Bilimoria Lecture – Lord Dholakia

Bilimoria Lecture – by Lord Dholakia
23rd October 2008

I feel humble and honoured to be invited to give the first General Bilimoria Lecture today.
The subject I have chosen is the thorny issue of Identity and Spirituality in a multicultural society.

My association with the Bilimoria family goes a long way.
General Bilimoria had a glittering military career.
I knew his as a man of considerable wisdom and thoughtfulness.
We all know of the Zoroastrian Community and their contribution to the development of the economic prosperity of India but the community has also excelled in other diverse areas of our civic life.

Look at the valuable contribution they have made in preserving the cultural heritage of India, look at the way they excelled in safeguarding our environment.

Put together, the community is the acceptable face of secular India and General Bilimoria is no exception.
It was a delight to entertain the General’s family in the Lords’. He had an infectious sense of humour delightfully counterbalanced in a majestic way by, Yasmin, his wife.

Also, let me not forget Karan who was elevated to the House of Lords in May 2006. He has never looked back since and now contributes so much to the political life of the country.

My thanks go also to the Temenos Academy.

This remarkable educational charity aims to offer education in philosophy and the arts in the light of sacred traditions of both the East and the West.

More importantly, they are committed to the “perennial philosophy” – the learning of the imagination. Their central theme is that spiritual needs have to be nourished if we are to fulfil our potential and ultimately be happy.

When preparing for this talk my first task was to identify what we mean by ‘spiritual’.

An advert in the paper, Metro, caught my eye while pondering this issue;


Spiritual –

Mr Salem

Expert in love and relationships. A genuine spiritualist who can assist you with your problems: love, marriage, relationships, business etc.

Three Day Results

All Work Guaranteed!

I am sure this would appeal to all political leaders, striving for electoral victory in the coming months, but I am afraid that this is not what I was looking for. I did, however, find an answer that satisfied me.

There is currently an exhibition in the House of Lords marking the 50th Anniversary of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester.

He was an exceptional figure who upheld common humanity in the darkest days of war and paved the way for reconciliation and friendship between warring nations.

Let me quote the Bishop,
“The Church ought to be a rallying ground…indeed, I would say that in times the like the present all those who stand for the things that cannot be shaken should give support to one another.

Believers in Justice and truth, in mercy and love, in art and poetry and music, have this as common ground: that the things they believe in are indestructible….

Why is there this inability to reckon with the moral and spiritual facts?

Why is there this forgetfulness of the ideals by which our cause is inspired?”

These words spoken in 1940 are as true now as they were then.

One of the interactions of religion, spirituality and race remains forgotten.

Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister in 1965, had appointed the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, to head the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, set up to provide for the integration of the minority communities into British Society.

To a great extent much of the efforts for good race relations, has its roots in the work of Churches in the early days and this continues even today.

We have long considered the development of a value driven British identity as a core goal, but what is a Liberal conception of a modern British identity and how should we respond to the debate about ethnicity, multiculturalism, immigration and Islam?

Recently one of the British national daily newspapers asked its readers ‘What does it mean to be British?’

I read the response in some of the e-mails that followed and one from a chap in Switzerland caught my eye.

“Being British is about driving in a German Car to an Irish pub for a Belgian Beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry and watching American shows on a Japanese TV.

And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign.”

This arguably sums up the confused debate about identity in this country.

For several years we have seen a debate in the press and magazines which has been called by my Parliamentary colleague Vince Cable, among others, the “politics of identity”.

Commentators have pointed to the impact of globalisation, devolution, asylum and immigration issues, the decline of religious observance on the one hand – illustrated by research  which found that in 1964, 74 per cent of respondents belonged to a religion and attended regularly but in 2005 only 32 per cent said this – and on the other hand concerns over the growth of fundamentalism, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other.

The old political certainties of “left” and “right” are less clear cut in modern Britain, with politicians competing to be toughest on crime and best at promoting concepts such as “community cohesion” –
a concept which to my mind lacks strategic thought and which like a mighty river, disappears in the desert sands.

There is now a search for “shared values” of what might be English or British.

I came to Britain in the early fifties as a solitary student.

I remember my early days in Brighton, when the local vicar – who in character resembled a male version of the Vicar of Dibley, took pity on me.

