Last week I attended the IDe&A conference, “Our Shared Future: One Year On”. The conference reflected on the impact that the Commission on Cohesion & integration’s report – “Our Shared Future” – has had on Government policy and what effect this has had on society at large.
Instead of focusing on the report however, most of the speakers focused on ‘community cohesion’ and what exactly this is. Given that the concept has been around for some 7 or 8 years, that we are still asking what exactly ‘community cohesion’ is, seems to me at least to suggest that it is still some way from being the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ that Ted Cantle (for whom I’m not a great fan) and his merry men so enthusiatically suggested that it would be back in the heady days of the northern mill towns disturbances.
Anyway, I came across this article in the Observer yesterday and it made me think. When we speak about ‘integration’, when we speak about ‘community cohesion’, are we really doing so in an inclusive way…???
What do I mean by this…? Well, are we really talking about the white middle-classes who are increasingly shutting themselves away frm the rest of society or are we talking about vertain groups or communities that remain to be seen as ‘the problem’…???
Have a read of the article pasted below by Rafael Behr and let me know what you think…
An extraordinary portrait of a closed community explodes the lazy rhetoric of social cohesion by Rafael Behr – The Observer, Sunday 15 June 2008
The Haredi Jews of Stamford Hill in north London are a sober bunch. They only binge-drink once a year, at Purim, when there is a religious obligation to celebrate exuberantly the salvation of Babylonian Jews from a sixth-century genocide. Children wear fancy dress, men get drunk and dance boisterously. But the police don’t get called out to break up fights in the synagogue. When it comes to law and order, the Haredim are model citizens.
But if the ultra-orthodox Jewish community doesn’t go in for antisocial behaviour, in relations with people of other faiths they are not what you could call sociable. A Haredi man will not shake hands with a woman who is not his wife. It would be an impropriety verging on lasciviousness and, besides, he can’t be sure she isn’t menstruating, which under the strictest interpretation of Jewish law makes her unclean. Haredi women avoid eye contact with strangers. The community as a whole eschews contact with modern secular society. Television is frowned upon. The dress code for men – long, black coats, tall, black hats, white stockings on the Sabbath – is imported from eastern European ghettos of the 18th century.
The media don’t pay much attention to the Haredim and they like it that way. But this week, BBC4 will screen a documentary by Vanessa Engle, an award-winning film-maker who gained unprecedented access to this hermetically sealed community. It is the first in a series of three films titled Jews, portraits of very different members of Britain’s oldest religious minority. Engle’s films are made of simple inquiry and observation. They are, like their subjects, not political.
But in 21st-century Britain, a minority that refuses to commune with the rest of society cannot hide from politics. Gordon Brown wants to promote public expressions of ‘Britishness’. New arrivals will be expected to avow their loyalty, while established Britons will wave flags and hug each other on a new public holiday.
As a rule, policy only exists as a solution to a problem. In this case, the problem is a lack of what wonks and Whitehall call ‘integration and social cohesion’. That deficit was brought to the government’s attention by opinion polls that consistently show voters unhappy about high levels of immigration, and by the 7 July bombings, which showed how members of one community were so alienated from Britain as to be capable of treason. Since then, promoting ‘integration’ has become the shared aspiration of all mainstream parties. It is one of those lazy virtues that are easy to promote because no one in their right mind stands for the opposite. Who has a manifesto calling for disintegration?
The Haredim pose an interesting challenge to this tidy consensus. If separateness in Muslims and immigrant communities is bad because it leads to crime and disorder, would it be fine as long as the ghetto was trouble-free? If people obey the law, why should they integrate and, if they must, with whom? Rich and poor Britons don’t mix socially. They don’t even drink in the same pubs.
An effective policy is one that changes behaviour. If the problem is people driving too fast, make them slow down. But what, on a day-to-day basis, are devout Muslims or Haredi Jews expected to do to integrate in modern Britain. Take their children to the local playground? Shop at Ikea? They already do that. The same is true of ‘social cohesion’. You can’t put a bunch of people in a room with instructions to ‘cohese’. It isn’t even a word.
Last year, the government’s Commission on Integration and Cohesion defined ‘integration’ vaguely as ‘the process that ensures new residents and existing residents adapt to one another’. The commission also found that in most of the country that was already happening. Seventy-nine per cent of those polled thought that people from different backgrounds got on well in their area. That was equally true for areas with a high ethnic mix and more homogenous quarters. There was, however, a clear correlation between a lack of ‘cohesion’ and deprivation. Poor areas suffered higher crime, which made people suspicious of one another and less enthusiastic about racial diversity.
Anyone who tries to measure ‘integration’ ends up relying on definitions that are either banal (how many members of a minority speak English) or economically functional (how many have jobs). If politicians want something more profound – a convergence of behaviour towards shared habits and a limit on egregious displays of difference – the correct word is assimilation.
But to minority ears, that sounds like a threat of cultural annihilation. In another of Engle’s films, we meet Jonathan Faith, a wealthy businessman who is devoting his retirement to halting the decline in Britain’s mainstream Jewish population. In 1950, there were 450,000 Jews in the country; now, there are fewer than 270,000 and the rate of decline is accelerating. The problem is simple. Jews marry non-Jews and end up having non-Jewish children. ‘Integrated’ secular Judaism is dying.
The Haredim are bucking the trend. They number between 20,000 and 45,000 today, but are prolific. Families of eight or more children are not unusual. Is there a numerical point at which their cultural distinctness offends the secular liberal principle of ‘integration’? Is it 100,000? A million? Is there a threshold beyond which the state will turn around and say, as it does of Muslims, ‘the Jews must be integrated’?
If government wants to change the status of minorities, it can choose between two policy menus, one cultural and one economic. The cultural one is assimilation: setting a goal of a unified national identity and pushing people towards it, by shutting faith schools and banning public officials from wearing headscarves, for example.
The economic one is redistribution: addressing the problems of social mobility and poverty that actually cause tension between communities. Or it can go à la carte and try a bit of both. What it can’t do is talk loosely about a policy of integration because, noble though it sounds, it doesn’t actually mean anything.