Faith and public policy in Leicester and the lessons for multiculturalism in Britain

Stephen H. Jones

Stephen JonesTaking a closer look at Leicester shows that many of our assumptions about multicultural policies – that they corrode national identity, and that they are currently in retreat – are questionable. Yet the approach taken to the incorporation of religious minorities in Leicester faces new challenges as the city’s population undergoes new changes. Renewal is needed, but this will not be easy in a context of public austerity.

This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Leicester.

Get a pdf of this article here

On the 8th March 2012 Queen Elizabeth II launched her diamond jubilee celebrations with a tour of the UK leading up to a national public holiday lasting four days in early June. As a first destination for the tour, the Queen (or one of her advisers) chose Leicester. The choice, as commentators at the time observed, appeared calculated. Leicester is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas outside of London, one of just three places that can be classified as a ‘plural city’ in which no single ethnic group forms a majority.[1]  On the day, the royal party was greeted by a brass band, Sikh dhol drummers, a Zimbabwean women’s choir, Chinese dancers and a Hindu Holi festival dance number that was performed during a service in Leicester Cathedral. The visit seemed have been designed not just to illustrate how Britain has changed since the Queen’s enthronement in 1952, but also to convey a message about the inclusiveness of present-day Britain.

Although arguably little more than a feel-good celebration of ethnocultural diversity – a fine example of what has been called the ‘3S’ model of multiculturalism based on ‘saris, samosas, and steel drums’[2] – this recognition by the royal family of Leicester was notable for two main reasons. Firstly, the visit cut against the view shared by politicians, media analysts and many academics that multiculturalism is in retreat. It has become commonplace to hear notices of multiculturalism’s demise since at least 2005, yet here was the head of state in Britain, in 2012, choosing to publicly celebrate the UK’s pluralism. In Leicester, national rhetoric about multiculturalism does not seem to reflect local reality.

Secondly, the tour offered a small glimpse of the policy model employed in Leicester, which again puts a common assumption about multiculturalism into question. One of the key criticisms levelled at multicultural policies is that they, by supporting the traditions and cultures of ethnic minorities, undermine national cultures. Yet this criticism, I want to show in what follows, is misplaced in Leicester’s case. Arguably the primary aim of multicultural policy in Leicester – over the last ten years especially – is the incorporation of ethno-religious minorities into British national and local civic traditions. The involvement of ethnic minorities in the Queen’s visit was just one means of doing this.


“In Leicester, national rhetoric about multiculturalism does not reflect local reality.”


Yet while the most persistent criticisms of multicultural policies cannot be easily applied to Leicester, this does not mean it is beyond criticism. Indeed, this very emphasis by policymakers and civic bodies on unity and tradition has drawbacks, which policymakers currently need to address. The Queen’s visit appeared to confirm Leicester’s status as the official representative of a successful British multicultural city. It is a place praised for avoiding inter-ethnic disturbances and political radicalism. This reputation is deserved, but it can mask a more complex and difficult reality.

Multicultural practices in Leicester

Public policy in Leicester has been recognisably multicultural in orientation since the 1980s, when a progressive wing of the local Labour party took control of the city council, forging partnerships with ethnic community associations as it did so.[3] Successfully working to counter racism in the council, the local labour movement and the local press, this wing ushered in a new style of governance. Government funds were used to support ethnic and religious community associations, especially among the city’s emerging South Asian population, many of whom had arrived in the 1970s after being expelled from East Africa. Inter-faith work was promoted (some years before New Labour prioritised it at a national level), with the council playing a major role in promoting the Leicester Council of Faiths from a small inter-faith group to a visible symbol of unity among the city’s faith traditions. A large base of skilled English-speaking migrants allowed the council to build a number of strong, long-term relationships with civic groups, some of which have lasted decades.

Masjid Umar, Evington, Leicester

Leicester’s most successful Muslim group, the Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO), is a good example. The FMO was established in 1984. Like the UK’s largest national-level Muslim representative body, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the FMO claims to represent a range of affiliated organisations – 187 in total according to its most high-profile member, PR Officer Suleman Nagdi.[4] Unlike the MCB, though, the FMO’s history has been relatively trouble-free. It was not, unlike many local Muslim groups, set up by the local state and it has managed to avoid major internal disputes while incorporating all the mosques in the city, despite their cultural and theological differences.[5] The group has maintained good relations with the council, in part because of the organisation’s participation in civic events and support of Labour’s equality agenda. In recent years it has worked with the council to establish a circumcision clinic, improve standards and child protection in local madrasahs and even deliver the controversial Prevent agenda (of which neither the council nor the FMO are particularly fond: the former ‘rebranded’ Prevent in 2008 then ‘outsourced’ its delivery to a multi-faith centre in 2010). Despite Prevent’s unpopularity among Muslims, the FMO’s involvement in it does not appear to have harmed its credibility.


