Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour's Leader in the House of Lords
The debt we owe to the communities that built this country is immense. Minority communities have helped build our economy, make our history and bind our communities and I am proud to live in a country that has diversity at its very core.
Some of those that helped lay the foundations were members of the Zoroastrian faith. The anniversary of the formation of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe offers us an opportunity to say thank you to those who are using their faith as a tool for good in the world. Creative, courageous, entrepreneurial and industrious, they have made and continue to make a huge impact on our lives – from the Tata family to Freddie Mercury.
Another example is Zerbanoo Gifford, a tireless campaigner for justice and human rights and a passionate advocate for democracy and women’s empowerment. She is the founder of the ASHA centre in the Forest of Dean. It is a place of many faiths and cultures, which fosters community participation and brings young people together to learn about conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation. Young people, united by the strength of their common endeavour, working together for a better future.
So how can we offer that future for everybody?
Politics and democracy have a huge role to play in ensuring greater community cohesion. Sadly however, a certain breed of politics thrives on tearing communities apart.
Democracy must of course be nurtured by political participation but that participation depends on trust and communication. I am alarmed that only 30% of electors thought it worth voting in this year’s council elections. It is a real indictment on all political parties which must try to reach out, be more inclusive and not be afraid to address difficult issues like immigration.
As the cuts in council finances bite and the state withdraws from some of its responsibilities, we rely ever more strongly on the voluntary sector and charities, many of which are faith based. Notwithstanding their ever increasing burdens but diminishing budgets, they manage to provide a safety net for many of our citizens. But they can only be stretched so far.
The power of a diverse society extends beyond our borders. Next month Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi will come to Britain in the wake of her victory in the Burmese elections. Just as she did in the 1960s, many international students come here each year to study in our world leading university sector. But this itself is at threat. Universities UK have warned that they could lose up to £8bn every year due to visa restrictions. Should we really be putting up a ‘closed for business’ sign to international talent?
It’s not just international barriers. Domestic barriers are also present in our society. We all have a responsibility to break down these barriers, including the government. Workplaces are often at the centre of our lives. So how can we expect people to integrate with society if we can’t help ensure that there are jobs available for them? How can we expect people to become part of their communities, if community centres have been shut down? Without work the health of individuals and communities suffer. When communities wither and die, a vacuum is created, and in that vacuum extremism spreads.
Different faiths, different cultures and different communities have, whilst retaining their difference, united to create our stable but ever evolving United Kingdom. May we continue, hopeful not fearful, together not apart, and united not divided. And by celebrating our similarities as well as our differences, we can carry on refreshing, reforming and renewing the promise of Britain.