He looked at me with an intense gaze and the said, “Sonny, are you a Catholic or a Protestant?”

I looked back and replied, “Father, it is bad enough being an immigrant without being one of those things”.

Many have argued that it is important to articulate a shared sense of national identity in contemporary conditions of flux and change.
If so, how can we reconcile this with diversity, openness and pluralism of belief and practice?

Fixed notions of shared identity – even if hey could be agreed on – are less necessary than promoting individual identity, pluralism and genuine multiculturalism.

Add to this mix the war in Iraq and the growth of terrorism, and the alleged ‘death of multiculturalism’ which, according to Trevor Phillips of the CRE, leads to separateness and “ghettoes” of different communities.

It seems at times as if the search for shared values and notions of ‘citizenship’ as discussed by Gordon Brown, Giddens and others – is becoming a mask of acceptable language in which to discuss what to do about the “problem” of the Muslim community in Britain.

Writing recently in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland noted “a kind of drumbeat of hysteria in which both politicians and media have turned again and again on a single, small minority, first prodding them, and then pounding them as if they represent the single biggest problem in national life”.

So this is a difficult time in which to have the kind of calm and reasoned discussion about identity which Labour and Conservative leaders claim to want.

There is confusion not only about identity but about what it is we are trying to talk about: race, religion, identity and an ill-defined multiculturalism are all mixed in the pot.

Nowhere is this illustrated better than the comment made by Jack Straw MP in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph when he wrote that the wearing of the veil by some Muslim women constituted a “visible statement of separation and difference”.

It is right that in a democracy there is a sensible debate about such issues.

We should question what happens when an individual or group identity impinges on other people’s lives or liberties.

But do we really believe that the wearing of the veil practiced by a small proportion of Muslim women will have any bearing in the process of community cohesion or the advancement of an integrated society?

Let’s think back a little.
It is now thirty years since the 1976 Race Relations Act and the establishment of the Commission for Racial Equality.

We reached another important anniversary last year the bicentenary of the passage of the 1807 Abolition of Slave Trade Act in the British Empire.

Britain has been at the forefront of legislative and other machinery to establish equality of opportunity for all its citizens, with strong, new legislation on race, disability, gender, age, faith and sexual orientation which puts a new emphasis on “promoting” good relations between different groups.

(It is worth remembering at this point that much of the impetus for the new race legislation came from the bottom up, through the efforts of the family of Stephen Lawrence.)

However, confusion still remains about whether these have helped to strengthen society towards a common identity.

To unpick this confusion we need to analyse the current state of multi-ethnic Britain.

We need to examine changing patterns within all communities.

We also need to take into account post-war migration and the process of globalisation which crosses the geographical boundaries of all nations.

Unfortunately, much of the public debate on multiculturalism and ‘Britishness’ has been on shallow grounds.

As Sivanandan of the Institute of Race Relations comments, “multiculturalism has become the “whipping boy”:  “the road to assimilation, as opposed to integration, is already being cleared by scrubbing out multiculturalism” – a state which many would argue, has never truly been either defined or achieved.

As the Parekh report says, “… the idea of a multicultural post-nation remains an empty promise”.

Multiculturalism is about more than a vague well meaning tolerance of difference.

This passive position is what has lead to the perception of many separate communities with separate interests which are in conflict.

True multiculturalism is proactive and means that equality and diversity is at the core of everything we do, from government to individual responsibility.

It means taking a much more proactive stance towards combating racism and discrimination, really tackling inequality in all aspects of society – social, economic and in civic participation; positively valuing (not merely tolerating) the value and contribution of different cultures and perspectives, and treating them with respect.

It is a concept which recognises that “we are a community of citizens and a community of communities” (Parekh Report) and that a framework of human rights provides a context in which rights of any one group and rights of wider society can be balanced.

I am pleased that the new equality legislation on race, gender and disability gives promotion of good relations between different groups. It leads me to hope that rumours of the death of multiculturalism are false – they are, however, taking us on a confusing circle of debate.

Immigration policies have played a crucial role in successive governments over the last 50 years.

The Labour Government in 1950 set out an interdepartmental committee to consider the possibility of legislation and administrative methods to deal with the matter of ‘immigrants’.

