Community Cohesion is much older than Woolwich (but not as old as the Ottoman Empire)

A friend on Twitter, Liam Stanley, drew my attention to this small blog piece from the Spectator. It contains some interesting little bits and deserves some more attention than a cursory reading, particularly as there are some potentially dangerous elements that can be unpacked and problematised.

Ed West begins with an observation that since the murder in Woolwich, there has been an ‘upsurge’ in the use of the term ‘community cohesion’. West describes the term as ‘political cant’, used when ‘theory fails to match reality, and today we have a diverse and vibrant array of words and phrases that mean two contradictory things at once, and also nothing’. Indeed. Yet why this is new, I am not sure. It has been documented by a number of academics for example that the term ‘community cohesion’ was favoured over ‘social cohesion’ for a number of reasons – one of which being that it was an empty term that New Labour could use to fill with its own political preoccupations (for two examples, see this book and this article – sorry about the paywall). Yet this comes to my first contention – why in West’s post is there no mention of the genesis of community cohesion? Why does he not discuss the reasons Hope Not Hate may have for using the term in the first place?

Community Cohesion, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is essentially a term for race relations introduced via policy after the 2001 riots in Northern England. It is well documented that the policies have almost entirely focused on ethnic and cultural relations – and on Muslims in particular – rather than incorporating other concerns (for the sake of brevity I won’t provide references here – contact me if you’d like some). It has become government parlance, and talking of ‘communities’ helps get away from talking about ‘race’ or specific groups. Hope Not Hate are simply using the language of government in this respect.

The second question is why the upsurge? Community cohesion is not particularly high on the majority of people’s agendas, but it is ever present. It has been embedded in policy since about ~2005. The term was used in the wake of the English riots in 2011, but not as much as one may perhaps expect. This could be for a number of reasons. Firstly, the government was keen to write off the riots as the act of mindless thugs. Secondly, it was much harder to necessarily consider the riots an issue of race, particularly from an official position; the trigger for the riots was the police’s shooting of Mark Duggan. The initial reasons for the riots were popularly thought of as anger against the police. If they were referred to as ‘race’ riots, surely this would implicate the police further, bringing back into the fore accusations of police bias and racism, as seen in the Macpherson report.

What we did see however was a lot of use of the term ‘community spirit’ – which essentially points to cohesion. But when language is tied up with particular ways of doing things, and particular connections with various frameworks (e.g. community cohesion and race relations), the connotations of language become more important. Community cohesion, for whatever reason, can be employed more easily in the context of Woolwich because of those involved.

Interestingly, West sees ‘community cohesion’ as a way to enact political correctness. Indeed, this is the crux of his piece: ‘In Singapore, the world’s first truly multicultural modern state, speeches and broadcasts can be arbitrarily shut down if community leaders believe them to be offensive or threatening, so that no real criticism of religion is permitted’. He adds that this is in order to limit the potential damage religious hatred can bring. West suggests the UK is headed down the same route after banning two American bloggers entry in to the UK because of their views on Islam.

This goes against English Tolerance, says West. What the bloggers say is no different to what has been going on at Speaker’s Corner for years. West attributes this to a liberal England that is so cohesive, ‘we’ have not needed the word – until now. How cohesive were ‘we’? Hasn’t this cohesiveness usually come in the form of banding together under siege mentality? Are ‘we’ most cohesive when faced with the threat of the ‘other’? Certainly things to think about. Is ‘England’ really all that cohesive in the way West suggests? The concept of ‘white flight’ suggests an inherent aversion to ‘cohesion’ in areas the phenomenon occurs. I would argue that in general the UK is a pretty cohesive place – in terms of multiculturalism and race relations. But what about soaring economic inequality? That has been shown to be harmful to cohesion.

To me, it feels as if West’s piece is holding something back. For example, why laud the cohesiveness and tolerance of England (sic), decry the refusal of entry of people who could cause racial hatred, lambaste Hope Not Hate for allegedly arguing that ‘free speech caused the Holocaust’, and then suggest that although Nazisim is not comparable with modern Europe, it may be comparable with the Middle East? Are we really returning to a ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis? And if so, how does West resolve that with community cohesion?

I don’t hide my dislike for the term ‘community cohesion’, but I could not be any more in favour of cohesion. Cohesion represents equality on economic, social and cultural levels. Yet it is not about race relations, or political correctness, or ‘tolerance’ (which suggests management and a suppression of dislike). Cohesion is about different social groups, economic groups, cultural groups and ethnic groups interacting and living within and beside one another. Yet focusing on particular characteristics provides further division. Plenty of rhetoric exists on being ‘British’ and the bonding effects that has, but in reality it does not take long to ask ‘where are you from? I see, but where are you originally from?’ – you’re not really from here, are you? How can you be? Multiculturalism and cohesion necessitates that there is not one solid set of values that must be taken up wholesale by all – though this is exactly what community cohesion policy requires of citizens (technically of all citizens,  but considering these values are ‘British liberal’ values, it only applies to those who are seen as not ‘British liberal’, regardless of their place of birth and residence).

What I can gather from West’s post is that ‘community cohesion’ is a sign of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism causes repression in the name of ‘community cohesion’. Cohesion damages the host ‘community’ for the benefit of ‘others’. All these things are bad. In other words, West is simply walking the tired and trodden path that assimilation is the only desirable route for race relations – which is ironically what has shaped the policy framework West decries.

Well, I can only assume it is the policy framework he is decrying – as he only mentions the term, and not its context and history, one can only give him the benefit of the doubt. To an extent, West is simply arguing for more of what we have, with a change in rhetoric. The reader is left to wonder on the alternative if the ‘problem’ of mulitculturalism is not solved – yet I cannot help but take away an ‘us vs them’ feeling from the piece.


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