We are at a strange juncture in our national life. Disillusionment is rife. The New Labour bubble has inevitably burst. But there is no tidal wave in favour of Cameron’s compassionate credit-crunch Conservatism, which looks like the “prudent housewife” rhetoric of the 1970s. Unlike 1979, there seems little of the sea-change feeling.
Yet the accidie from which we are suffering is just as debilitating, especially when there are so many serious nettles to be grasped. One of these is community relations. While we should always be grateful to New Labour for exposing the muddle that passed for ’60s and ’70s multiculturalism, extended way beyond its sell-by date, history will perhaps be less kind to what it has attempted to do in addressing the issues.
A limping, fragmenting multiculturalism, with no real common good to transcend it and unite communities, has been replaced by an odd mix of new-style “minority-ethnic affirmative action” and (when the cracks in that seduction technique began to appear) old-style “Big Brother watching you” government interventionism (cloaked as “partnership working”). The latter state is worse than the former.
Affirmative action is carried out by throwing money at minorities, especially Asian Muslims, as a lifeline for them to join the multicultural enterprise, although this lifeline is being cast from a sinking ship.
As the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, suggests in The Home We Build Together: Recreating society (Continuum, 2007), we have moved from a country-house model of society — the host community in charge, and everyone else as paying guests — to a hotel version, where all have their own rooms and can do what they like, so long as they do not interfere with anyone else. What we need — as distinct from the present Government’s uneasy mix of approaches — is actually to work out what we are going to build together.
Many of the gatekeepers to the Muslim community have been intelligent enough to learn the new language of cohesion, but too few have shown any real commitment to its supposed fruit: “a community united and at ease with itself” (the line that New Labour adapted from John Major).
There are notable exceptions, and I work with one of them, and have many good friends among the others: people who truly want to address the issue of how to be a citizen and how to be a Muslim in a win-win way for all. But they are few — at least among the gatekeepers, who rarely prove themselves to be the welcoming friends we need them to be into their communities.
“Prevent” — the anti-terrorism initiative focused on Asian Muslims — has been a disaster. Many of us who have tried to assist with it have consistently said that if we want to prevent violent extremism, we should do it together. It is not simply a Muslim problem. There is the BNP.
Divide-and-rule New Labour also refuses to grapple with the question how on earth you can hope to build a cohesive society by hiving bits of it off either for “special treatment” (sweeteners for the gatekeepers) or “special attention” (a clip round the ear).
The pleas for a genuinely cohesive approach fall on deaf ears, and the results can be terrifying. A few years ago, an interfaith organisation was launched in a northern city. Alongside a very senior Christian leader sat a Muslim of almost equal stature. At the opening event, he spoke warmly of his commitment to interfaith work. In practice, though, his contribution has been almost non-existent: at best, lip-service; at worst, obstructionist.
A few months later, his platitudes were exposed, when The Times quoted a sermon he had given on a dar-uloom (Muslim seminary) website, denouncing all Western music as “Jewish and Satanic”.
I downloaded the sermon (before it was hastily removed), transcribed much of it, and wrote a letter to the scholar concerned, inviting him to reflect on these two events, and the large amounts of public money his organisation had received to enable him to propagate such nonsense.
He phoned to ask me not to judge him “by the worst, but by the best” of his faith — whatever that confused admission meant. One of his colleagues called to add: “He got carried away, as you do in sermons.”
I realise now that, by not making all this public, I colluded with a well-meaning but wrong-headed government approach that, too often in the past 12 years, has itself colluded with this kind of rubbish, while claiming at the same time to be addressing it.
Now I wish I had been more courageous — not least for the sake of the many Muslims and Christians whose commitment to a common good is genuine. They are by far and away in the majority, but their efforts are being strangled by a minority of manipulative but influential leaders.
These leaders do not sit on local-government committees — they send less vociferous representatives — but, behind the scenes, I have become aware of their tugging the strings, and pulling the rug out from underneath positive initiatives.
I have just heard news, for instance, that the founding chairwoman of a women’s group, which is doing amazing work to blow apart male Muslim intransigence over various social issues, is being less than subtly undermined by one of these leaders. He is putting pressure on other women in the group to oust its founder because she has posed too great a threat to his power base.
As we approach a General Election year, let’s stop using public cash as a way of favouring people and garnering votes. Let’s make people much more accountable for how they spend our money.
Let’s also use the Christian voice in a better way than I have used mine — not just to sanctify any initiative that seduces religious people to the government trough with the promise of a handout, but in a way that honours the integrity of a gospel imperative to build a kingdom fit for all.
This cannot be done simply by assisting people to learn a new language that they do not believe. It needs tough, honest dialogue, conversation that has less Westminster obfuscation and more of a northern edge. The time has come to call spades shovels. We do not have the cash to do otherwise.
The Revd Chris Chivers is Canon Chancellor of Blackburn Cathedral and Director of exChange,