Report Introduction

Bhikhu Parekh, chair of the Commission

The Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was set up in January 1998 by the Runnymede Trust, an independent think-tank devoted to the cause of promoting racial justice in Britain. The Commission’s remit was to analyse the current state of multi-ethnic Britain and propose ways of countering racial discrimination and disadvantage and making Britain a confident and vibrant multicultural society at ease with its rich diversity. It was made up of 23 distinguished individuals drawn from many community backgrounds and different walks of life, and with a long record of active academic and practical engagement with race-related issues in Britain and elsewhere. They brought to their task different views and sensibilities and, after a good deal of discussion, reached a consensus. The report is the product of their two years of deliberation.

Given the fluidity of social life and the constant emergence of new ideas and insights, no report can claim to be the last word on its subject, and this one most certainly advances no such claim. However, as a carefully researched and thought-out document, hammered out in searching discussions conducted in a spirit of intellectual and moral responsibility, it represents, we hope, a major contribution to the national debate. In view of the history of slavery and the violence inspired by racist doctrines, race is too important and sensitive an issue to be turned into a political football or approached in terms of narrow electoral calculations. We hope that our report will form the basis of, or at least pave the way for, a much-needed national consensus.

It is informed by several fundamental principles which in our view are, or deserve to be, shared by most people in Britain.

First, all individuals have equal worth irrespective of their colour, gender, ethnicity, religion, age or sexual orientation, and have equal claims to the opportunities they need to realise their potential and contribute to collective wellbeing. The principle of equal moral worth cannot take root and flourish within a structure of deep economic or social inequalities.

Second, citizens are both individuals and members of particular religious, ethnic, cultural and regional communities. Britain is both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a multicultural society, and needs to reconcile their sometimes conflicting requirements.

Third, since citizens have differing needs, equal treatment requires full account to be taken of their differences. When equality ignores relevant differences and insists on uniformity of treatment, it leads to injustice and inequality; when differences ignore the demands of equality, they result in discrimination. Equality must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner.

Fourth, every society needs to be cohesive as well as respectful of diversity, and must find ways of nurturing diversity while fostering a common sense of belonging and a shared identity among its constituent members.

Fifth, although every society needs a broadly shared body of values, of which human rights are a small but important part, there is a risk of defining these so narrowly that their further development is ruled out or legitimate ways of life are suppressed. While such essential procedural values as tolerance, mutual respect, dialogue and peaceful resolution of differences are paramount, as are such basic ethical norms as respect for human dignity, equal worth of all, equal opportunity for self-development and equal life chances, society must also respect deep moral differences and find ways of resolving inescapable conflicts. Human rights principles provide a sound framework for handling differences, and a body of values around which society can unite.

Finally, racism, understood either as division of humankind into fixed, closed and unalterable groups or as systematic domination of some groups by others, is an empirically false, logically incoherent and morally unacceptable doctrine. Racism is a subtle and complex phenomenon. It may be based on colour and physical features or on culture, nationality and way of life; it may affirm equality of human worth but implicitly deny this by insisting on the superiority of a particular culture; it may admit equality up to a point but impose a glass ceiling higher up. Whatever its subtle disguises and forms, it is deeply divisive, intolerant of differences, a source of much human suffering, and inimical to the common sense of belonging lying at the basis of every stable civilisation. It can have no place in a decent society.

We approach the current state of multi-ethnic Britain against the background of these and related principles. We believe that it is both possible and vitally necessary to create a society in which all citizens and communities feel valued, enjoy equal opportunities to develop their respective talents, lead fulfilling lives, accept their fair share of collective responsibility, and help create a collective life in which the spirit of civic goodwill, shared identity and common sense of belonging goes hand in hand with love of diversity. Having sketched our vision of a relaxed and self-confident multicultural Britain with which all people can identify, we analyse the obstacles standing in its way and propose policies most likely to overcome them. The obstacles include racial discrimination, racial disadvantage, a racially oriented moral and political culture, an inadequate philosophy of government, a lack of carefully thought-out and properly integrated administrative structures at various levels of government, and a lack of political will. The policies we propose address each of these. They require not only appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures, but also a radical shift in the manner in which British identity and the relations between different groups of citizens are generally defined.

The very language used to describe and define race relations in Britain is a source of considerable conceptual and political muddle. Such terms as ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ signify fixed blocs and obscure the fluidity and heterogeneity of real life. The term ‘ethnic group’ traps the group concerned into its ethnicity, and suppresses both its multiple identity and its freedom of self-determination. The term ‘integration’ is even more misleading, as it implies a one-way process in which ‘minorities’ are to be absorbed into the non-existent homogeneous cultural structure of the ‘majority’. We are fully aware of these and other limitations of the dominant language of debate. Inventing a wholly new vocabulary does not help, for such a language would be too abstract, artificial and unrelated to the idioms of everyday life to be intelligible, let alone provide a vehicle of meaningful dialogue. We have therefore thought it best to avoid parts of the current vocabulary when we could conveniently do so, and to redefine or use words with suitable qualifications and warnings when we could not.

