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Nicholas Leonard: Tolerance has failed, prejudice is everywhere

David Cameron has triggered the biggest controversy since he became prime minister by launching an outspoken attack on the politically correct notion of 'multiculturalism' and pleading for Britain to become more 'British'.

Cameron delighted right-wing MPs with his denunciation of efforts to appease Islamist extremists which, he believes, have simply fuelled the risks of terrorism. "We need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism," he said.

Critics of this aggressive approach fear he has simply lent credibility to far-right organisations such as the English Defence League which got 2,000 of its supporters on to the streets in Luton at the weekend.

The chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, is the first Muslim to be a cabinet minister. She has been standing up for Cameron in public but his speech comes weeks after she launched an attack on 'Islamaphobia' and, privately, she must be wondering whether "muscular liberalism" will not simply be used as an excuse for further anti-Muslim prejudice.

The head of the Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, has pointed out that the social integration of Muslims is not taking place for a very simple reason: "If you take the biggest Muslim community, Pakistanis, 25pc of Pakistani men are taxi drivers, 75pc of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are economically inactive. The issue here is not some sort of abstract culture. The place most people integrate is in the workplace. If people can't get jobs, you can't expect them to integrate."

It took more than four centuries after Henry VIII for the social reintegration of Catholics into British society to become a reality, starting with Daniel O'Connell's election in 1829 and culminating in the conversion of a former prime minister, Tony Blair.

The process of trying to integrate Muslims is proving even more fraught. The US is convinced that Britain has become an incubation area for homegrown extremists and that MI6 does not have sufficient resources to deal with it.

Lord Alex Carlile, the independent peer responsible for monitoring anti-terror legislation, said last week that European humans rights laws were key. "The effect is to make the UK a safe haven for some individuals whose determination is to damage the UK and its citizens -- hardly a satisfactory situation save for the purist."

Muslims are not the only minority in Britain currently concerned with social prejudice. There were as many as 639 anti-semitic attacks reported last year and 'Jew' has become a frequent term of abuse in schoolyards and in internet chatrooms. Some social commentators believe that the regular abuse of a Jewish character in 'The Simpsons' has made this appear acceptable.

Disturbingly, there is also evidence of schoolyard-style abuse in the House of Commons itself.

Paul Maynard, who was elected as Conservative MP for a Blackpool constituency last year, revealed at the weekend that when he spoke in the Commons he was subjected to crude innuendo by Labour MPs who were mocking him because he was disabled and had cerebral palsy. They laughed at his speech impediment and pulled faces at him.

The man responsible for stopping this kind of behaviour is the speaker, John Bercow. But he has problems of his own. His wife, Sally, a would-be Labour MP, decided to celebrate Valentine's Day by allowing herself to be photographed in the Commons with a bedsheet draped around her.

David Cameron's 'Big Society' initiative was dealt a blow last week when the head of it, Lord Wei, said it was causing him serious financial problems to work for it for nothing.

Such mundane concerns are not going to trouble Cameron and his key cabinet colleagues. The latest disclosures of ministerial interests show that several ministers are closely involved with the much-criticised banking sector. One of them Lord Green, has given a banking bonus of almost €4m to charity and the father of the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is chairman of United Trust Bank which specialises in loans for property development.

Irish Independent