A one-country culture to encompass diversity

John Key tells of an international bank — not his one — which used to expect its employees around the world to live the business culture of its home country.

It was a one-culture company. It didn’t work. Employees preferred to live their own countries’ cultures.

So the bank became a one-company culture, unified under a brand and certain operational commonalities but accommodating national cultural differences. It has flourished.

Let’s draw an analogy and call France a one-culture country and Britain a one-country culture. Which one works better? A British analysis of the muslim underclass’s riots in the Paris suburbs is that it has learnt from its Brixton riots in 1981 (as the United States did from its Watts riots in 1965?) but superior France has insisted on being monocultural.

All three riots were a legacy of history: American slavery of the blacks who became a huge underclass; British exploitation of vast swathes of the world, starting with black slaves in the West Indies whose descendants came to live in the “mother country”; French imperialism in North Africa whose muslims have turned up in the metropolis.

We’ve been there: dawn raids on Samoan overstayers in the 1970s, legacy of our piddling Polynesian empire. And our occupation and assimilation of the Maori, who turned out in the 1980s not to have been assimilated after all and demanded dignity and restorative justice.

The lesson: displace a people and their descendants will haunt your descendants. Unless you exterminate them or reduce them to tiny numbers.

Maori were too sexually attractive to the colonisers, too bright and too innovative to succumb to the gun, gospel or disease — though it came close. They multiplied, migrated to the cities and rebuilt the traditional culture.

The idea that you can now build a one-culture country here has accordingly lost credibility except among the old, the unobservant or the intransigent.

But neither will the majority stand for the division of the country. There cannot be a two-culture country. Hone Heke said it in 1845: This country … cannot be sliced.”

So perhaps the challenge is to build a one-country culture.

Is this “one law for all”? Well, yes. And, well, no.

If one law means “do it my way” and that way is British, it won’t work, just as imposing the home country’s business culture worldwide didn’t work for the bank. But without a framework within which everybody operates, the place will disintegrate. There have to be common rules. There have to be core values to which everyone subscribes.

This awful conundrum is taxing some fine brains in Europe as the legacy of empire and of “guest workers” imported to do the slop jobs repeats on this generation. France is in the gun now. It was Holland’s turn a couple of years back. There will be more.

Who needs Al Qaeda when you can grow it at home? Multicultural Britain discovered in July it had bred suicide bombers.

To find a workable balance between common rules and values and room for self-expression of other ways of thinking, other spiritualities and other practices is Helen Clark’s biggest challenge for her third term — as it was for her first and second terms and will be for her fourth, if the voters indulge her.

Cultural relativism, which says everything is equally valid, is no answer. The majority thinks the parade of tradition-bound Maori protocol in the government’s daily life either has gone too far or is very near that point. Josie Bullock and Judith Collins have been expressing what most thought we had sorted out a quarter of a century ago — equal dignity for women. Georgina te Heuheu and Tau Henare turned that telescope round to complain at government commandeering of Maori protocol.

Is a judge clearing the court so a muslim woman witness did not have to remove her face covering consistent with our common value set? Do you involuntarily think “oppression” when you see a young woman in a headscarf?

All of which brings me to Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party which has its AGM and mini-conference on Sunday.

This is the party which made its name questioning Asian immigration. It is also the party which drove Labour out of the Maori seats in 1996.

But now, with Winston Peters at 60, New Zealand First is in mortal electoral danger unless it can make a new beacon.

Dail Jones, set to become president, lit a small candle last year when he rescued the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

A one-culture country would have nationalised the foreshore, fullstop. A two-culture country would have allowed privatisation by tribes. A one-country culture allowed diversity of management within a single ownership.

So here’s a project for Jones: to recognise the cultural unease that gave his party its energy in the 1990s and make some propositions for common rules and values; but also make some propositions to recognise and accommodate unassimilable difference.

Clark could do with his help. A one-country culture would be a lot better than riots.