A word about our mode of working is in order. We visited many regions, consulted a wide range of organisations, conducted interviews, organised focus group discussions and received several hundred written submissions. We also held several day-long seminars where well-known activists and experts in the field debated relevant issues in great detail; some of the participants later commented at length on the written reports of these seminars. The seminars were particularly helpful in relation to Part One of the report, which deals with issues of considerable theoretical and practical significance. For Part Two we commissioned papers from experts in the relevant areas, invited comments on them from other experts, and discussed these in full Commission meetings. Broadly the same procedure was followed also for Part Three.

We were frequently struck by the absence or inadequacy of research data in significant areas of public policy. We hope very much therefore that the Economic and Social Research Council will earmark funding for policy-related research on race and diversity issues, and similarly that other funding bodies will give high priority to research on the topics and concerns covered in this report.

For my part it has been a great privilege to chair this Commission of such distinguished and talented people over a period of two years. It was a delight to see them debate complex issues. I was also deeply moved by their enormous generosity and patience. In meeting after meeting they dissected drafts of the chapters, revising and even rethinking them in the light of their colleagues’ searching comments. They gave most magnanimously of their time and energy without any hope of reward, and sometimes wrote and rewrote whole chapters out of loyalty to their colleagues and commitment to the cause of a better Britain. Working with such wonderful colleagues has been both a humbling and an uplifting experience. The report is entirely their creation, and I only hope that the understandable but regrettable tendency to identify a report with a commission’s chair will be studiously resisted.

The Commission owes a deep debt of gratitude to a large number of individuals and organisations. They are all named in the acknowledgements in Appendices A and B. The report would not have been possible without the continuing support of the Runnymede Trust and the generosity of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Nuffield Foundation and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, our three funders. I should like to express my own and the Commission’s profound indebtedness to Robin Richardson for his marvellous skill in turning discussions and thoughts into a cogent text. I also thank Sir John Burgh, and the Commission’s staff for their support over the last two years.

The report was inspired by and intended to rethink the seminal report Colour and Citizenship by Jim Rose and his colleagues, published in 1969. As a founder and trustee of the Runnymede Trust, Jim took a keen interest in our work and was most anxious to see its publication. Sadly he died last year. We salute his memory with pride, remember with sadness those who died victims of or in the course of struggle against racial injustice, and express our deepest gratitude to those countless white, black and Asian people in Britain who are continuing the struggle in small and large ways. Every generation owes its successors a duty to bequeath them a better country than it inherited. This report offers one way of discharging that great historical obligation.


England, Scotland and Wales are at a turning point in their history. They could become narrow and inward-looking, with rifts between themselves and among their regions and communities, or they could develop as a community of citizens and communities. Britain as a whole could be such a community, and also each region, city, town and neighbourhood within it. Building and sustaining a community of citizens and communities will involve:

  • rethinking the national story and national identity
  • understanding that all identities are in a process of transition
  • developing a balance between cohesion, difference and equality
  • addressing and eliminating all forms of racism
  • reducing material inequalities
  • building a human rights culture

Part One of the report discusses each of these six themes in turn. Part Two considers the six themes in various areas of social policy. It starts with a discussion of police and policing. This is where, for many citizens and communities, the abstract concepts of equality, rights, difference and belonging are most clearly and concretely seen – or not seen. But the police service is only one part of the wider criminal justice system. The report looks next, therefore, at this wider structure. It continues by considering the education systems of England, Scotland and Wales, then cultural policy, health and welfare, and employment.

How a state sees and controls the borders between itself and others is of paramount importance. Therefore the report looks also at immigration and asylum policy. This is currently a topic of great political sensitivity, and the report therefore considers the responsibilities of politicians in leading public opinion. In addition, the discussion of politics embraces issues of representation on elected and unelected bodies. Part Two closes with a consideration of religious motivations and affiliations, and of relations between religious bodies and the state in a multi-faith society.

Part Three is concerned with strategies for change at national, regional, local and institutional levels. It begins with a discussion of the role of government in providing direction and resources, driving through change, and leading by example. The report then argues that legislation on equality needs reforming and strengthening, and discusses how this might be achieved. Finally, there is consideration of what every organisation or institution needs to do if Britain is to develop as community of citizens and communities.

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