Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Seeing the Bigger Picture

By mutual agreement Sunday for me is "family day", and the two most recent members of my family like nothing more than to spend it sprawled on the settee watching the television, or doing something similarly unadventurous. So when I travelled to Gunnersbury Park for the London Mela I did so alone, and on the understanding that my visitation would be a short one.

Organisers of the London Mela describe the event as "the biggest festival of South Asian music and culture to take place outside of the Indian sub-continent". The London Evening Standard takes the view that it is "a secret to be shared with the wider community". However it is described, each summer 75,000 people converge on Brentford for an afternoon of festivity, food and fun.

The Hospitality Tent is always a mixed blessing. It is very rude to turn down free food, however having consumed an appropriately sociable quantity of it one is invariably less disposed to sample the various dishes on sale around the field, notwithstanding the lure of the aggressively aromatic spices which make them rather difficult not to notice.

Some of my (non-ICG) colleagues on the council are a little cooler about the Mela than I am. The naked cynicism of the old council administration which lauded the Mela yet refused to recognise St. George's Day on the grounds that it was "racist" - a stance which, insultingly, it believed would impress the Asian community and thereby lock in its votes - has left scars which will take time to heal. There are some people, people whose commitment to cohesion and integration is no less than mine, who see the Mela in that context and with that memory in mind, as an expression of cultural triumphalism.

Speaking personally I take a much more optimistic view. For the Mela, in fact, places South Asian culture within the context of a Western environment. The layout of the stalls, which purveyed a welcome mixture of ethnic and indigenous wares, was more akin to that of a London market than an Eastern bazaar. Even the music which blared out rather too loudly from the huge stage under the direction of the DJ "Crash" (last year's Master of Ceremonies, the hilariously named "Abdul Cool", obviously had a prior engagement) came across as a curious blend of traditional bhangra and that repetitive rapping stuff that the kids seem to go for today.

On the bus going home it struck me, from a Community Cohesion perspective, what an opportunity we had missed a couple of years back with all that pernicious St. George's Day nonsense. Imagine 75,000 people attending a St. George's Day festival, bedecked with English flags and populated by British people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, with food, music and dance from South Asia, China, the Caribbean, as well as from the UK. A festival which would flaunt the proud Englishness of the diverse society which we enjoy today. What better way could there possibly be of putting across the message that we are an integrated community, contemptuous of prejudice and disharmony, diverse yet cohesive, brought together by the common values that unite us in a society in which Everybody Matters?

It isn't rocket science, but sometimes I feel like a voice in the wilderness railing unheard against the powerful but ultimately false dichotomy of diversity and integration.

A St. George's Day festival to celebrate multi-cultural Englishness in the 21st century. I wonder whether anybody will have the courage to suggest it?


revinkevin said...

Why don't you suggest it at the next council meeting?

St. George's day is becoming more and more popular and for one I am glad.

Any council in England that refuses to celebrate St. George's day should be ashamed of themselves.

friend and colleague said...

It would also help reassure those people who are suspicious of your motives in supporting the Mela. Some of your colleagues in the coalition think you are New Labour in a different wrapper, too much of this community cohesion stuff and not enough about what he have in common. Sorry but just being honest.

Tally said...

New Labour have used the racist cosh against all things English since coming to power. The cosh disguised their real agenda the abolition of England.They cannot stomache a St George's Day because
it draws attention to England's none position in the union.
Welcome to the Witan. I have included a link to letters to the editor if you and your readers would like to judge public attitude to an English Parliament over the last few years.

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

@ revinkevin and tally

Your contributions are welcome, although the rationale behind my suggestion was primarily to use St. George's Day as a way of promoting the cohesion agenda, emphasising the point that diversity is now very much implicit in our culture and that it, paradoxically, is something that serves to unite us.

With this in a mind a celebration of our shared Britishness would serve the same objective as one which promoted Englishness. In other words it's not the English v. British debate which drives my suggestion, but the underlying message that such a festival would give us the opportunity to promote.

@ friend and colleague

You never need to apologise to me for being honest but, with respect, the concerns you express have no logical basis. Community cohesion is about what we have in common.

The point I continually try to make is that it is not necessary for everybody to watch Eastenders and eat fish and chips to be united in a cohesive society. We should not fear diversity just so long as is properly subordinated to cohesion and integration in the overall scheme of things.

Rather than closing our eyes to diversity and refusing to acknowledge it in the belief that it is "New Labour", we should instead take ownership of the agenda and steer it away from the cynicism with which that party devalued it.

