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When liberalism and pluralism conflict

by David Goodhart

When I visited Canada in early 2007, my one-week trip coincided with a flurry of media stories about potential or actual cultural conflict, mainly involving Muslims (Hérouxville resolution, whether hijab-wearing footballers could play on school teams and so on). As the editor of a London-based current affairs monthly – Prospect magazine – which has published a fair amount about such conflicts in Britain, this made me feel on familiar territory. In fact, I was in Canada because the High Commission in London had kindly sent me to talk to people about the state of Canadian multiculturalism. The timing was good – people were talking about little else.

Before I visited, my impression was that, unlike Britain, the tight control Canada keeps over skills of eligible immigrants meant that the country’s loudly proclaimed commitment to multiculturalism had scarcely been tested. When most migrants are well educated and Westernized and speak the majority language, minor cultural differences are easy enough to accommodate.

As Britain struggles to establish a postethnic civic citizenship, there were, I thought, things we could learn from Canada’s “civic religion” – its Charter of Rights, probationary periods for “landed immigrants,” citizenship ceremonies. Indeed, some of these things are already being absorbed into the British system. There were rather fewer things, I believed, that Canada’s multiculturalism could teach us in Britain, especially as we in recent times have been worrying about the erosion of a common culture in the face of growing ethnic segregation and the rise of both Muslim extremism and the far right.

In any case, what I discovered, or think I discovered, is that Anglo-Canada is a radical outlier relative to western Europe not in the reality of attitudes or policies about multiculturalism but in its multicultural rhetoric. The debate over allowing shari‘a law in Ontario – and the final decision not to do so – may have marked the high-water mark of Canadian multiculturalism. And Britain, despite the new scepticism about multiculturalism in public debate, remains at least as multicultural as Canada. Faith-based schools, for example, are less controversial in Britain than they seem to be in Anglo-Canada. And, admittedly a small example, I discovered that the Somalian practice of chewing the mildly narcotic khat is banned in Canada but allowed in Britain.

The main difference between Britain and Canada lies not so much in multiculturalism but in very different attitudes to immigration. The majority of Britons have always been sceptical about immigration; the recent surge in immigration to Britain may have been good for the economy but it has not been popular. By contrast, immigration is built into Anglo-Canada’s political and economic self-image and is viewed positively by a much larger proportion of the population than in Britain.

What Britain and Anglo-Canada do have in common is a rather fuzzy sense of national identity, and a dominant ethnic group that for various historical reasons has been content not to make its dominance explicit. This has, at least until recently, made the laissez-faire, cultural relativist, pro-minority, anti–dominant-culture rhetoric of multiculturalism rather attractive to a large proportion of the political and intellectual elite in both countries. But both countries also have strong liberal political cultures – indeed part of the national identity in both countries is expressed through this political culture. When minority cultures threaten liberalism, the limits of multiculturalism become quickly evident.

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About the Author

David Goodhart
David Goodhart is the editor of the London-based magazine Prospect.


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