The Failure of British Multiculturalism (and the Need for a “Cultural Federalism”)

Responding to the rising threat of homegrown Islamic extremism, bloodily realized five summers ago, British prime minister David Cameron gave the following warning:

We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.

New York Magazine flags the broader message as, “multiculturalism has failed.” But to Cameron’s credit, the message is much more nuanced than that:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless, and the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology. The response should be a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them. If we are to defeat this threat, I believe it’s time to turn the page on the failed policies of the past … When a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.

When American conservatives speak of the “failure of multiculturalism,” the message is generally, as it was this past summer with the “Ground Zero mosque” fiasco, that certain foreign cultures are simply incompatible, in any iteration, with the American experiment. Cameron’s message is quite different. For one, he defines the problem differently. The problem isn’t the presence of Muslims, or cultural incompatibility in the abstract, but the failure of identified, specific communities to integrate. Cameron sees immigrant communities isolating themselves as islands within Britain, resisting integration, therefore leading to radicalization within communities, and resentment on all sides. His approach avoids the needless antagonism of the Republican formulation, and has an elegant, cooperative, and liberal solution: a stronger brand of “cultural federalism.”

Liberal nations may (and should) welcome newcomers, encourage their participation in the democracy, and embrace their contributions to the culture. But there is nothing illiberal with requiring that new cultures integrate with and accept the guiding precepts of the host nation. The difference is between a cultural autocracy, demanding absolute conformity and the abandonment of one’s ancient culture; a cultural confederacy, requiring simply loose allegiance to the host nation; and a culture federalism, under which newcomers should preserve their uniqueness, to enrich their new nation, but subscribe to the national “backbone” values, and take pride in their new role as Americans (or Britons), and the duties that that come with that label. Cultural autocracy is as alien to the liberal ideal as a patchwork cultural confederacy. Only respect for individual uniqueness, with allegiance to the overarching national norm of liberalism, can bring peace.


  1. “When American conservatives speak of the “failure of multiculturalism,” the message is generally…that certain foreign cultures are simply incompatible, in any iteration, with the American experiment.”

    I really, really, really disagree with that statement. I know Some Liberals probably like the way that sounds i.e. conservatives want to throw certain immigrants out because they are incompatible..but it just doesn’t jive with anything I know about my conservative bretheren. And before you cite anti-immigrant rhetoric in places like Arizona, let’s be clear that the opposition there is to illegal immigration, not ALL immigration.

    The complaint I hear (and would echo myself) is that ‘multiculturalism’ fails in the way that it doesn’t press immigrants hard enough to assimilate. I don’t see this as really a problem in the U.S because we generally create the right balance with immigrants. In Europe it seems to be problematic because of xenophobia that forces them into specific locales and a social network that allows them to survive without venturing outside those communities for work.

    1. I’m sure you disagree with the statement, and it’s greatly to your credit. But Newt Gingrich on Islam, say?

      1. I was specifically disagreeing with attributing that viewpoint to American conservatives. I just don’t see that attitude. I’m sure you can quote some Gingrich nonsense that complains about certain immigrants never being able to fit in but I don’t think that’s a majority opinion among conservatives.

  2. Don’t give Cameron too much credit. It all sounds very nice, but there are two problems. The first is what, exactly, constitutes “unacceptable views”. For instance, there is a significant number of people among Cameron’s voters who think that ‘being Muslm’ is an unacceptable view.

    The other one is that he’s mistaken when he attributes rootlessness, and thus radicalism, to the existence of parallel societies. People who are comfortable in a parallel society are almost by definition not rootless.

    The actual problem is that immigrants, and in particular their descendants, often have a very hard time fitting into either the mainstream society or their parents’ culture. Those people are indeed rootless, and thus vulnerable to radicalization. But of course, addressing that problem would be hard, so hey, let’s blame “multi-culturalism” instead.

  3. That’s an impressive (sounding) statement, and I was with Cameron until the end – But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.

    What a negative turn, to highlight the bad elements of your immigrant population. I have heard this is more of a problem in the UK, the polical correctness of not calling out minorities, but in the US we have exactly the opposite problem. White racists spout hatred with near-impunity, whereas minorities can’t even do innocent things, like build a mosque, without criticism (basically, the racists getting their way again).

  4. I think that stricter rules should be introduced as far as immigration in Britain is concerned. When you come to a Muslim country you also have to obey the rules that are very strict so why should the British people be more benevolent?

  5. Because totalitarianism is a low bar that free countries ought to want to exceed.

    1. Rather authoritarianism – with the possible exception of Iran, I can’t really think of any Muslim countries that are totalitarian.

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