Liberal policy for refugees?

Posted on February 10, 2016

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A liberal policy on refugees needs to be comprehensive and confront potentially conflicting ideological values.

This article was first published in Liberal Democrat Voice 

They say that there is no war that is more difficult and emotionally draining than a civil war. So it is with ideas. When liberals and progressives fight conservatives, the battles are easy. Each is convinced of their own righteousness and, when they run out of arguments, can simply dismiss the other side as being either Neanderthal or degenerate and therefore not worthy of much consideration. Everyone can go to bed enveloped in their own warm glow of self-belief.

Much more difficult are conflicting ideas that spring from the same ideology. Because resolution is difficult, these issues tend to get quietly swept under the carpet to be addressed some other time that never quite arrives.

I would like to raise one of these issues here. It relates to immigration, refugees and the liberal ideals of our societies. David Cameron has been roundly condemned for simplistically linking language skills with radicalisation. And rightly so. However, those who read Cameron’s article in The Times could see that around the Prime Minister’s cack-handed focus on language skills, he also brought to the fore some real, serious and difficult issues.

The liberal ideal has always advocated a spirit of openness, tolerance and an international outlook. The welcoming of immigrants and refugees has flowed naturally from these principles. However, what has not yet been adequately addressed by liberals is the relationship between multi-cultural societies, liberal ideals and people’s inherent need for a sense of identity.

Liberals have spent decades fighting for the freedom to practice any religion or none, the rights of women, homosexuals and other groups that have been subject in the past to terrible prejudice and discrimination. However, it is undeniable that a proportion of our immigrant population has been brought up in a culture in which such ideas do not fit comfortably.

How should a liberal react to this inherent conflict? Take the liberal view that all cultures are different and should be accepted for what they are provided they can live comfortably side by side? Or take the view that liberal ideals hard fought for for decades need to be defended? That in a secular, liberal society discrimination against women or any other group is unacceptable in any community. That individuals should be allowed to practice any religion or none without fear of being ostracized when they make their own adult choices.

It is easy to duck the issue and talk about integration. But what does that mean? And is it reasonable to expect it to happen? Does integration mean expecting all individuals, families and communities to give up long and deeply held religious and cultural beliefs? Or does it mean that, provided they’re not too obvious, we can turn a blind eye to behaviours among certain communities that we, as liberals, would not tolerate for a minute among others?

In today’s political climate it is both unwise and unreasonable to fudge or ignore these inherent conflict of ideals. No party that argues for an open hearted approach to refugees can be credible without an equally clear position on how to manage the difficult cultural questions that inevitably arise. Ignoring and being silent on these very real issues simply fertilizes the ground on which UKIP-style xenophobia flourishes.

There are no easy or obvious answers. Agree with him of not, Cameron has clearly set out his stall. We must too.