Local in a Multi-Ethnic World: Bhikhu Parekh

December 17th, 2010

Local Identities in a Multi-Ethnic Britain
Opinion by: Lord Bhikhu Parekh

Photo credit: Vijay Jethwa

To mark the 10th anniversary of The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, I want to explore some of the big questions that appear on the public agenda today so far as multi-ethnic Britain is concerned. Many of these big questions were dealt with in the report, but we are now in a different historical and political context and it is important to revisit what has been said and go beyond that. There are three and four big questions we need to address: the role of religion in public life, the best ways to deal with cohesion and respect for cultural diversity, terrorism in the context of multiculturalism and the local versus national identities. Here, I will focus on local identities and their place in building a multi-ethnic Britain.

We live in Britain but we also live in a particular spot in Britain, such as London, Bradford and Manchester. Much of our life is lived locally and has a local character, and national identity is built on defining the foundation of local identity. It is striking that those young Muslims who say they do not feel British also say that they cannot imagine themselves living outside Bradford or Birmingham.

Local identities are generally more open and more loosely scripted than the national identity. Britishness immediately invokes historical stories of empire. London or Bradford does not. Britishness has cultural associations like race and religion, which requires a great deal of effort to remove, while local identity has no such cultural associations. London belongs to all its residents, and has no religious, racial or cultural or other associations. It has no other identities than what the Londoners chose to give it through their patterns of interactions.

The local identity is more easily accepted and it less contentious than the national or British identity. It has therefore a great role to play in sustaining a multicultural society – a greater role than generally recognized by the theorists of the nation-state. I think it is very important to bear in mind that it is not fully appreciated; that a culturally homogeneous society which underpins the nation-state, generally focuses on the nation-state and the national identity. In the multicultural society, the logic points in a different direction. While central identity has a role to play, local identities are extremely important. And nationally, local identities need to be integrated and go together.

As far as multicultural Britain is concerned, we have made much progress in certain areas and not much in others. The future of the multi-ethnic Britain depends on three things: our ability to consolidate and build on the progress we have made, our ability to tackle areas of life where we have been negligent, and finally our sensitivity to ability to deal with new problems that are beginning to appear on the horizon and our ability to confront them with the requisite clarity. If the past is any guide we can be cautiously optimistic on all three accounts. I might be proved wrong, but pessimism is not a luxury permitted to those of us who are politically active.


Bhikhu Parekh
Centennial Professor in the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics

Educated at the Universities of Bombay and London, Lord Bhikhu Parekh is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and of the Academy of the Learned Societies for Social Sciences and a Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Westminster. Lord Parekh was chair of the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (1998-2000). He is vice-chairman of the Gandhi Foundation, a trustee of the Anne Frank Educational Trust, the Runnymede Trust, the Institute of Public Policy Research and a member of the National Commission on Equal Opportunity. Professor Parekh is the author of a number of books, is emeritus professor of political theory at the University of Hull and has held visiting professorships at many other universities. He was vice-chancellor of the University of Baroda from 1981-84. Professor Parekh was elected British Asian of the Year in 1992, was awarded the BBC’s prestigious Special Lifetime Achievement Award for Asians in November 1999 and was appointed to the House of Lords in March 2000.

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