So preoccupied were the Ministers with the numbers entering the United Kingdom that the welfare and integration of the newcomers was not even discussed.

In fact the key policy recommendation was that “any solution depending on an apparent or concealed colour test would be so invidious as to be impossible for adoption.

Nevertheless it has to be recognised that the use of any powers taken to restrict the free entry of British subjects to this country would as a general rule be more or less confined to coloured persons.”

This approach has been at the heart of control policy based on colour.

Each of the legislative measures since 1962 will confirm this.

Almost 50 years ago the steam ship Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury carrying with it the hopes and dreams of hundreds of young men and women from the Caribbean.

Nothing like this had happened before.

Here was an event when people from the margins of the Empire were coming to build a new life in the Metropolitan Centre itself.

We need to look back to that period.

There was the devastation in Britain inflicted by the war.

Its role as a global power was declining with changes in the former colonies and at home…

The country was trapped in the old idea of itself.

Add to this the emergence of  independent Commonwealth countries, and the end of the master-servant relationship that Britain enjoyed – a new way to think of ourselves had to be evolved, and it is still in that process – this current debate is not new.

There was little policy consideration of a genuine migration policy and the settlement of new arrivals.

The first arrivals were greeted with the optimistic assumption that Britain, shedding its colonial legacy was a true melting pot.

Commonwealth citizens were British subjects.
It was generally assumed that all the many racial, cultural and religious groups would be assimilated into a new whole – a single people with similar ideals, attitudes and values.

The policy makers never thought that ‘identity’ would be an issue. New arrivals would simply “do as the Romans do” and neatly fit in and assimilate.

Little thought was given to the impact of racism and economic marginalisation or that people would want to retain the cultural heritage of which they were proud at the same time as feeling included as citizens.

But the reality was different.
The assumptions that were made in those early days have not been realised.

The unrest involving white and Asian Youths in the summer of 2001 in the Northern English towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford and the resurgence of the extreme right have demonstrated that the process was not automatic, or inevitable.

Among those of European ancestry there has been considerable assimilation into the economic and political life of the community. Black and Asian groups, to a great extent have retained their identities.

We now see a cultural pluralism that has emerged.

Never before had Britain seen such pluralism supplemented by the visual identity of the individuals.

This is to be welcomed, valued and promoted, not regarded as a source of fear: a progressive liberal approach would value difference and cultural pluralism.

Achieving the “community of communities” is a reflection of values of which we should be proud should be the progressive liberal goal.

Moreover, immigration is ever more necessary in the face of changes resulting from the growth of the global economy.

Increasingly the globalising economy relies on the skills of people wherever they are available, and international migration is a key feature of ensuring that Britain benefits from this phenomenon.

However, despite these reasons for welcoming immigration, and its resulting pluralism, few other political issues raise the same tensions and emotions as immigration and its implications for ‘Britishness’.

There are at least four reasons for this.

  • First, there are the unending discussions about numbers – now focussed on the “others” coming from Eastern Europe and the media panics about “bogus asylum seekers”.

  • Second, we worry about our national borders and our borders within what has been called “Fortress Europe”.

  • Third, there are questions around our role in the international community – do we face towards Europe, or the United States or both?

  • And last, we worry about what is our national identity, which a focus on immigration leads us to believe is insecure and therefore must be better defined – what it is, and who can be members within this single identity.

Just over 30 years ago Enoch Powell made his controversial and inflammatory comments about immigration.

Let me pick up two quotes from his infamous speech, delivered in 1968.

“All about me I hear as you do, in your town, in mine, in Wolverhampton, in Smethwick, in Birmingham, people see with their own eyes what they dread, the transformation during their own life time, or if they are already old, during their children’s, of towns and cities and areas they know into alien territory”.

“It is no more true to say that England is their country than it would be to say that the West Indies or Pakistan or India are
our country. In these great numbers they are, and remain here.

No one disputes that immigration policies must protect and promote our national interest.

Nor can they remain static when substantial changes are taking place throughout the world.

Immigration has been a political battle ground for nearly forty years.  Research by Billig and others at Loughborough University, commissioned by the CRE showed that “the combined issues of race, religion, asylum and immigration increased in importance over the [last] three elections.

