David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism a few months ago spurred a lot of analysis, attracting both appreciation as well as consternation from the most unexpected quarters. While some of this attention is well-researched and thoughtful, some of it is also based merely on reactions to certain choice quotes from his speech, quotes grabbed by a greedy media and splashed all over blogs, newspapers and magazines, packaged as the gist of what the Prime Minister said. According to a number of sources, the speech could be summed up in the following quote: “Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.”

This supposed failure of British (and French and German, as was implied by the language, address, and occasion of the speech) “passive tolerance” was one of the main points of contention for a large number of liberal critics. “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” Cameron said, “we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.  We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”  I read these quotes long before I read the entire speech, and as a liberal who is also deeply interested in the sociological and political impact of diaspora and immigration, I admit that I too, was quick to judge and dismiss the speech, based on just these choice quotes. It was only when Marine Le Pen – much to Cameron’s consternation – co-opted the speech to prop up a discussion about multiculturalism in France, that I first read the entire text of Cameron’s speech.

The result was underwhelming. Any potentially logical argument Cameron tried to make was lost in the apologetic tone of the speech, and while I get what he is trying to do here (the problem of terrorism is real, and someone needs to address the cultural aspects of it) a lot of what he says – and leaves out – makes me uncomfortable. There are several aspects of his speech that we could talk about – we could discuss the allegation that liberals in the western world aren’t as quick in criticizing extremist behavior from minority groups, as they are in criticizing similar points of view emerging from within the mainstream. It would be interesting to see how this allegation holds up against the wave of Islam-phobia in a country like the US (admittedly, far, far more conservative than most of Western Europe), where the attempt to build an outreach center for Muslims a few blocks away from ground zero is considered an affront to the nation. We could also discuss the hazy boundaries the Prime Minister draws between the “law,” and the cultural values of liberal, western nations. It’s not enough to merely abide by the laws of the host nation, Mr. Cameron says. Immigrants have to learn to adopt the liberal values of the societies they live in. But aren’t the cultural values that nation-states are built upon, formulated into the law?

The thing that interests me most about the speech, however, after having read it in full, is still his reference to the failure of Britain’s doctrine of state multiculturalism. The quiet omissions of history in his reference to “passive tolerance” is what I find most intriguing, and interestingly enough, I find this illustrated beautifully (and much more thoughtfully than in Mr. Cameron’s speech) in immigrant cinema in Britain.

When I first started taking an interest in British immigrant cinema, the difference in attitude towards the idea of assimilation between the cinemas of various immigrant societies struck me as rather curious. As a part of my research on postcolonial film in Britain, I watched Black British cinema, British Caribbean cinema, and British Asian cinema. It was British Asian cinema I was most interested in, but the more I watched it, the more uncomfortable it made me feel. Black British and British Caribbean cinema is mostly built upon a very strong sense of community. Their firm-fisted determination to identify themselves as Jamaican, or Ghanaian, or Trinidadian, as opposed to British, and their clear call to community solidarity in opposition to assimilation (in some films, even through the use of violence, when necessary), prompts a reading of these films as narratives of political activism.

British Asian cinema, on the other hand, often shows us a sharp divide between the various generations of immigrants, with their differences in opinion and lifestyle choices reading as an allegory of the varying experiences of postcolonial immigration. These differences are often built up as an opposition between conservatism and liberalism, tradition and modernity, and isolation and assimilation. Even though British Asian cinema has moved quite successfully from the margins to the mainstream, this binary has consistently shown up in its narratives. From the 1981 experimental film The Garland, to popular marginal films such as East is East (1999), to mainstream British films such as Bend it like Beckham (2002), the conservatism of first-generation immigrants acts mostly as comic relief, or as proof of the seemingly inherent oppression of various Asian cultures, while the better adjusted and well-adapted immigrants, with their aspiration to being more British than Asian, are the protagonists of the story, the ones we follow, relate, and sympathise with. Their quest to assimilate completely into British society is thought of as some kind of salvation, or at the very least, their only way out of the oppressive, regressive, nagging Asian society of which they are a part.

For obvious reasons, as I’ve mentioned in a post earlier, this is problematic. It took me a while to understand why British Asian cinema was so dearly wedded to this ideal of assimilation, while Black British, and British Caribbean cinema still insisted on holding onto the torch of resistance. The answer, as is often the case, lies in the political and social history of immigration from which these films arise.