“In Leicester, a large base of skilled English-speaking migrants has allowed the council to build a number of strong, long-term relationships with civic groups, some of which have lasted decades.”


Multicultural policy in Leicester has since the 1980s involved the public celebration of minority religious and cultural festivals such as Diwali, Vaisaki and Eid. The city’s Diwali celebrations in particular are nationally renowned. However, this has been, especially since the implementation of the ‘community cohesion’ agenda,[6] complemented by efforts to incorporate non-Christian faith organisations in rituals associated with British national history. The FMO plays a part in Leicester’s Holocaust memorial service, for example. Nagdi and Resham Singh Sandhu, a former Chair of the Council of Faiths, are both Deputy Lieutenants for Leicestershire, and the former has the role of laying the wreath on behalf of the Crown at the county’s Remembrance Sunday ceremony. The Church of England also plays a ‘convening’ role in multi- and inter-faith work. To take one instance of this, it hosted non-denominational services prior to English Defence League (EDL) protests in 2012, involving faith leaders from all traditions (including Humanism) in a communion-like ceremony.

Indeed, my 29 interviews with councillors, faith leaders and activists suggested that, as well as being involved in civic rituals,  the most publicly visible Muslims in Leicester are overwhelmingly supportive of national institutions such as the monarchy and establishment (obviously, this is not necessarily true for all of the city’s Muslims). As Nagdi commented in an interview, ‘Here we applaud British law, British values and the British constitution’.[7] The same point was made by Hussein Suleman, a former councillor and governor of Madani High School, an Islamic comprehensive:

The vast majority of the Muslims that I know … we’re royalists. We’re very proud of … Queen and country….  [W]e actually originate from Africa…. My father and his father have been staunch Brits, in the British army as well.[8]

National traditions and new minorities

It would be misplaced, then, to criticise multiculturalism in Leicester for undermining national cultural traditions. The familiar criticism that ethnic and religious groups in Britain are living ‘parallel lives’ because of a failure, at policy level, to reinforce a sense of national belonging is at best highly unfair. Yet this does not mean that the approach taken in Leicester to the management of diversity is beyond criticism. Multicultural policy in Leicester consistently emphasises unity, stability and common ground. The focus is generally upon civic leadership and public culture, with the aim usually being to incorporate religious and community leaders within wider civic processes and ceremonies. This has some undoubted strengths, and the strong personal links built between different religious groups in Leicester are not to be taken lightly. When in 2010 and 2012 the English Defence League staged marches in Leicester, Christian, Hindu and Sikh leaders were able to speak out against the marchers as one. By the same token, when a local rabbi’s home was vandalised in 2011 a team of Muslims were mobilised to ‘stand guard’ outside his house and escorted him to and from his local place of worship every day for the following week in a show of solidarity.[9]


“Emphasis on maintaining the image of a stable, unified city can easily distract from the changes going on the ground.”


St Phil Centre
St Philip’s Centre, a nationally renowned multi-faith organisa-tion in Evington, Leicester

Yet Séan McLoughlin’s description of community relations policies in Leicester as ‘ultimately conservative’ is nonetheless apt.[10] Established institutions and rituals – from Remembrance Sunday to Church ceremonies and royal visits – are used as a vehicle to promote togetherness and unity across the full range of faiths. The emphasis on unity can also, at times, turn into conservative wariness among leaderships of controversial or heterodox positions. One illustration of this wariness was the opposition of the Leicester Council of Faiths to the staging of Jerry Springer: The Opera in Leicester in 2006. Sandhu, who is himself Sikh and was then the Council of Faiths’ Chair, emerged as one of the play’s most vocal opponents, arguing that the play would imperil ‘community cohesion’ in the city.[11]

The key question is how well suited this approach is to addressing Leicester’s most pressing challenges, some of which are significant. Leicester is ranked as the 20th most deprived local authority region according to the 2007 Indices of Multiple Deprivation. The proportion of primary school pupils (ages 5-11) taking free school meals in the city is, at 21.3 per cent, more than double the average for the East Midlands region and eight per cent above the UK national average.[12] Separation and tension between religious minorities have also been highlighted by academic writers and the city council.[13]