The press coverage of immigration issues was greater in the 2005 election than it had been in the previous two.”

In UK media coverage of the 2005 election these issues were the fourth highest theme covered.

However, the leadership is at unease when confronted with the issues of multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism.

There is a kind of schizophrenia in the state responses to immigration on the one hand and community cohesion and a pluralist society on the other.

Immigration policies are aimed a playing to public fears about mass immigration, fanned by the media; they mitigate against the majority population welcoming diversity and they make minority communities feel targeted as a “problem” – their skills and perspectives are not welcome.

Support for the concept of multiculturalism in 1965 was qualified by a number of consensuses.

One report said, “It must be recognised that the presence in this country of nearly 1 million immigrants from the Commonwealth with different social and cultural backgrounds raises a number of problems and various social tensions in those areas where they have concentrated.”


The UK Government does have a difficult task striking a balance between rights and responsibilities for minorities and members of the host community.

They seem to be responding to this challenge, however, by placing an increased emphasis on minorities to adapt.

The recent debates on citizenship and ‘veils’ are a case in point.

The progress we have made in achieving some sort of multiculturalism is too valuable to be played in such a cynical manner by politicians with an eye to a perceived perception of the majority population that, despite all our history and our pride in tolerance, the British public is somehow not able to live as part of a community of communities.

Perhaps there is a need for a bottom up approach here too so that the debate is not fuelled to such a degree by media scare stories and hurried political responses.

Thankfully we are far away from the days of Enoch Powell and leaders of all political parties emphasise tolerance and equality and condemn the far right’s claim to “Britishness”.

A desire to reclaim the concept of Britishness from the far right is valuable but has to go alongside tackling discrimination and equality if it is not to fall into the trap of excluding some groups by being overly rigid.

This might include the many white British people who had difficulties in answering all the questions in the citizenship test and those who would not themselves swear allegiance to the Crown if asked to do so, as new immigrants are asked to do.

It might also exclude marginalised and excluded white young people who can’t find work and feel they are ignored.

Defining Britishness is not the full answer.
The need to rescue the concept from the far right would be greatly reduced by dealing with the social and economic inequalities experienced by all communities including the white population so that different groups were not set up in competition for resources.

It is important to remember in this often rather dry and academic search to reach core defined identities – as Gordon Brown tried to do in his speech on the Future of Britishness to the Fabian Society recently – that we all have multiple identities.

As Amartya Sen said, “identities are robustly plural and the importance of one identity need not obliterate another”.

In terms of “Britishness”, just compare the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, clearly not feeling equal members of American society in those days,  with images of Lynford Christie draped in the union flag in 1992 and boxer Amir Khan in 2004 wearing flags of both Britain and Pakistan.

These are just small (perhaps over sentimental but nevertheless) examples of how comfortable many of us are with multiple identities which we value.

We do not all fit in single boxes which would easily allow a definition of core British values.

This approach is a route to defining “otherness” and social exclusion rather than the community cohesion we aspire to.

I for one would take a different and wider approach, which would also seek to marry concepts of inclusion internally with a foreign policy which promoted inclusion internationally instead of feeding separateness and fear at home.

How can this be done?
Over the last ten years we have had a steady development of the concept of human rights, including the very positive step of incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998.

How are these rights translated into citizenship?
In the UK for too long we have assumed that our liberties are protected by a set of traditions and customary activities assisted by a general consensus within our society about the liberty of individuals.

We have no written constitution and very little guidance in the legal process and documentation.

There is a danger here:
“Common values cannot and should not be assumed in a multicultural society.

As a result of different cultural and historic backgrounds we hold conflicting views about the value and purpose of life, the objectives we should follow, about relationships between parents and children, men and women.

The cosy assumptions of a homogenous consensus in which we rooted our liberties won’t do.”

But the introduction of the Human Rights legislation opens up a new dimension.

Britain has been a country of habit, assumption and tradition.

Now it has to confront the problems of turning into a country of the book, the law and the constitution.

The Court of Human Rights for example, remains the only regional court in the world that has a right to try cases between an individual against a member state.

Cultures do not remain static.

Communities change.

