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Do we really have that much in common? The insistence that all communities are the same is a damaging one

Protests outside the Parkwood school in Birmingham. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Protests outside the Parkwood school in Birmingham. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty

May 1, 2019   5 mins

According to legend, St George, a Roman knight, freed a Libyan town from the attentions of a sea-dragon by killing it. Any public figure who has since dared face-down fierce vested interests or kill off harmful prevailing orthodoxies has similarly been branded a ‘dragon slayer’. We asked various of our contributors to nominate the contemporary tyranny they would put to the sword.


“Batley and Spen is a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense and proud Yorkshire towns and villages… What surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Jo Cox, House of Commons, 3 June 2015


I wish I had known the late MP, Jo Cox, murdered by an extremist just a year into what promised to be a long and distinguished political career. She seemed like my kind of person: leftish without being tribal, ready to change her mind (she regretted having nominated Jeremy Corbyn), and devoted to helping the poor internationally. She campaigned against anti-Muslim sentiment without being duped into backing Islamist extremists.

But her death is, increasingly being used as a way of demanding compliance to a politically ‘woke’ orthodoxy that will cause the very misery and division she entered politics to combat. At the risk of seeming insensitive, I think we need to call a halt to what the French might call the banalisation of her most well-known message: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” It’s just not true.

For example, the fact that many Muslims and fundamentalist Christians say they feel British is often cited as evidence that we are all on the same side in today’s culture wars. But it doesn’t explain the inconvenient fact that a majority of these groups sincerely don’t want a gay teacher to stand in front of their children. The strident chants of the Muslim parents at the school gates won’t be drowned out by another rendering of “Kumbaya” even if backed by other groups who might share their concerns, such as Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians.

I think Jo Cox recognised that social cohesion does not come naturally. It has to be fought for; far from suggesting that her constituency was a mawkish pastiche of northern life familiar from Hovis ads, she referred to the independent-minded, even truculent, character of the many towns and villages within the constituency.

Even more tellingly, she called out the persistence of minority ethnic and religious traditions in what was once a stronghold of Methodism. Irish Catholics, as well as Indian and Pakistani Muslims have settled in the area, and have become part of the local landscape, partly by adapting their accents and behaviours; but centuries on they maintain a definable cultural presence.

Cox herself said in the same speech that she hoped to embody that the spirit of “independent, non-Conformist service” that she had seen in her predecessors. At the heart of her message was a recognition that some sincerely held differences will never be wished away by metropolitan intellectuals. If you truly respect diversity, you cannot just brush those differences aside.

Yet, in all too many cases, authorities, public and private are being bullied into pretending that these significant cultural differences do not really exist. Even now, for example, authorities in towns such as Rotherham and Rochdale remain reluctant to associate the child grooming scandals with social norms within the largely Pakistani Muslim neighbourhoods in which they took place. The website of Rotherham Council proudly highlights its response to Louise Casey’s damning report on child sexual exploitation in the borough, which dwelt at length on the cultural background of the perpetrators. But in pages of text and a glossy video presentation you will find absolutely nothing on this question – other than to present, deep into the site, and without context or comment, a list of 19 Asian men and two non-Asian women, sentenced to a total of 289 years between them.

This is odd; because these are often the very same authorities who defend ‘multiculturalism’, by which they mean accepting that some ethnic communities’ divergent historic traditions may take precedence over prevailing mainstream norms. Some try to square the circle by airily asserting that time will bring us together. If so, I’d say that the change must be so slow as to be imperceptible.

To take a simple but disturbing example: in many parts of the world the practice of “cousin-marriage” is legally prohibited – China, Korea, half of the United States. Yet in some British communities the practice of cousin-marriage is regarded as unexceptional, and indeed desirable. There are fears that ‘consanguinity‘ may be contributing to a rumoured increase in debilitating conditions among babies in these groups. But any widespread discussion of the cost, human and economic, of this phenomenon, has yet to take place for fear of ‘stigmatising’ such groups. In other words we prefer to maintain the fiction, even if it means unnecessary suffering of children and parents.

I could have chosen any of half a dozen examples of the pernicious real-world impact of the “more in common” delusion. It has led to silence on the racial factors in street grooming of white children, in knife crime, and in chronic educational failure – all of which are social issues that impose costs on everyone.

In each of these areas, even as the chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, I found it almost impossible to commission research on – for example – the reasons behind the educational out-performance of Asian children compared with other minority groups – a fact attested to by the government’s own data. Nervousness about acknowledging racial difference that cannot simply be attributed to white prejudice prevents companies from collecting data that might help them to improve service to customers. It blocks systematic inquiry into the growing certainty that computer algorithms are daily making biased decisions.

The fiction is clung to most fiercely by liberal opinion – particularly white liberal opinion. Such behaviour on the part of whites can – it is said – be put down to their innate racism. We minority Britons, according to the liberal mind, should show no such prejudice. But surveys of friendship circles consistently make the same finding – that left to our devices, and absent economic pressures or obvious discrimination, minority Britons typically choose to spend our time with others like ourselves. Asian Britains are five times as likely as they should be to socialise with other Asians, Black Britons eight times as likely to socialise with other blacks.

And there is little sign that such preferences are fading among the young; if you don’t believe me, stand outside any multiracial secondary school at the end of the day and count the number of single race groups walking home compared with the number of mixed groups. That’s why, as one (white) American diversity trainer points out, the worst thing you can say to a person of colour is  “I don’t see you as black (or Asian)” or the just slightly less patronising “Young people are so much more open, they don’t see race”. If you really believe that nonsense you should have gone to Specsavers.

Yes, we may all aspire to peace and prosperity, love our families and, want to build comfortable homes and neighbourhoods. But however much we wish it were not so, we really aren’t the same. And where ethnic and cultural groups sincerely hold different views – on, for example, attitudes to women or homosexuality – we need to accept that the gulf may never be bridged; either you believe that LGBT people are equal or you don’t.

The things that unite us may be many and various – but some matters that divide us are decisive, literally black and white, and the sooner we admit it the better. I am sure there is work to do to understand and to navigate the divides; and to decide what to do when compromise proves impossible. But that work can’t even be started until everybody stops pretending that we are all the same under the skin.

Mark Trevor Phillips is a British writer, broadcaster and former politician. In March 2015, Phillips was appointed as the President of the Partnership Council of the John Lewis Partnership for a three-year term.


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Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

I for one am grateful to Mr Philips for raising the issue. My comment is formed on the back of a conversation whilst out on a group hike – as most participants (sadly, some don’t and stick rigidly with their own companion) interact with other members of the group, I walked for a while with the only Black woman. I asked if she was a member of any other hiking groups (I had myself discovered this special event walk via another group) and she gave the name of her group for Black women. I asked if White women would be able to join. ‘O, no as that would change the point of the group as a place of safety to discuss challenges pertaining only to us – you know, things like our hair…’
I am no racist – I believe that there is only one human race – but perhaps my sharp intake of breath measured the contemporary British hypocrisy.