But what is, what are these 'national identities'?
They can be nothing more than the history - invariably mythologised
- of a population, of a territory, of a state, with which people
identify. As Renan said, a nation is a daily plebiscite. As for
immigrant communities, they have to be able to share those histories,
otherwise they will remain foreigners. And in order to identify
with a sense of the past, they must find acceptance in the present.
This has to be a process of give and take between the host and
Members of immigrant communities can respond
in one of three ways. First, they can assimilate; that is, abandon
their ethnic identity and become wholly absorbed into the host
community. For example, an immigrant woman might marry a native-born
Englishman and relinquish all ties with her own native culture
- that is, if the wider host culture does not stand in her way.
Assimilation, however, came to be frowned on as multiculturalism
became the status quo. But even so voluntary assimilation must
be the personal right of every immigrant.
The second response is integration
- what we call multiculturalism. With the rise of multiculturalism,
assimilation became a bit if a dirty word. It carried the overtone
of forced absorption and the devaluation of an immigrant's native
ethnic culture. To integrate means to become a part of the wider
community, but to retain a sense of one's own ethnic community.
There is nothing wrong with multiculturalism, provided it in itself
does not become a means of browbeating those immigrants who want
to assimilate, and an obstacle to their assimilation. There is
nothing wrong - indeed, there is a positive good - in ethnic diversity
set within a strong, overarching culture of democracy.