Conflict often occurs on matters of gender, generations, religion, language and the community’s relationships with the wider society.

There is nothing to be frightened about.

We are already witnessing fusion in music, the arts and fashion. The new emerging culture will be exciting.

What is required is political wisdom appropriate to our multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious society.

The narrow (and currently, rather blurred) focus on religion undermines an approach which takes into account political and social identities and also the impact of social and economic factors in shaping all communities.

As Sen also pointed out:

In downplaying political and social identities, as opposed to religious identities, the government has weakened civil society precisely when there is a great need to strengthen it”

Sooner or later the debate has to move forward from conflicting notions of multiculturalism to citizenship – and this move will finally more clearly define what the concept of multiculturalism should really be about.

It is right that we should celebrate British Citizenship and the rights and responsibilities that come with it.

If we build active participation of communities in our democratic process supplemented by a sense of a united community then ethnicity and multiculturalism would be less contentious.

We need now to identify not what we take out of our country but what we put in.

That process of citizenship must encompass the rights of all people irrespective of their colour to live in peace, to get an education, to get a job and to raise a family.

But citizenship means much more than learning English.

No one disputes that the process of communication helps towards an integrated society.

But citizenship is so much more than that.

It is a social contract encompassing the whole community.

Its aim must be social inclusion, tolerance, equality and a diverse society where human rights flourish.

It is also about balancing citizen’s rights and responsibilities.

Importantly citizenship must also entitle individuals to state protection, respect for the diversity of their culture, and freedom of expression.

These are all encompassed within the framework of the Human Rights Act.

It is not for the Government to pick and choose which rights suit them.

But take this to its logical conclusion; citizenship cannot be divorced from the needs of individuals.

The social contract must also include decent public services and decent social support for the weak and infirm including those who fear persecution.

It must provide the community with a healthy and pollution free environment.

If individuals feel that they are protected from crime, that there is less oppression and discrimination does not blight their lives then there will be respect towards a healthy, decent society.

This is the way to achieve cohesion.

This is underlined by the Home Office Citizen Surveys of both 2003 and 2005 which tell us we have some way to go.

Minority ethnic respondents were more likely than white people to feel that public sector organisations would treat them worse than people of other races – notably the immigration authorities, the police, local housing departments, the prison service and the armed forces.

It is essential that we do not marginalise entire communities or fail to tackle poverty, unemployment and institutional discrimination if we are to achieve a society which really does value diversity and in which everyone, however they define their identities, can feel they are a fully fledged member.

We have the framework.
We have national and international instruments covering the whole range of civil, political, social and economic and above all human rights.

There is always a question of balance: this is also not new.

Some human rights, such as the right to life, are absolute but others are subject to balancing different needs – of individuals, communities and the state.

I do not underestimate the difficulties of finding a balance which makes everyone happy – the debate over the veil is a good example of how complex this can be.

But mutual respect for each other’s human rights does provide a framework within which we need to find a way to have a national discussion with ourselves without all the sound and the fury of recent months.

This is where politicians must lead, and be proactive, and not just react to media panics and the voices which can shout the loudest at a single point in time.

As the UN’s Alliance of Civilisations report says
“Peoples who feel that they face persistent discrimination, humiliation, or marginalisation are reacting by asserting their identity more aggressively.”

To conclude, I am struck by two reports of different types of polls and research.

In a poll in the Guardian 57% thought Muslims needed to do more to integrate into mainstream British culture, only one week later the Guardian reported on a University of Lancaster study conducted for the Home Office.

It explored the attitudes of 15 year olds to race and religion and found that the attitudes of white young people were more of a barrier to integration than those of Muslim young people.

A 2002 MORI poll found that 10% of whites were hostile to race equality, leading Gary Younge to caption a Guardian article with the words “Let’s have an open and honest discussion about white people.”

In our attempts to think about identity, Britishness and citizenship let us stop making the problem the minorities and give some attention to the citizenship responsibilities of the majority as well.

The example of the Zoroastrian Community, led by people like the Bilimoria family have demonstrated that identities and cultures that have lasted for thousands of years cannot be blurred. What we all can do is to strengthen our resolution to be loyal to the country in which we live.

Navnit Dholakia (23rd October 2008)

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