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Modern City States

The Ancient Greek Solution to Multiculturalism

Many Britons like to believe that the UK is a shining example of multiculturalism. We constantly hear of how much more tolerant the British are than the French, Germans, Danes etc, and how we’ve handled the issue of immigration so much more successfully. Of course, it’s all spin. Britain is a seething cauldron of racial tension, and as soon as you talk to real people in real pubs, you hear the bile pouring out.

Multicultural Britain is Ghetto Britain. The whole country is riven with unacknowledged apartheid. A recent Panorama programme highlighted the case of Blackburn. This town has been split in two, into a white half (where 'white' refers to  the indigenous population of Britain) and a Muslim half. Panorama tracked the movements of two taxis – one driven by a white man and the other by a Muslim – and discovered that neither car ever ventured into the ‘wrong’ side of town.

Blackburn is simply a more visible version of what has happened throughout the country – ‘no-go’ areas have popped up everywhere. The process is a familiar one. Immigrant families enter certain districts of a town, ‘white flight’ soon becomes evident and the whole district is gradually populated by immigrants. The immigrant area relentlessly expands until it reaches some clearly defined barrier such as a river, a motorway, countryside etc.

Neither the immigrants nor the whites (and, of course, the immigrants are often white themselves these days, but come from Eastern Europe) are engaging in anything sinister. Immigrants like to be with those who share their culture, language, understand their problems, enjoy their cuisine and ways of doing thing. It’s only natural that they should congregate in the same places. By the same token, the indigenous population, have, on the whole, no desire to end up surrounded by a n imported culture alien to them, so as soon as the immigrant population reaches a certain critical mass in a particular area, the indigenous population depart. Some people might suspect underlying racism, but how can it be non-racist for immigrants to wish to stick together and then racist for the indigenous population to wish to do exactly the same?

We now live in patchwork Britain. Communities are developing separately from each other, with different standards of living, different cultural norms and alternative ways of perceiving the world. Resentment, suspicion and hostility between different communities are only to be expected. If this sullen, divided nation is the manifestation of the great triumph of multiculturalism, something has gone horribly wrong.

Are there are examples from history that might provide us with genuinely successful models of multicultural development? One that leaps out is Ancient Greece. For obvious reasons, it can’t be considered an example of racial multiculturalism, but the city-states that comprised Ancient Greece unquestionably promoted radically different cultures in other ways.

The two most notable Greek city-states were, famously, Athens and Sparta. Athens was a democracy (although women had no vote and neither did the huge slave population, nor freedmen, nor anyone not born in Athens), and produced famous philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, great tragic playwrights such as Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, comic writers such as Aristophanes, beautiful architecture such as the Parthenon, wonderful sculptures, great historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides. It also had a superb navy and became a great maritime and mercantile power.

Sparta, by contrast, operated a system of dual monarchy. It was a ferocious military power, and the abilities of its soldiers became legendary. It deliberately didn’t build walls around the city to illustrate that its soldiers were the only defence it required. The concentration on military affairs left no room for anything else. Sparta produced no significant architecture, philosophy, poetry or art: a sterile culture in almost every way. It maintained a reign of terror over a huge slave population, fearing the slaves were always on the point of revolt. Oddly, women were highly esteemed in Sparta and enjoyed far more privileges than other Greek women. Amongst other things, they were encouraged to train and exercise, thus becoming famed for their beautifully honed bodies: the predecessors of today’s gym bunnies.

Thebes and Corinth were the other two most prominent Greek city-states, though there were scores of others, mostly in alliance with the major players. Competition was fierce between the city-states, sublimated in the form of great events such as the Olympics, but usually expressed in savage wars.

Nevertheless, it was from these Greek city-states that practically the whole of modern European culture emanated. And it was again thanks to city-states that European culture emerged from a bleak period of stagnation in the dark and middle ages. The Renaissance sprang from the Italian city-states of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: world-renowned cities such as Florence, Rome, Naples, Turin and Venice. Without this particular Italianate city-state structure, the Renaissance may never have happened. As in Ancient Greece, competition between city-states was bitter, and violent conflicts frequent. Nevertheless, art, science and culture in general flowered in this cut-throat environment. Great patrons of the arts such as the Medicis came to the fore. Culture, like war, was in a sense a continuation of politics by other means; another way of demonstrating a city-state’s power, status and superiority. Science and technology, as engines of progress in weapons design, were heavily supported. Political theorists such as Machiavelli also found themselves in vogue.

