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Governments often strategically scapegoat minorities and stoke fears of the ‘other’ to distract from their own failures. These are classic divide and rule tactics often used to protect the so-called elite.

But peddling hate with such drip drip regularity has an effect. So why when a whole country is undeniably built on multiculturalism do great swathes of the population fall for such a simple but cynical device and what are the means by which politicians have politicised multiculturalism?

Renegade Inc. discussed these issues with author, poet, artist and co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts UK, Zita Holbourne and playwright and former director of the Muslim Institute, Hassan Mahamdallie.

Cameron’s 2011 speech

Arguably, the backdrop to the current debates relating to multiculturalism pivot on a 2011 speech made by then British Prime Minister, David Cameron. In that speech, Cameron argued that multiculturalism had failed and that some Muslim community organisations had done little to combat extremism. For Hassan Mahamdallie, the context underpinning Cameron’s grandstanding was to definitively announce an end to multiculturalism and to conflate terrorist threats, security and the war on terror with debates around immigration. Cameron’s aim, according to Mahamdallie, was to place in the public mindset the notion of the ‘other’ – both settled immigrants/descendants of immigrants as well as people trying to reach UK shores – as internal and external threats.

Cameron’s conflation of terrorism and immigration has, since 2011, gradually coalesced into a national security framework. It has escalated to the extent that the strategy is currently viewed as a coded appeal to a racist base within the right-wing political and media establishment. Cameron’s ‘dog whistle’ tactic was simultaneously adopted by the Aznar government and by other right wing governments across Europe, all of whom declared the end of multiculturalism in their respective countries “as a way of appealing to the worst aspects of their base and to foreshadow…more stringent anti-immigration and anti asylum measures being passed through their domestic governments.”

You can’t turn the clock back

The claim that multiculturalism is dead has, of course, been greatly exaggerated. Such a claim is, in truth, a reflection of a divergence with respect to the ideological battle between contending definitions.

“In one sense”, says Mahamdallie, ” when he [Cameron] declared the end to multiculturalism, the first thing I thought is, you have no power to do that…You’re not going to be able to turn back the clock because multiculturalism in this country, across Europe and other countries, is a fact of life. In one sense the British government has never declared the beginning of multiculturalism let alone been able to declare the end of multiculturalism.”

Mahamdallie continued:

“Multiculturalism has happened because of historical, colonial links, that these Western countries have had with other places in the world. The old saying, ‘We are here because you were there’ [illustrates]…the nature of the relationship. The sucking in of a workforce from various places has been happening since [at least] World War II [during the rebuilding process]. And those populations having thought they had some allegiance to the ‘mother country’, as it’s romantically called, came here to work….And when they came…they made a living here [and] settled in communities.”

Mahamdallie added:

“In one sense, if you look at London from when I was growing up in the early 1960s, it was completely different than it is now. Then it was as though it was a black and white movie – a very grey kind of place with rationing. London is now the so-called multicultural capital of the world…We use their kind of phrasings – and that’s been a process of ordinary people actually, not engineering by governments. Ordinary people have grown multiculturalism from the roots.”

Divide and rule

Zita Holbourne emphasized how many of the positive messages relating to social inclusion within the context of multicultural diversity within communities were exploited, politically and ideologically, by Cameron in order to foment a culture of division and fear of the ‘other’.

Holbourne explained how the Tories divide and rule tactics work:

“Part of what he [Cameron] was doing was linked to austerity and cuts [a programme the Tories were delivering]….They wanted to detract from them being responsible for the cuts. They tried to blame a range of communities who migrated to the UK by saying it’s their fault that there’s no houses, no jobs, no resources. The Tories perpetuate the racist myth that immigrants “come here and drain everything”.

And so the argument becomes one in which the reason the country is struggling is the fault of the ‘other’. In Holbourne’s view, this was a very dishonest and dangerous argument Cameron peddled:

“It was very dishonest the way he did it”, says Holbourne, adding, “It was dangerous in that he sought to divide communities and point the finger at them effectively dividing black and white and migrant working class people, for example. These are communities that have been living side by side, working and forming families together.”

