Multiculturalism in Social Policy


The 1948 British Nationality Act, granted favorable immigration rights to Citizens of Commonwealth countries (Giddens, 4th ed. 2001:264). This, along with offers of job opportunities due to a labour shortage in post-war Britain meant that the country experienced immigration on an unprecedented scale. In the beginning men came leaving their families behind. By the late 1960s and early seventies women and children were coming to join them. The newcomers settled in London, in the Midlands and the North and in the seaport towns of Liverpool and Cardiff. They were Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists as well as Christians estimates of the numbers in religious groups are problematic.

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This turned the UK into an ethnically and religiously diverse community. Braham, Rattansi and Skellington (1992) contend that between 1950 and 1955 the numbers of West Indian, Indian and Pakistani immigrants became a matter of considerable debate within the cabinet and various measures to control the influx to the UK were considered. This mixed community is still growing in spite of the fact that government immigration policy makes it increasingly difficult for many people to enter and settle in this country. This resulted in changes to the ‘British way of life’ and the UK became known as a multicultural community. However, more recently the term multiculturalism is becoming a contested concept both in sociological discourse and in recent policy making.

Current Government policy initiatives, which are largely driven by past mistakes, is to have some idea of the makeup of different ethnic communities in order to establish whether these might provide some stability for incoming asylum seekers/refugees (Spencer, 2001). It is only in the last 10-15 years that the Government has collected data that relates specifically to diverse ethnic groups e.g. the 1991 and 2001 census datum. Present Government, faced with an influx of asylum seekers, is also confronted with the dilemma of fears for national identity that dates back to the mass immigration of the 1960s (Stalker, 2002). This paper will explain and discuss the concept of multiculturalism and the contested nature of the term as it relates to social policy and discourses.

Multiculturalism…is a theory (albeit vague) about the foundations of a culture rather than a practice which subsumes cultural ideas (Harrison, 1984:1).[1]

The Roots of Multiculturalism

The 1914 and 1948 Nationality Acts did not impose any restrictions on immigration to Britain from those migrating from Commonwealth countries or those countries that had been a part of the British Empire. Immigration remained fairly low, however until after 1948. In 1953 the total number of immigrants to Britain was 2000 and by the end of the first half of 1962 the number had risen to 94,500 (Layton-Henry, 1992:13).Fifty years ago, when the UK first felt the effects of mass immigration there was a growing recognition that this would require legal, policy, and political changes. At the same time Government was largely concerned with incoming groups being assimilated or integrated into the host community. Thus, Massey (1991) has argued that in many ways the immediate post-war approach to immigration was very much one of laissez-faire.

….the assumption was that everyone was equal before the law, and therefore no special policies were necessary (Massey, 1991:9).

It has since come to be recognised by both diverse ethnic groups, and by the Government that this operated as a form of cultural imperialism that was bound to fail because of its tendency to view any culture, other than that of the white middle classes, as an inferior cultural form which evoked racism and alienation among and between groups (Parker-Jenkins et al 2005). By the mid-50s it was recognised that the idea that immigrants would just be absorbed into, and subsumed by, the host culture was a mistake. Cashmore (1989) has argued that there was an increased racial tension and by the closing years of the 1950s immigrants were subjected to unprovoked racist attacks. This resulted in the notion that immigration and race relations were politically controversial issues and there was a growing campaign to introduce immigration controls. Skellington and Morris (1992) have argued that the term immigrant is often used to refer to people of a different colour, when in truth the vast majority of migration is found in white groups hailing from Europe, Canada and Ireland etc.

In 1962 the Government introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act whereby members of the Commonwealth were denied entry to the UK unless they were able to fulfil certain criteria (Cashmore, 1989). If they fulfilled these criteria they were issued with vouchers that said they could enter if they had work to go to, if they were qualified in an area e.g. medicine that had a shortage in the UK and some vouchers were issued on the basis of the fact that the person had served in the armed forces during the war. Government tried to justify the Act and its requisite on the grounds that the increasing number of immigrants was contributing to the economic problems that Britain was facing at that time (Cashmore, 1989). The incoming Labour Government added further restrictions to the Act and in 1968 The Commonwealth Immigrants Act restricted entry to those who held British passports and they were subject to immigration controls unless they had a parent or grandparent who was a UK citizen or who had been born in the UK. Pilkington (1984) maintains that the act was discriminatory because it served to exclude coloured Kenyans unless they were given a voucher but allowed the entry of white Kenyans to Britain. Since that time there has been an increased tightening of immigration laws and procedures and an increasing sense of racial discrimination. Home Office figures for 1992 show that one out of every 63 Jamaicans and one out of every 82 Bangladeshis were refused entry compared one in 3000 Americans and one 4300 Swedes (Skellington, et al1996).