Germany, in the time of the Holy Roman Empire, was largely a collection of city-states, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it too became a powerhouse of advances in philosophy, science, maths, music and literature.

Scotland in the eighteenth century was in some sense a large city-state centred on Edinburgh, with a burning desire to distinguish itself following the Union with England in 1707. The Scottish Enlightenment gave us two figures of global importance: Adam Smith in economics, and David Hume in philosophy.

History has demonstrated over and over that city-states bring something extra to the party. The intense rivalry they engender often becomes associated with accelerated advances in science, technology, philosophy and art. City-states are a tried-and-tested antidote to stagnation and cultural stultification.

So, how could modern Britain make use of city-states to address the problem of multiculturalism? The key is not to be frightened by ghettoisation, but to take it much further and transform it into a positive virtue. We could have a Hindu city-state for the Indian community, a city-state for Orthodox Jews, one for Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc.

Muslims tend to be either liberal or fundamentalist. There could be a city-state for each type. The fundamentalist city-state should be allowed to apply its own local laws, which would probably involve Sharia law.

Some might say that in this time of the War on Terror, it would be mad to allow fundamentalists to set up their own ‘safe haven’ within Britain. However, this policy would actually enhance our security. All those disaffected youths who spend their time loathing Britain and the West would now throw their energies into proving the ‘superiority’ of their Islamic city-state. Their efforts would be constructively channelled and result in productive outcomes. Far from attacking Britain, they would become proud Muslims and ultimately proud Britons too, just as the Athenians and Spartans were proud of their city-states and proud of being Greek.

Fundamentalist Muslim women could happily wear the hijab, niqab, the burqa without offending anyone. The Islamic city-state could send its children to its own Islamic schools without interference.

Of course, any Muslim who preferred not to live in a Muslim city-state wouldn’t have to, but they’d also have to leave behind the visible signs of their religion if they chose to go to a non-Muslim city-state. No veils; no ethnic wear.

Let the BNP have their own city-state, and let them expend their energies on trying to run it successfully. Handicapped and disabled people could have their own purpose-built city-state if they wished, and the opportunity to run their own affairs without being discriminated against. Lesbian and gays, swingers, married couples, the elderly, intellectuals, artists, loved-up smug singles, sexy singles – they could all have their own city-states where they could indulge their lifestyles, or have them tailored for their specific needs, without aggravating others.

There could also be a city-state for all new immigrants. Any newcomer to the UK would have to stay in this city-state for at least a year before being allowed to move to a different city-state in the UK proper. Since their own quality of life would be adversely impacted by too much immigration, the immigrant community in this city-state would find it in their interests to restrict the amount of new immigrants coming into the country. If this city-state is sealed off from the rest of the country then the quality of life of the immigrants who live there becomes directly dependent on whom they let in. It’s a counterintuitive solution to immigration, but perhaps exactly what’s needed. Having immigrants police themselves might prove the perfect method for controlling immigration.

Historically, city-states have proved disproportionately creative and rapidly adaptive to changing circumstances. Citizens tend to take greater pride in their city-state than they do in their nation as a whole. Their self-respect, self-confidence and self-pride are all higher. Separate communities can evolve without interference from disapproving opponents. Ghettoes can be transformed from minuses into pluses. Is this the perfect model for multicultural Britain?

Of course, the whole thing is a pipe dream. Britain will never become a nation of city-states engaging in creative competition with one another. City-states evolved naturally in the past; they were never artificially created. Even if people liked the idea, no one would be able to agree on what city-states there should be and where they should be located. Many people would refuse to relocate. Yet, somehow, perhaps on a much more limited scale, we should try to harness the proven benefits of this model to escape the destructive ghettoisation that’s plaguing our nation and leading to simmering resentments between communities. Whereas ghettoes place an ‘alien’ community in the midst of an unwelcoming host community, city-states separate the two communities entirely, to their mutual benefit.

Isn’t there anyone who dreams of the glories of Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth being reborn in grey, dreary old Britain? The whole country could be energised by being broken into city-states. Remember that old Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico where a tiny part of London declared itself a separate state? Perhaps it wasn’t so much fanciful as prophetic.