The Prime Minister talked on Saturday of the importance of having a shared sense of history, yet he chose to give his speech in Munich. If only he had visited Brent before berating the bürgermeisters of Bavaria with his musings on multi-culturalism. Here he would discover a community that speaks 160 different languages and still lives at peace with itself.
For over 60 years Brent has been a gateway into Britain for generations of refugees and economic migrants. Our Irish community came in the 1950s looking for construction jobs to rebuild Britain after the war. They joined the Jewish refugees who had fled from the jackboots that marched out of Munich in the 1930s. In the 60s, escaping poverty in the Caribbean came the West Indian citizens who staffed our health service and operated our public transport. They were followed by the victims of East African regimes like Idi Amin’s, who expelled the Asian traders originally from Gujarat and other parts of the Indian Sub-continent. In the 80s and 90s the break-up of the Soviet Union and wars from the Balkans to West Africa saw Afghans and Estonians, Kosovars and Congolese, Sri Lankans and Somali all came to Brent in search of security and prosperity. They did not all share the same history, but for the most part they shared a common experience. They had been victims of poverty, intolerance and often violence. They had experienced prejudice and fear and they were determined that their children should not.
David Cameron speaks of the need for shared values. In every piece of populist demagoguery there is always some small kernel of truth and this is his. But the shared values we need in the pluralist Britain of today are not those of old Etonian noblesse oblige, they are the very values that my constituents arrived in Brent precisely to assert: freedom of thought, freedom from fear, freedom to aspire, respect for human rights, respect for our fellow citizens and respect for their different conceptions of what it is to live a good life. Nobody values these things more than Britain’s immigrant communities because the lack of them is so often their history.
Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the world’s first self-consciously pluralist society recognised that there was no longer a single shared conception of “the good life”. That is why they spoke not of happiness but of “the pursuit of happiness”. Cameron is right to suggest that passive tolerance is simply not enough to inspire each of us to engage in the shared public institutions of society despite our own differing conceptions of the good. But he is wrong to replace this with what he calls “muscular liberalism”. The obedience to the rule of law that he demands, is a corollary of respect for one’s fellow citizens and it is this that people in Brent, Britain’s most ethnically diverse borough have come to learn. Nobody in Brent is a majority. Whether white English Jew, Indian Hindu or black Somali Moslem we know that to live together nobody can claim dominance nor should we. This is what our Prime Minister has still to learn.
There is no longer one shared British system of values. There was perhaps a time in post-war Britain when the Church of England was called the Tory Party at Prayer, The Archers was our model of the good life and every Englishman believed he had the right to look down on “Johnny Foreigner”. Cameron’s speech muddied multiculturalism with terrorism and extremist Islam. It made the fundamentalist Moslem the excuse for an attack on multiculturalism. His is not a way forward into a future where we recognise the dignity of our fellow citizens. It is an attempt to ignore the fact that we live in a globalised and pluralist world. In Brent we celebrate our pluralism. By doing so we strengthen the bonds of our community.