The term multiculturalism is generally thought to have arisen in Britain in a speech by the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins in 1966. Multiculturalism is the notion that each culture has its own specific identifiable features and how the uniqueness of them relate to each other and to the host community (Parker-Jenkins et al, 2005).. There is however, a feeling that this form of multiculturalism is actually a threat to national identity while at the same time leading to a rich cultural exchange in terms of thought and lifestyle. While this term is current in the UK there are often instances where local politics can serve to exclude minority cultures while promoting the values of the dominant white culture.[2] Multiculturalism is also a term (and certainly as expressed by Roy Jenkins) which describes aspects of social policy. Multiculturalism in this sense is to be distinguished from the American view of the melting pot where differences are not subject to specific policy targeting but (in a laissez-faire manner) immigrant groups are more or less left to get on with things. Multiculturalism is used in a number of ways which can serve either to celebrate difference or to act as a cover for what, in any real terms, is another form of enforced assimilation. It also needs to be recognised that diverse ethnic groups now consist of large numbers of people who have been born in Britain (Modood et al, 1997).

Multiculturalism and Policy Making

Multiculturalism has sparked much debate during recent years. While it was largely ignored under Margaret Thatcher’s Government the success of New Labour has meant that the term has become a common currency in political debate and in policy making.[3] Policy making is important because it can determine the amount of representation (or lack of it) that diverse ethnicities receive in the press and on television, it also determines the content of education, forms of dress (particularly in schools but also with regards to policy on safety regulations e.g. the refusal of Sikhs to remove their turbans in order to wear a motor cycle helmet) and support for minority festivals and religious holidays. In the last two or three years however, the UK Government has focussed less on multicultural policy making and more on issues of inclusion and cohesion. In 1997 the ODPM was given responsibility for a social exclusion unit which aims to undertake research into a number of different areas. Social inclusion and cohesion are not just used in relation to diverse ethnic groups but are the basis for policy making in a number of other areas such as mental health, early years education and homelessness. Thus Government has a wealth of policy initiatives and this has led to a growth in the number of NGOs commissioning research on inclusion in a number of different areas. Issues of inclusion cover a host of areas and can range from the numbers of ethnic minorities using childcare facilities, to those undertaking further education of some kind to increase their employment prospects.

Policy making aimed at reducing inequalities in both the labour and the housing market, and ongoing policy initiatives to combat racism are hampered by a dwindling job market and successive cuts in housing budgets. Braham et al (1992) argue that in order to be successful anti-racist strategies need to be multi-faceted and aimed at subjective, institutional, and structural racism. Past policies have been badly focussed and piecemeal because there is no clear consensus in Britain what equal opportunity and multiculturalism mean either in ideological or practical terms (Solomos and Back, 1996). Reports produced by the social exclusion unit may be aimed at reducing marginalization but often result in the labeling of minority groups, and specifically diverse minority ethnic groups, as a drain on the resources of society. Policies that target specific areas such as getting the population back into full employment tend to leave minority ethnic groups as particularly vulnerable to this type of labeling. According to a Policy Studies Institute (1982)[4] report found that in the majority of diverse ethnic communities rates of unemployment were twice as high among these groups as they were in the dominant host group. However, research undertaken by Modood et al (1997) reflects the fact that while there is a continuing disparity in terms of wages, exclusionary modes of hiring and higher unemployment rates, certain ethnic groups experience greater success in the labour market than do others. Iganski and Payne (1999) on the other hand maintain that while the occupational structure in Britain is experiencing rapid change the gains made by some ethnic groups should not be understood in terms of the end of disadvantage in the labour market. They also contend that these changes have occurred because the forces of industrial restructuring are greater than the forces of ethnic/racial discrimination and disadvantage.

Housing policies also tend to discriminate against asylum seekers/refugees and other diverse ethnic groups. Struggles over access to such resources can result in what Weber (1976) has termed ‘group closure’. Access to housing resources varies between diverse ethnic groups, where some, particularly those of Indian origin, have rising levels of home ownership while other groups remain in sub-standard and hard to let accommodation (Ratcliffe, 1999). Clearly there are problems in the classification of diverse ethnic groups and in present policy making, which, instead of greater inclusion sometimes tends to further exclude such groups. Ballard’s (1990) research demonstrates that there needs to be a clear understanding and examination of cultural differences and structural forces before applying encompassing terms to diverse ethnic groupings.


There tends to be a general agreement among social theorists that existing classifications of the diverse groupings that go to make up the modern UK context are problematic and that this has implications for policy making. Not all sociologists find the term multiculturalism as a desirable one. For Solomos et al (1982) multiculturalism is part of a new racism that is based on the view that diverse ethnic groups are not compatible, thus Enoch Powell’s pronouncement that rivers of blood would flow because of the difficulty of mixing different cultural groups. Rattansi (1994) has argued that with the globalization process clear cut distinctions between groups may be undermined by the formation of new forms of ethnic identities. Solomos et al (1982) argue that minority groups need to struggle in order to gain power in society and to pursue a policy of anti-racism whereby the racism that exists in society and its institutions is exposed as there are some problems that cannot be resolved through the pursuit of cultural tolerance.

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