Since the time the British colonial government starting pulling out of its various colonies all across the globe, immigration into the former colonial metropole from these far-flung and culturally very different places began in rather large numbers (as is often the case with postcolonial societies). As Shompa Lahiri and Antoinette Burton point out in their essays in British Culture and the End of Empire (2001), the UK had very inconsistent policies when it came to deciding how many people would come in from where, and how these people, formerly subjects of the colonial empire, would be treated, based on their potential contribution to the economic growth of the country. Because the nature of British colonialism in various parts of the world was so different, the nature of the immigrants differed as well. Postcolonial immigrants from parts of Africa or the Caribbean were often from the vast labour forces that were in the employ of the colonial government. In contrast, South Asian had a much wider range of immigrants to offer, from labour forces to businessmen with money, to English-educated intellectual elite. The hordes of immigrants coming in after Clement Attlee’s British Nationality Act of 1948 were curbed in two ways: in the 1950s the British government worked on a Bill that would formally put a cap on the number of immigrants (this came to fruition in a 1961 legislation by Harold MacMillan’s government, limiting immigration from the Commonwealth), and along with this, in South Asian, the British government worked with the governments of India and Pakistan to control the quality of immigrants coming into Britain (as a result of this, Lahiri points out, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a directive in 1955 to stop the migration from India of the poorly qualified and financed, and the Pakistani government went to even greater efforts to prevent illiterate migrants from traveling to Britain).

These measures of control, however, did not end at the source. With the increasing racial paranoia at home, the British government also adopted very different policies towards various groups of immigrants. In 1968, in reaction to the Labour Government’s Race Relations Bill, which prevented racial discrimination in housing, employment and public services, Enoch Powell, a member of the Conservative Party, delivered his now infamous “rivers of blood” speech, lashing out against the flow of immigrants who expected the same rights as those that were given to citizens. Following decades of discrimination and hostility, Burton points out that in the 1980s, the government of Margaret Thatcher adopted what was known as “enterprise culture,” where postcolonial immigrants who came into the country with good economic prospects were, while still being discriminated against socially, given ample economic opportunities by the British government (leading to one of my favourite scenes in British Asian cinema when Nasser, the successful Pakistani businessman, sits on his bed in his lavish home on the fringes of London, surrounded by his South Asian cronies, and raises a drink “to Thatcher”). African and Caribbean immigrants were therefore twice marginalized – socially as well as economically – whereas those Asian immigrants who came in with family money and established businesses, were able to stick their toe in the door, with the availability of economic opportunity. Looking into this history not only explains the differences in the various postcolonial immigrant cinemas in Britain, but also throws some light on the way we understand British multiculturalism.

There is a lot more than just “passive tolerance” to British multiculturalism. While the Prime Minister is right in saying that immigrant communities have kept to themselves in Britain, and refused to assimilate, the reasons for this are more murky and complex than just emotional attachment to the native culture (which, along with the immigrants’ right to not assimilate fully into the host society, is a whole other discussion), or just a stubborn refusal to adopt that social and political values that define Britishness. Assimilating into mainstream British society has been disincentivized in several ways for immigrant communities in the decades since the 1940s. And while it may also be accurate to suggest that activities such as terrorism, or something that causes harm at a smaller scale, such as forced marriages, are likelier to happen when communities live in isolation, and do not mix with the host society, in Britain and other former colonial powers, the roots of these problems are buried very, very deep, and cannot possibly be dug out with merely an “active, muscular liberalism.” Quite like with Millat in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the twin who remains in the UK, active, muscular liberalism could very easily translate into a threat to the immigrant’s own values and cultural traditions.

Shane Meadows made a film not long ago, named This is England (2006). As a film about the politics of race in 1980s Britain, the film unearths several grimy, entangled limbs of the roots of racism and multiculturalism in Britain. The persistence of colonial attitudes, the presence of scores of marginalised British natives resentful at the success of immigrants, the skinhead subculture, as well as the influence of political parties, are all a part of the dirt in which racism – systemic and social – take root.

My students – young, idealistic, and politically driven – ask me sometimes to explain the importance of studying film. Sometimes I tell them that studying art needs no justification. Sometimes, I say that a thing of beauty is important, and must be studied for just that – its beauty. And then I watch an overtly political film such as This is England, or the TV series on White Teeth, or Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), and find myself one of the most compelling reasons to study film. Film can be political without being politics, and is therefore allowed, and able, to say a lot more than a person in a position of power can or chooses to say. Racism, terrorism and the failure of British multiculturalism are all real and important problems that have to be addressed. But if they are to be addressed in any impactful way that attracts more than just the adoration of the Marine Le Pens and the consternation of the liberals of the world, one has to be prepared to dig deep enough to hit upon the failures of the host society as well. This is England makes this point in a way that David Cameron’s speech was too superficial to do.