Holbourne envisages a concept of multiculturalism that transcends these kinds of narrow bonds but also acknowledges it’s a direct product of colonialism:

“You look at my son’s generation and most people say there’s no such thing as a pure English or a pure British person. Most people are mixed up with all sorts of things because of all these different communities who have settled. And it isn’t just since the Second World War, it’s across centuries. So it’s through invasion, colonialism and enslavement that we’ve ended up with a multicultural society. Anybody that tries to say, ‘Well I’m pure English and you’re this, that or the other’, it’s a complete nonsense. There’s always been migration to the UK. But it has also benefited the economy.”

Mahamdallie elaborated on the benefits migrants bring to the economy and society:

“If you think of the skills and labour that people have bought in, what would you do if all of those migrant communities left? There would be no infrastructure, the whole economy and country would collapse. It wouldn’t be able to survive without those migrant communities. You look at the NHS for example, doctors, nurses, specialists come from all over the world. There would be no NHS. And actually it was people who came from the Caribbean that held the NHS and London Transport up. “


“We shouldn’t forget that Britain sent civil servants out to Caribbean countries to directly recruit to come and work in those public sector jobs”, says Mahamdallie, adding, “so to imply that we are benefit scroungers and economic migrants who have just come here to steal jobs and to sponge off the state is a nonsense.”

Hostile environment & Windrush

The inculcation into the public mindset of racist policies that have resulted in the division and demonization of communities of the kind described, are indicative of the current Tory governments’ pernicious hostile environment policy:

“It’s symbolic of decades and decades of anti-immigration legislation”, posits Mahamdallie. “Taking people’s birthright away in terms of British passports, the notion that if you had white grandparents who were born in the UK then you could have a British passport, but if you came from India or the Asian subcontinent and the Caribbean and you didn’t have white grandparents you went through a completely different process. This screw has been tightened…for decades”, claims Mahamdallie, who links Cameron’s 2011 speech directly to the aformentioned hostile environment in the Home Office:

“It was deliberately engineered by Theresa May, says Mahamdallie. Moreover, the reason why the playwright and former director of the Muslim Institute believes it to be symbolic is due to the legacy of Windrush. “These are people”, says Mahamdallie, “who came to rebuild this country after World War ll who after 50/60/70 years found out that they’re not British citizens [and] that there’s different layers of British citizenship.”

Mahamdallie continued:

“The notion that people who, for their whole lives, have contributed to society and gone about their business in silent, industrious ways, suddenly find themselves not to be British after all and that they don’t really belong, must be devastating for those people”, he suggests.

Mahamadallie infers that the injustices suffered by the Windrush generation represents the tip of an iceberg:

“If you think about it, there’s been a whole history of heinous things which has happened under anti-immigration legislation. For example the testing of South Asian women coming over here, force testing for their virginity. Test – happened in the 1970s. And think about all the people locked up in detention centres. I mean we normalize it and we think that’s okay but can you imagine what it must be like to flee from a war torn country and end up in another prison being psychologically tortured in the UK.”

Zita Holbourne interjected citing arguments from inmates supporting the view that detention is worse than prison:

“I work with a lot of people that are facing deportation. I’m part of an organization campaign around Windrush and related injustice. What people who have been in detention or are in detention say is that it’s worse than a prison because if you’re in a prison you know how long your sentence is for.”

Holbourne continued:

“There’s going to come a point – or potentially come a point – where [those facing deportation] are going to be…chained up in the middle of the night, reminiscent of what happened during enslavement of African people – you are chained up, cuffed and forced onto a plane….There are people that have been deported and are destitute. I have calls from people who have no roof over their head, they’ve got nothing to eat and I’m having to link them up with a charity in a Caribbean country to get support. There’s a stigma attached to them because they’ve been labelled as criminals. People have been criminalized by virtue of their immigration status.”

