Aidan Burley MP, the Conservative, caused a stir on Twitter when he referred to the Olympics opening ceremony, directed by Danny Boyle, as ‘leftie multicultural crap… Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!’. Obviously the sight of the brave Doreen Lawrence, inspiring Muhammad Ali, and the articulate Shami Chakrabarti touching the Olympics flag was just too much for him to stomach.
I beg to differ. The ceremony reminded me of why I am proud to be British. It said that Britain is as proud of its diversity in the modern world as it is of its vast intellectual, historical, religious and social heritage (an ode to the NHS, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, children belting out hymns – god bless; and Mr. Bean on piano doing Chariots of Fire all attest to this fact). Britain often strikes the balance between modernism and heritage perfectly. Danny Boyle was right to celebrate the striking of that balance – it was encapsulated in the visual of the flame passing onto youth. At that moment I was suddenly reminded of a line from an old postwar poem:
“Take up our quarrel with the foe. To you from failing hands we throw/The torch – be yours to hold it high –”
Suffice to say, I get a great deal from reading British poetry and Shakespeare, and I love the Rolling Stones. But I also get a great deal out from Asian heritage and identity – and have a real interest in learning about others’ cultures. I consider both of these things to be facets, not of my ‘Asian-ness’ – but of my Britishness. In short, there is no conflict between the existence of a multicultural, diverse society; and ‘red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones’. There is room for everyone’s Britishness, whoever they are, and that is exactly what the ceremony said.
When reflecting upon Burley’s comment is worth our revisiting that old chestnut of what, precisely, multiculturalism is. After some years spent grappling with it as an ideology I’ve realised that it isn’t an ideology at all. It’s a fact. Zadie Smith, writer of White Teeth, once said that multiculturalism wasn’t about how things in Britain should be:
“Multiculturalism as a policy or an ideology is something I have never understood. We don’t walk around our neighbourhood thinking how’s this experiment going? This is not how people live. It’s just a fact, a fact of life, and once people are able to move freely in the world, by plane or by boat, it’s an inevitability.”
Our markets, shops, restaurants, art galleries, photography exhibitions, and yes – our Olympian sporting events, are all the more richer and interesting for this fact. When we remove the veil of ideology it becomes transparent that any attack on multiculturalism means one would rather see all of this gone; a reversal to the times where diverse groups and communities did not exist. This is not a ‘leftie’ attitude. This is not even a conservative attitude. It is a regressive attitude. Anyone British who has their eyes even half open can just see that we are irreversibly touched by diversity.
The spin machine that says multiculturalism is an ideology and not a fact also suggests an aversion to facing up to reality – an aversion to realising that people are different. It suggests an aversion to recognising that we must develop and deliver services that are sensitive to these differences. Last week, I visited the Barnet Multicultural Community Centre, at which Hillary Benn MP spoke articulately about the need for greater and more effective community engagement and support. The elderly who are supported by the centre are from a range of BME cultural and religious backgrounds. They face language barriers and have culture-specific dietary requirements which only multicultural sensitive services are able to provide. The centre’s future is uncertain. If financial support to such specialised services is cut the consequence will only be greater expense in increased social care costs. Making the effort to understand difference will only benefit British society in the long run.
But there are more than simply economic reasons for being inclusive and sensitive to difference. The taxpayer who paid for this Olympic ceremony comes from all walks of life and contributes in their own way to the brilliantly rich sense of Britishness we have in the modern world. Damning the Olympics opening ceremony as ‘multicultural crap’ betrays a deep ignorance of this simple fact. It also betrays a deep ignorance and disrespect of the people who pay Mr Burley’s wage and who have put him in Parliament.
That is why he should now step down from public office.