Why are the political class shying away from a buzz word they created?
Addressing the annual Progress conference on Saturday, Ed Miliband declared that a “diverse, multi-ethnic Britain is one of the things that make our country great.”
I respectfully disagree. To define greatness in this way is appallingly lazy. By this definition, the greatest country in the world is Uganda, followed by Liberia and Madagascar. Ethnic diversity is an arbitrary measurement, and it says nothing about ‘greatness’. It is a good example of Ed Miliband’s style of politics. Front with no substance.
It’s not that I don’t value the contribution that people of different cultures have made to our country. I do. It’s the bastardisation of language that grates with me. The vocabulary used in this speech will have been chosen very carefully. The use of the term ‘multi-ethnic’ implies that ‘multiculturalism’ is no longer acceptable discourse. Why not? Have the effects of multiculturalism made the word itself too unsavoury for Ed Miliband? It seems churlish to point it out, but changing the word does not change the meaning.
The shifting goalposts of political correctness weaken the attempt to combat racism, sexism, or any other ism that needs combating. If you lose the word you have lost the argument.
What is multiculturalism, then? In theory it is a fairly harmless thing. It is the idea that multiple cultures can live together in harmony. Perhaps they could if the state would stop interfering. The term has been used to pacify a population that has experienced unprecedented levels of immigration. It is a term designed to be above reproach and suppress debate, because we are told it is a Good Thing. The idea is that if you disagree with it you are not worth listening to.
The problem for Ed Miliband is that so many people disagree with multiculturalism that the word has become tainted. It is inextricably linked with the unpopular policy of open door immigration. Some people disagree with it because they are racist. Some people disagree with it because they think Britain is full. Some people believe that we should all conform to the expectations of our national character. Some people (I include myself in this category) find the idea that immigrants are a useful source of cheap labour disgusting and insulting to immigrants. Taken together a lot of people dislike the idea, and this won’t change because it has been rebranded.
The way that a word is used depends on the merits of its meaning. The Big Society would not have been mocked relentlessly by the press if it had been a resounding success. This applies to multiculturalism. It has been a political disaster, and politicians are distancing themselves from it. Many of them still want it, but they want to call it something else so as not to appear to want it. This will not work. People are more intelligent than the political classes give them credit for. People can spot a red herring from a mile away, and a new term for the same approach is a red herring.
Abuse of multiculturalism is not the preserve of Labour and the Left, however. During the opening ceremony of the Olympics the Conservative MP Aiden Burley had a [link] stab at it too. His careless use of words disparaged multiculturalism (the Good Thing) without explanation. Admittedly this probably had something to do with the Twitter character limit, but I digress. In doing this he left himself open to criticism, because the statement that he made was so ambiguous. It looked like racism. The man who said it had been photographed a few months earlier dressed as a Nazi. With friends like that, who needs enemies? In the age of instant communication it is more important now than ever that people choose their words carefully.
Where was I? Back to shifting goalposts, I think. Near my old school there was a house that was once used as the Scottish headquarters of the Spastic Society. Although the charity changed its name to Scope in 1994, the engraved sign remained above the door. In a remarkably short period of time the word spastic had become an unspeakable insult. There is a big difference between this and the death of the term multiculturalism. In the case of the Spastic Society the word was taken from them and given a derogatory meaning by playground bullies. In the case of multiculturalism, its own proponents turned against it for political gain. I find that quite pathetic. If you believe in something you should be proud to believe in it, and not hide behind weasel words.
Until the meaning of the words change the goalposts will continue to move. Until politicians have the conviction to stand by their beliefs the English language will be manipulated, and perfectly decent words will be tarnished. Words are powerful weapons, and politicians would do well to point them in the right direction.
Daniel Jackson pushes paper at a London based centre-right think tank. Between meddling in the dark arts and raising his young family he occasionally tweets at @danieljksn