Sunday, 6 February 2011

'Muscular Liberalism' and other nonsense

Earlier this week David Cameron made a speech declaring that multiculturalism has failed in the UK and argued that the UK needs a stronger national identity. He criticised groups that promoted extremism and declared that the government would stop supporting groups that did little to combat such extremism, especially in the Muslim community. Most worryingly he called for more active, muscular liberalism. Not only does this display a frightening lack of understanding of the very concept of liberalism and all the trappings thereof, it is indicative of a distressingly illiberal attitude.

Mr Cameron’s comments assume that multiculturalism is some sort of policy that the state should either support or not. It is not. Indeed it is not something that can fail or not, nor is it in any way related to the concept of a national identity, which is, in itself, a worrying one. Multiculturalism is exactly what it says; it’s the mixing of different cultures. When multiple different cultures interact with each other, then we have multiculturalism. Multiculturalism cannot fail simply by virtue of the fact that there exist a multiplicity of different cultures in the world; a world in which it would be impossible for them not to communicate.

Of course one gets the feeling that the PM does not mean that. He does not mean that cultures are failing to communicate. To say so would be absurd; simply walk through any main street in England and you will see that it is not true. Even white people eating at Indian restaurants counts as multiculturalism. Mr Cameron is actually saying that he thinks the fact that Britain is a multicultural place is promoting extremism. Multiculturalism is not working to unite people and exclude the extremist; it is working to legitimise them.

Unfortunately Mr Cameron is, yet again, wrong. Mixing cultures is inevitably going to cause conflict. People disagree, and sometimes people fail to realise that there is nothing wrong with that. However this is not to say that we should not encourage different people to communicate and learn from each other. The more we encourage such communication, the more likely it is that people will realise that disagreement does not imply conflict.

Extremism arises from a sense of exclusion. People do not turn to violence because they feel their culture is being allowed too much freedom to interact with others. People become terrorists because they feel that their way of life is being ignored and oppressed by another’s. Mr Cameron’s call for a greater ‘national identity’ implies exactly that.

I said about seven months ago that I might write a blog about why nationalism is wrong some time; well this might serve as part of that. Mr Cameron’s call for a greater sense national identity is, in essence, a call for a greater sense of nationalism. It is the concept that people who live in Britain ought to feel that they most assuredly are British and should feel a certain pride at that fact. I’d question what exactly distinguishes someone as British. It seems simply to encompass where you live. A Brit is someone who lives in Britain, and what exactly is that? Britain is simply an area of land defined by a whole collection of events from history, encompassing wars, revolutions, and political evolution, reinforced by an awful lot of art. None of this is objective. This is simply the actions of humans, usually to no greater purpose that personal gain. A nation is nothing more than a collective history, confined by lines on a map. There is no difference between Brits, Germans, Indians or Chinese people except that they were born into different histories and in different places. They belong to different cultures, but they should not be defined by that culture. Nationalism seeks to define people not as individuals, but by where they live and which arbitrary, meaningless pieces of history their ancestors belonged to. The most insidious part about nationalism is that it divides people along those lines. We end up seeing Germans in the context of Germany, or Indians in the context of India. Nationalism stops us from looking at people as individuals and forces us to look at them through glasses tinted with their national stigma.

To promote nationalism in the UK would do exactly the opposite of what Mr Cameron desires. He wants to curb extremism by promoting a greater sense of national identity, but to create such a national identity would be to isolate and marginalise minorities, increasing the potential for extremism. A sense of national identity will not make people feel more involved and more welcome; you cannot force someone to love something, especially when it is so steeped in a history to which they do not belong. A sense of national identity will make Britain into an introspective, self-obsessed exclusion area where new people are not welcome and where not being British is a bad thing. That is exactly the kind of attitude that creates extremism; just look at America.

All of the above is caused by a misunderstanding of why Mr Cameron is there at all. His, and his government’s, role is not to promote multiculturalism or create a sense of national identity. Multiculturalism arises from the fact that there are many different cultures in the world and that borders are not walls. People move, people interact, cultures mix. It is a fact of life and that mixture is not something that can and should be controlled. Borders should never be walls and people should never be stopped from moving between them. The government is there to ensure that everybody’s rights are being protected, yet they persist in telling people what they can and cannot do.

Mr Cameron called for what he described as ‘muscular liberalism’. Again he shows a painful misunderstanding of what the concept of liberalism actually means. Liberalism is the idea that everyone should be free do say, do and think exactly what they like so long as those actions do not curb the freedom of another. Liberalism is the triumph of freedom over coercion, of choice over compulsion, of reason over force. To use the world ‘Liberalism’ in the same breath as ‘muscular’ implies that people ought to be forced to be free, compelled to choose and coerced to freedom. Such things are paradoxical and nonsensical. Muscular Liberalism is a meaningless phrase that implies something much more sinister that it sounds. It implies that we ought to force people to live our way; to substitute their values for ours and their way of life for ours. It implies that liberalism is the only right way to live and that we should force people to live it, despite the fact that a true liberal philosophy implies no such thing.

Of course we should not take Mr Cameron’s words to their logical extremes. Politicians rarely take anything to their logical ends and, while his speech sounded hard hitting, in reality very little will change. Rhetoric will alter slightly and some policies may change, but his words are mostly just that, words. They will not be followed up by actions. They never are, and that’s jut the nature of politics. I wish it weren’t, but that’s a whole different blog post.


  1. If only the right-wing nuts on my football forum would understand the argument you are putting across. Mind if I post a few snippets from it on the forum?

  2. go for it. Don't expect a coherent response though :P