Holbourne says that the system is impacting not just on previous generations but on every generation:

“The children and grandchildren of the Windrush generation are also being impacted by the hostile environment. They don’t have the protections that are supposed to be in place now for the Windrush generation. The only reason they have a link with Britain and have come to the UK is because a grandparent or a parent was of the Windrush generation and was invited here and came here to work.”


Furthermore, the author, poet and artist highlights the inhumanity that underpins UK government policy in this area:

“We have the government saying it doesn’t matter if you’ve been separated from your children” because, says Holbourne, “the government argue that children can be parented by Skype”, adding “We’re not even seen as human beings, our communities are not even seen as human. We’re seen as some kind of subhuman group that hasn’t got the same emotions or feelings as other people, and don’t experience trauma or recognise family units.”

Hassan Mahamdallie acknowledges that the ‘mainstream’ corporate press bare a large responsibility for the state of affairs described above. Mahamdallie points a cursory finger in the direction of Rupert Murdoch in relation to the coverage of the recent massacre in Christchurch:

“His tweet after Christchurch… basically said, “Until Muslims, all Muslims, denounce ISIS then they’re essentially fair game. The media have helped create this incredible anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, fascistic environment. There’s no doubt about it. They can’t wash their hands of it.”

What the hostile environment, the terrible fate of the Windrush generation and those of their relatives past and present, as well as the numerous historical injustices and the political and media establishments inhumanity, all highlight is the catastrophic nature of the economic system which, as Zita Holbourne points out, is “dividing families and destroying whole communities”

“There are people that are feeling that they’ve been lied to and betrayed who thought they were here as British citizens who thought that they were contributing to society, have worked hard all their life, have put in to their communities and literally just been criminalized by virtue of an immigration status which isn’t any fault of their own”, says Holbourne, adding:

“There are young people who are being deported right now who have never been through the criminal justice system, never been arrested for a crime. And the reason they’re been deported is because they’ve been stopped and searched repeatedly. The government has decided under Operation Nexus that if they’ve been stopped several times then the likelihood is that they did commit the crime that they’ve been stopped for. But we know that young black people are up to 32 times more likely to be stopped and searched in some London boroughs than their white counterparts because of the institutional racism in the police force and in the criminal justice system.”

Unholy alliance

In the view of Hassan Mahamdallie, the unholy alliance between political leadership and the press have helped engineer the conditions that have led to an unjust vilification of multiculturalism:

“They’ve deliberately engineered the notion in people’s minds that migrants, Muslims, minority groups, are somehow the enemy within. That’s what’s motivating people like the mass murderer in Christchurch to go about his work. But also you have to understand that legislation that governments are passing are doing the same job as well.”, asserts Mahamdallie.

Holbourne interjected:

“I think what we have to look at is the everyday racism – the institutional racism that we face – that has been driven by government and promoted by the media. These have created hostile policies in law and fueled hatred and division which allows far right fascist movements to grow and spread, It then ends up with the situation of this individual we’ve had in New Zealand.”

Holbourne acknowledges that whilst it’s important that tragic events such as that witnessed in New Zealand bring people together, they shouldn’t be a prerequisite for solidarity between communities. 

Where from here?

Mahamdallie argues that a dramatic shift in attitudes by the media and politicians is needed in terms of helping to depict communities more favorably rather than demonizing them. In this way, positive depictions help foster positive perceptions which then have a kind of circular reinforcement potential. Holbourne, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of positive interpretations of multiculturalism play in helping to foment cohesive and diverse communities.

“Zite is right, multicultural is just how we live. And whatever David Cameron or Theresa May says, we’re going to go on living our lives. But the danger is that as this terribly destructive political process pans out, there’s going to be casualties like the Windrush generation. We must say that’s not an inevitable process….We won’t pay… for the failures of the political elite”, says Mahamdallie.

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