Immigration Policy Debates and their Significance for Multiculturalism in Britain
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Polish Academy of Sciences
Publication date: 2010-03-22
Polish Sociological Review 2010;169(1):57–86
Much attention has been paid to British multiculturalism as a good policy response to cultural diversity. However, multiculturalist policies did not develop in a vacuum, and so their formulation and development and ambiguities that accompany them cannot be understood without an excursion into history of decolonisation and immigration policy in Britain. The aim of this article is to provide such a historical background. I will focus on four debates related to immigration: the passage from an empire to a nation state; citizenship and belonging; racialisation of the immigration debate; and the impact of EU integration. Britain’s farewell to its empire was never a single, decided move, but rather a gradual, often unwelcome process. For decades the issues of citizenship and belonging were unresolved, as a result, a coherent and fair immigration policy could not be formulated. The fact that political, economic and social rights were bound to subjecthood and not to national citizenship put the Commonwealth immigrants in a special position. On the one hand, it empowered them, in comparison to immigrants in other countries, Commonwealth immigrants were already granted these rights, at least formally, and the struggle for equality was focused on the execution of already existing rights. Despite the fact that all Commonwealth citizens had an equal status, not all of them were equally desired as immigrants. The debates on immigration became de facto debates on whether Britain had to be a land of white people only or it not. As a consequence, the main challenge of immigrant incorporation became understood as establishing good “race relations.” Euroscepticism and self-righteousness in the area of immigrant incorporation have mutually reinforced themselves in Britain. The academia helped to create a specific language to frame the discussions and policy solutions, making the British approach even more idiosyncratic, different from other modes of incorporation of immigrants. At the same time, this sense of being different does not prevent British politicians, policy-makers, activists and scientists from promoting the British multiculturalist approach as “the best practice” in managing diversity.