David Cameron's speech on multiculturalism to a conference in Munich has provoked a deal of discussion back in the UK. Some say he has signed the death warrant of multi-culteralism, others that he has fanned the flames of intolerance and bigotry.
I'm less convinced. Cameron is a man who has always spoken well but has an over-romanticised sense of national identity. He makes a distinction between "passive tolerance" and "muscular liberalism" as though they are diametrically opposed concepts but of course they aren't. One of the main components of a liberal society is tolerance and an acceptance that certain cultures have certain values that don't conform to a Christian or Anglo-Saxon way of life.
Yet, it is equally the case that if you want to live in Rome, you have to try and enjoy pasta and for migrants or immigrants seeking to live in Britain, there has to be the recognition that IF you want to come and make a life here, there has to be an implicit acceptance of the British "way of life" and a recognition that while much of other cultures is perfectly acceptable and reasonable, there are undercurrents such as female mutiliation and forced marriage and honour killings which have as little place in British society as the persecution of homosexuals.
Societies evolve and change - I'm concerned Cameron, like John Major and many other Tories, has a suburban English idealised notion of Britishness. In East Ham, it's a much more diffuse concept but that doesn't make the people who live here any less British. There is a rush to work, to achieve and develop, to make something of one's life and I'm sure the Prime Minister identifies with that but at the same time the Hindu or Romanian culture survives and thrives.
I've never understood the opposition to multi-culturalism. The Hindu men chase girls, smoke and drive fast cars yet I suspect in their own families, they are suitably deferential and respectful. They have the same network of identities we all do - the person we are to our families, our friends, our work colleagues, our lovers etc, etc.
At the back of Cameron's speech lies the elephant of immigration in the societal room. The suggestion that large-scale immigration from the Middle East has allowed extreme Islamism to take root and flourish is an undercurrent. To be fair, there cannot be a simple demonisation of Islam which is practiced peacefully by millions worldwide and has much to recommend it in the respect of encouraging the individual to take an active and positive role in the family and community.
Yet, a perversion of the Islamic faith, characterised by a grotesque moral conservatism and an antipathy to western ideas, has taken root among a small minority who have seen it as an alternative to a lifestyle they find impossible to reconcile with their socially conservative viewpoint or perhaps that of their parents though it's obviously not always the case.
At the bottom of this is the question of what kind of "Britain" we want. Cameron's view is not mine though I agree with much of what he says. Living where I do, I have no option but to recognise the paradox between the diversity of cultural origin and the homogenity of cultural aspiration that creates the melting pot. I've always believed liberalism and liberal thinking isn't and can't be passive though it engages with reality far more than conservatism and is much less doctrinaire than socialism.
If Cameron is a "muscular liberal" then he doesn't understand a key tenet of liberalism which is a tolerance for and recognition of cultural diversity within the framework of British law.