Moreover, as I and Dominic Baker have shown elsewhere in this series, the city’s population is becoming more diverse, with the established White British and East African Asian populations being joined by Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali, Polish, Afghan and Kurdish minorities, as well as many other groups. One of the implications of this is that established connections between the different religious traditions (Muslim, Hindu and Sikh) within the African South Asian diaspora cannot be relied on. Local government needs to engage with new faces, but this is not always easy: the city council has made some attempts to set up new minority umbrella groups – for example of Somalis and Iraqis – but these efforts have often served only to aggravate existing intra-community divisions.[14]

Of course, no strategy aimed at minority incorporation will be able to solve these problems alone, and there is a danger of falling into the trap of blaming multicultural policies for problems whose origins lie in economic stagnation or increasing inequality. Even so, this emphasis on maintaining the image of a stable, unified city can easily distract from the changes going on the ground. The emphasis on tradition and ritual is also likely to struggle to engage a new younger generation and new minority groups who do not have a personal link to the colonial African context. It may be, then, that Leicester could benefit from letting its public mask slip and moving beyond the public celebrations and rituals to work through more complex differences in belief and experience.

Stephen H. Jones is Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and one of the editors of Public Spirit. He is a sociologist of religion specialising in Muslims and Islam in Britain. In 2012 he carried out research in Leicester as part of the ESRC/AHRC Religion and Society Programme project ‘Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance’.

[1] Of the local authorities in Britain with the highest percentage of population who are non-UK born, the top twenty-two are all London boroughs, with Brent coming top of the list. See Steven Vertovec, ‘Super-diversity and Its Implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 6 (November 2007): 1030–1031. The three plural cities outside of London are Slough, Luton and Leicester. See CoDE, Does Britain Have Plural Cities? (Manchester: CoDE/Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2013),

[2] Alibhai-Brown in Will Kymlicka, Multiculturalism: Success, Failure, and the Future (Washington DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2012), 4.

[3] Gurharpal Singh, ‘A City of Surprises: Urban Multiculturalism and the “Leicester Model”’, in A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain (London: Hurst & Co., 2006), 291–304.

[4] Interview, 15/11/2011.

[5] Steven Vertovec, ‘Multicultural, multi-Asian, multi-Muslim Leicester: Dimensions of Social Complexity, Ethnic Organization and Local Government Interface.’, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Sciences 7, no. 3 (1994): 259–274.

[6] The language of cohesion was enthusiastically embraced by the city council following a report on the topic. See I&DeA, Taking Forward Community Cohesion in Leicester (Leicester: Improvement and Development Agency/Leicester City Council, 2002).

[7] Interview, 15/11/2011.

[8] Interview, 04/05/2012.

[9] This comment is based on interviews with senior police officers in Leicester, though see also Open Society Institute, Muslims in Leicester (London: Open Society Institute, 2010), 111.

[10] Seán McLoughlin, ‘Discrepant Representations of multi-Asian Leicester: Institutional Discourse and Everyday Life in the “model” Multicultural City’, in Writing the City in British-Asian Diasporas, ed. Sean McLoughlin et al. (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

[11] Chrissy Harris, ‘Fury over Springer Opera’, Leicester Mercury, 9 March 2005.

[12] Leicester City Council, The Diversity of Leicester: A Demographic Profile (Leicester: Leicester City Council, 2008), 14–15.

[13] Philip Lewis, Young, British and Muslim, annotated edition (London, UK: Continuum, 2007); John Clayton, ‘Living the Multicultural City: Acceptance, Belonging and Young Identities in the City of Leicester, England’, Ethnic and Racial Studies (2011): 1–21.

[14] Interview with two senior council officers, 29/11/2011

The image of Masjid Umar is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The image of The St Philip’s Centre is included courtesy of the St Philip’s Centre, Leicester.

