Britain's race relations chief Trevor Phillips was attacked by politicians, community leaders and commentators yesterday after he called for the country to abandon its attempts to be more multicultural.
In a newspaper interview the head of the Commission for Racial Equality said that 'multiculturalism suggests separateness' and added that the UK should strive towards a more homogeneous culture with 'common values ... the common currency of the English language, honouring the culture of these islands, like Shakespeare and Dickens'.
His views drew stinging retorts yesterday. Lord Taylor of Warwick, the black Conservative peer, described Phillips as too right wing. 'If you take his line to its fullest extent you are going to get a situation like the one in France where they are banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves. It certainly wouldn't work in Britain.'
And the idea of imposing British values on the country's different racial groups was likened by the Asian Labour MP Keith Vaz to the work of Christian missionaries. 'Britishness cannot be imposed on people of different races, cultures and religions,' he said. 'In Britain's multicultural society differences are celebrated, not exploited. It has been a great achievement - the envy of Europe.'
Phillips's remark that 'people should be allowed to be a bit different' drew a stinging response from Lord Herman Ouseley, former head of the Commission and current chairman of Kick Racism out of Football. He said the idea of allowing people to be different was 'a load of nonsense'.
'We have differences whether we like it or not. Even if you take black and brown out of it there are still different ages, classes and locations. Most people who come here as migrants have a sense of Britishness but also a recognition that there are different cultures.'
There were also murmurings by members of the Muslim community who said they felt Phillips's comments were aimed directly at them. 'We should not have to hold the whole society hostage by forcing them to keep to one strict culture,' said Riaz Ahmed, who was the mayor of Oldham during the height of the racial tensions in the town. 'Britain is rightly a multicultural society - why do we want to kill it off when most black and Asian people consider themselves British, obey the laws but retain some of their heritage?'
The Muslim Council of Britain also said it was concerned. A spokesman said: 'It is a major statement with profound policy implications. We need to speak to Trevor himself, but at first glance his comments appear to be too Muslim specific when we are already under so much pressure.'
However, there was some support for Phillips. David Lammy, the Constitutional Affairs Minister and one of Labour's leading young black politicians, said multiculturalism was in danger of encouraging polarised communities living separately alongside each other. He said multiculturalism had 'served us well in the past' but second- and third-generation immigrants wanted something different. 'Young ethnic minority people in this country feel as British as anyone - in fact the majority were born in this country,' he told The Observer . 'What Trevor's saying is that having been born and raised here, I feel passionate about this country and I find it really worrying when I come across young people my age - Muslims - who are not able to feel as included as I do.'
The editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart - who recently caused a stir with essays along a similar line - said he thought Phillips was merely stating the obvious. 'We need to strike a balance between diversity and the common culture. Over the past 20 years the Left have often forgotten the latter.'
Right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton also agreed: 'Multiculturalism is a recipe for disintegration and instead we should have a common culture that also embraces differences. I welcome this because previously heads of the commission have been in favour of not just multiculturalism but have made blanket accusations against the white majority for being racist.'