With a bit of imagination and common sense we can completely reshape the cohesion agenda in a way that compliments the whole concept of Everybody Matters. But we won't achieve this by putting our hands over our ears and eyes and just chanting slogans.

Surely that is the way our mutual opponents have always gone about things?

revinkevin said...

Britishness has no place on a St. George's day celebration.

St. George' day is an English not British celebration.

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

@ revinkevin

I agree, but you're still missing my point.

Zenobia said...

Phil - I have read your comments carefully, and I am afraid that maybe I am missing your point as well as revinkevin.

St George's Day is an English National Day, not a British one, a day which is intrinsically linked with English culture. What it appears you are suggesting, (and forgive me if I have got it wrong) - is that you want to use a traditionally ENGLISH Day, to allow all cultures to celebrate and highlight their own culture.

If this is correct, I think it would do little to reiforce diversity and much more to inculcate a further sense of outrage in the english, who already feel that their history, traditions and culture are valued less than others.

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

@ zenobia

So what is this English culture, which excludes the minorities that today make up a significant percentage of our population, that you would have us celebrate?

Anonymous said...

This difference of opinion clearly demonstrates what's wrong with our contemporary multi-racial society.
In years gone by, we had far more integration and precious little segregation and an agreeable balance seemed to be struck.
It's gone too far the other way now - we've ended up with communities sharing hardly anything in common and attempts to mean something to everyone often mean NOTHING to everyone.
What is our national identity now ?

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

But isn't that a product of New Labour's policy of divide and rule rather than being the fault of the minorities themselves?

Do you not agree that by claiming ownership of the cohesion agenda, rather than dismissing it out of hand or trying to tailor it to an irrational view of instant integration by denial, people of goodwill could restore the balance of which you speak?

I have read lots of criticism of the diversity within today's society, but little in the way of constructive suggestion as to how to address those criticisms.

Let's keep it simple to begin with and see if we can get somewhere from there - is community cohesion (a) a good thing, or (b) a bad thing? Serious question.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear, let's blame New Labour for EVERYTHING !
Regardless of how we've got here, would you not concede that the further 'diversity' is taken, the more divisive it becomes and less people are likely to embrace it ?

Anonymous said...

"St George's Day is an English National Day, not a British one, a day which is intrinsically linked with English culture." - Excuse me, St George is the patron saint of several different nations (he never even set foot in England).

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

"Regardless of how we've got here, would you not concede that the further 'diversity' is taken, the more divisive it becomes and less people are likely to embrace it ?"

If it isn't channeled into something more constructive - probably.

If we ignore it, pretend it isn't happening and just chant slogans in the hope that it will disappear - definitely.

Anonymous said...

It would be helpful if the other party to this debate would give us his or her name so we know what we're dealing with here.

Perferct Model Citizen said...

And this year's "Jeffrey Archer Award" for taking himself far too seriously goes to........

Anonymous said...

Baroness Warsi, you're a darlin' !
Couldn't agree more with your recent warning that certain initiatives supposed to promote and celebrate cultural diversity are in fact divisive and do "more harm than good".
J'accuse: Black History Month.
Considering it was initially foisted on the people of Hounslow whether they wanted it or not by the previous patronising Labour administration, I would've thought it would've been axed automatically by the Tories.
It serves no useful purpose, it is of no relevance whatsoever and the basic premise insults everyone, black and white.

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

I'm afraid don't altogether agree with you Anonymous.

Diversity is a fact of life. As I have said elsewhere on this blog it would be a boring world if we were all the same. With respect it's not diversity that is the problem. The problem is when diversity is promoted in such a way that it undermines cohesion.

Cohesion, to me at least, is not about trying to make everybody the same, far less about trying to make others the same as "us". It is about recognising diversity as a fact and then subordinating it within the greater objective of building a cohesive society.

In other words respecting differences but acknowledging that what unites us is more important.

Where I do agree with you is that New Labour's motives for promoting diversity over cohesion were pernicious and motivated by short-term political self-interest which took precedence over the greater good of the community.

But sometimes it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. What this administration needs to do is to take ownership of the agenda and steer it onto the right course, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

lorraine in spain said...

Phil, can't you see this is the Labour party trying to cause division between you and your coalition allies?

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

@ lorraine in spain

The anonymous post was not from anybody associated Labour. Hounslow Labour's MO does not involve raking up debates which show the ICG as being pro-cohesion. Hounslow Labour still believes there is political mileage to be extracted from pretending we are something entirely different.

I have no problem with having this debate. There are colleagues withint the coalition who take a different view to me on how cohesion is best achieved. It is healthy that we should be debating these issues out in the open.