4 Responses to “Faith and public policy in Leicester and the lessons for multiculturalism in Britain”

  1. Jim Matthws

    This series of articles has made a fascinating read… my congratulations to all the authors.
    However, I feel I must comment on the single, dismissive, reference to the role of the Press.
    Stephen says: “Public policy in Leicester has been recognisably multicultural in orientation since the 1980s, when a progressive wing of the local Labour party took control of the city council, forging partnerships with ethnic community associations as it did so. Successfully working to counter racism in the council, the local labour movement and the local press, this wing ushered in a new style of governance.”
    This statement suggests that the press was merely dragged along on the coat-tails of the local labour movement.
    That is far from the truth. The local evening newspaper (for which I was a journalist for nearly 35 years) and the local BBC radio station often led while collaborating with local councillors (of all political persuasions) and other organisations on a wide range of initiatives to increase community cohesion.
    I must be honest and admit that over the years not all of my newspaper colleagues approved of multiculturalism as a project. And I think the same could be said of some broadcasters. But under the determined leadership of some visionary editors, the Leicester Mercury helped to positively shape public opinion.
    It was unusual in 1975 for a provincial evening newspaper to employ Asian journalists. The Leicester Mercury has continued to do so, even though many aspirational second-generation British-Asian families wanted their children to have a ‘proper career’ like being a doctor or dentist. Journalism would be an acceptable hobby or second career.
    Not all of the newspaper’s well-meaning attempts to appeal to its growing potential Asian readership were successful. The Asia edition, focussing on news from the sub-continent, did not last long. Many, including Asians, thought it increased polarisation.
    Nick Carter, (Leicester Mercury editor 1993-2009) did more than most regional editors. He ensured that street surveys – known to journalists as ‘vox pops’ – always featured a proportionate number of black and brown faces. Leaders of minority communities were invited to advise the newspaper on its direction and coverage. People from a wide range of faiths were able to read not only about their festivals including Diwali, Vaisakhi, Ramadan, but they were able to contribute to the city’s knowledge and understanding of itself. More and more people from minority communities would seek space in the newspaper to join the debates about wearing of the veil, remembering the Holocaust, and to tell their stories of fleeing homelands as refugees.
    The newspaper became much more colourful. The ‘white’ areas of resentment in some of the outer estates shrank in size. Diwali, the Mela, the Caribbean Carnival and more were promoted as never before by the city’s media and grew in popularity, size and significance.
    The Leicester Multicultural Advisory Group was established by Nick Carter to resist those who sought to promote intolerance and violence. As many brown faces as white met regularly at the newspaper’s offices. They met when there were crises like planned EDL marches and rumours of interracial gang violence. They met when some might have said there was no need. By doing so, they became friends; sometimes critical friends, but friends nonetheless. They listened and they learned. They – particularly the police and the local council – took back what they had learned, to help their peers fine-tune their attitudes and policies.
    The city council (through some wonderfully knowledgeable and committed staff) initially provided secretarial support to the group. Cuts brought that to an end.
    Ask any of those who sat on that body whether they had tagged along on the coat-tails of the local labour group (particularly those from the local Labour group!) and they would say that the local media played much more than a supporting role. They undoubtedly helped Leicester mature into a city with rare levels of self-knowledge, and understanding of the responsibilities of the individual while being free to be themselves.
    I broke off, while writing this response to your series, to watch the national TV news show the Bishop of Leicester and other leaders of faiths and non-faith communities go into a church to show support for two families, one Black, one Muslim, bereaved by five murders. In any other city, I dare to suggest, the police would be fearful of racial or faith-based backlashes. But not in Leicester. Not here where the media has been treated as an equal partner by civic and community leaders to help them forge a city which, once again, is the ‘go-to’ example of a place of diversity and solidarity in adversity.

  2. Jim Matthews

    OOOPs, my earlier comment should be from Jim Matthews !

    • Stephen Jones

      Many thanks for your comment Jim. You’re quite right to pull me up about neglectig the press in the above article. I would have liked to include more about the press – and the Mercury’s role particularly – but I’m afraid there is only so much one can fit in over 2,000 words!

      As you’ve set out details about the press in Leicester very well I won’t say more about that, but I would add that the research for this did involve working with the local press in the Leicester Multicultural Advisory Group. This will be covered in more detail in a longer version of the article, which is in progress. Stephen

  3. Allan Hayes

    Yes, we get on well with one another in Leicester. I, a humanist and on the board of Leicester Secular Society, am on Leicester SACRE, St Philips Roadshow and the College of Further Education chaplaincy team; I am invited to iftaars; I feel at home in this city; but, I am described as of no faith, cannot be on the Council of Faiths and cannot be a full member of SACRE.
    I can just about live with this, but the question of the role of religion in our national society is an increasingly serious one and needs attention. Religion means a lot to some but is rejected by many – it cannot provide a basis for our society. Unfortunately there is a tendency for the religious to rely on privilege and status, and for academics to look on it as something to study – we have a political issue that needs to be addressed.
    The situation is well documented:
    Many of the country’s youth choose to have no religion (one third of 16 to 24 year olds in Leicester choose this); belief in God and regard for religious leaders is noticeably lacking, and three times as many see religion as cause for evil as see it as a cause of good ( People in general do not feel that religious leader speak for them (; and membership of the Church of England has plummeted ( ).
    Religious education in our state schools is in crisis ( Faith schools threaten more division, yet the Church of England and the Catholic Church are allowed to gain more control, even of non-faith schools. The government “does God” and promotes religion, and some ministers speak against secularism.
    This is not good.
    We need to join together, religious and otherwise, in creating a broader view of humanity and a fairer society with which we can all identify (;


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