dr Calvin O Butts III

President, State University of New York, College at Old Westbury.
Mr Randy A Daniels
Managing Partner, Canyon/Johnson Urban Fund.
Mr Peter C Garcia
Chicanos Por la Causa Inc.
Professor William R Hutchison
School of Divinity, Harvard University.