Rishi Sunak is right: multiculturalism works

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What unites the following three countries: Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom? One answer is that all three are led by ethnic minority leaders: António Costa, Leo Varadkar, and Rishi Sunak. Another is that they are nations where the Turkish diaspora heavily rejected Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May’s elections.

These two facts are reliable signs of something that any liberal state should want to do: welcome new arrivals and integrate them into the country’s mores and cultures.

The elevation of Varadkar, Costa and Sunak tells us something about how welcoming those countries are to minorities. And the fact that 80 per cent of British Turks, 91 per cent of Irish Turks, and 95 per cent of those in Portugal chose opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, however reluctantly, also tells us something. As does the finding that in France and Germany, just a third of Turkish expatriates voted for Kılıçdaroğlu. Notably, neither country has had a member of an ethnic minority at the head of their government and neither looks close to doing so either any time soon.

That’s the reality that politicians such as UK home secretary Suella Braverman, former German chancellor Angela Merkel and ex-president of France Nicolas Sarkozy must confront when they say that the multicultural model has “failed”’. What, precisely, do they think success looks like?

Sunak, the UK prime minister, is right to say that Britain is a “fantastic multi-ethnic democracy”, and right, too, that there is a successful British model that manages to incorporate diversity and maintain the country’s values and traditions. What he is too modest to say is that he himself embodies that success. He is a practising Hindu and a committed monarchist who swore allegiance to King Charles on the back of the Bhagavad Gita. He enjoys mithai and the novels of Jilly Cooper.

But Sunak is not quite right when he says that it is “also a wonderful thing” that his becoming prime minister is “not a big deal”. It’s a good thing that outside of a smattering of tiresome bigots on left and right, his premiership has only been greeted positively. But it is less of a good thing that the UK hasn’t taken a moment to reflect on its successes, and that whenever British politicians talk about the UK model, it is largely to harp on its failures, whether real or imagined. 

That’s not to say that the UK model is perfect or comes without trade-offs. In my own neighbourhood of Hackney in north-east London, lower rates of vaccine take-up in the Charedi community (the largest outside Israel and the US) threatens the successful elimination of diseases such as mumps, diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Elsewhere in London, fears of witchcraft and demonic possession have led to child abuse among the capital’s black African population. In Bradford, a rise in preventable illnesses and infant deaths has been attributed to higher rates of cousin marriage among the city’s Pakistani community.

French critics of the UK model are right to say that the British approach presupposes and in some ways encourages parallel communities living side-by-side, rather than together. But France’s more muscular model of integration has not prevented the emergence of parallel communities there either. Indeed, it has proved rather more successful at preventing the emergence of French Rishi Sunaks than it has of French Hackneys or Bradfords.

The successful bet that the British model makes is that, over time, people choose freedom for themselves. But it faces two threats. The first is that while the assimilationist model is, ironically, worse at assimilating minorities, it appeals to the urge, common in democratic societies, for governments to Do Something about immigration. (That the Something is ineffective is besides the point.) The British model will always be under threat from politicians who want to look like they are doing something, or get good write-ups for supposedly dynamic action.

The second threat is that part of what has made the model work is a callous disregard for the downsides. The result of pretending there is no problem with vaccinations in Hackney, witchcraft in Thamesmead or genetic diseases in Bradford is they can be left to cause social harm that helps to undermine support for the UK’s multicultural model.

All too often, when called upon to defend that model, British politicians adopt a Panglossian tone that leaves the field open for those whose solution is simply to rip it up, despite its relative success. Yes, they should agree with Sunak — but just do so without illusions.

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