Cameron, multiculturalism and camping on seasaws

February 6, 2011

When a politician offers a simple idea on a complex issue it helps to examine possible concealed dilemmas. David Cameron’s speech announcing the failure of multiculturalism in the UK is a case in point

The argument has been developing that multiculturalism is a bad thing of itself. David Cameron appeared to be making it a significant part of Government policy to ‘do something’ about multiculturalism.

His speech [Feb 5th 2011] noted that “state multiculturalism” has failed society by encouraging different cultures to live separate lives from mainstream communities. Mr Cameron said multiculturalism had ended up promoting segregation, and that governments need to tackle the lack of identity in society, in order to tackle terrorism.

The Daily Mail was enthusiastic

The popularist Daily Mail newspaper was enthusiastic about the speech:

Mr Cameron set out the Government’s new hardline approach during a major speech on terrorism in Munich. He condemned the ‘soft Left’ who ‘lump all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances and arguing if only governments addressed them . . . terrorism would stop’. He blamed the ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’ for ‘encouraging different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream’ which has contributed to ‘the weakening of our collective identity’. Mr Cameron, calling for a new ‘muscular liberalism’, said all public funding would end for groups that give succour to extreme beliefs.

The speech prompted opposition anger

Mr Khan, the Shadow Justice Secretary, infuriated Downing Street by claiming that Mr Cameron was ‘writing propaganda for the English Defence League’, an anti-Islamist street protest movement that numbers BNP [a right wing political party] supporters among its members. The more liberal broadsheets such as The Independent were also unimpressed. Professor Miguel Martinez Lucio of Manchester Business School wrote

“The Government talks of a big society but is unable to understand the rich, complex democratic spaces within society to which immigrants and especially Muslims contribute.”


A better analysis might start from a view that complicated issues tend to present dilemmas. Maybe they are moral dilemmas. Maybe they are political ones. Each situation is worth examining to see behind the uncritical stance that something is bad and needs fixing and this is how we propose to fix it.

Multiculturalism or integration: Is it a matter of either/or?

I don’t think it is a matter of either multiculturalism of integration. To see why that might be the case, we need to look at theories of how systems operate.

Camping on sea saws

A wider way of thinking about complex social systems was offered by the distinguished American academic Bill Starbuck. Many years ago, he co-authored an important paper Camping on Seesaws: Prescriptions for a Self-Designing Organization.

The article deserves study by any student interested in how complex social systems such as organizations can be understood to organise themselves for effective survival. The authors were primarily referring to business organizations, although the conceptualization seems to valid even for the far more complex political systems of the Nation State.

Avoiding serious problems

The authors say that “serious future problems can be avoided by keeping processes dynamically balanced.”

The basic idea applied to our present case is that processes for retaining the cultural identities of the parts need to be in balance with processes for development of the wider integrated whole. The idea is lost in popularist demands either for ‘more respect for multiculturalism’ or for ‘stronger national identity’.