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Multicultural or monocultural? A house near Brick Lane in London’s East End decorated for a Bangladeshi wedding (photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

I recently attended a conference about the refugee crisis. It was a serious gathering in a country house with many experts and a few people from the front line providing alarming glimpses of Europe’s southern and eastern borders — looking increasingly like Europe’s version of the Mexican-US border.

At several points during the two-day discussion the academics, NGOers and government officials talked about migration flows as if they were generals moving troops around the battlefield. There is, for example, a big youth bulge in the Western Balkans and in many of the 40 African cities with more than a million residents and, at the same time, several Western European countries have rapidly ageing populations. So, hey presto, argued several delegates, let’s make it easier for the former to move to the latter and we have a “win-win situation” if only European politicians would show political leadership: code for ignoring public opinion.

This idea appeared to have quite widespread support. Yet it blithely ignores the fact there is such a thing as society. Societies are not just random collections of individuals who happen to live in physical proximity and into which millions of people from elsewhere can be easily transplanted.

Successful societies are based on habits of cooperation, familiarity and trust and on bonds of language, history and culture. And if our European societies — so attractive to millions of refugees banging at the door — are to continue flourishing they need to retain some sense of mutual regard between anonymous citizens, which means keeping inflows to levels that allow people to be absorbed into that hard-to-define thing called a national culture or way of life.

Most people in Britain and the rest of Europe when faced with images of desperate people do feel compassion — many act on it as individuals by donating to charities and most of us want our governments to do something to alleviate the suffering. But there are also clear limits — both financial and emotional — to this compassion. Most of us want to be generous without encouraging further flows and without damaging our own country’s social and cultural infrastructure. High levels of regular immigration in recent years mean Britain is already struggling in some places to properly integrate incomers, especially those from more traditional societies.

This ought to be common sense, especially to the sort of politically engaged people at my conference who were mainly on the Left. Yet when it comes to immigration the Left abandons its normally communitarian instincts and becomes Thatcherite in its individualism. Why not another 500,000 desperate people? After all what is there to integrate into? We are all human beings, are we not? The universalism of the Left — based on its historic commitment to race equality — meets the “there is no such thing as society” individualism of the liberal Right.

But not only do we know that there is such a thing as society, we also know that good societies are characterised by high levels of trust and what social scientists call social capital. If immigration rises too sharply the result is likely to be reduced trust and familiarity, especially when the people arriving come from distant cultures; absorbing 100,000 Australians is very different to doing the same for 100,000 Afghans.

A less generous society is another danger. I first became interested in issues of race and immigration more than 10 years ago when I wrote an essay in Prospect, the magazine I then edited, entitled “Too Diverse?”, in which I pointed to the potential tension for the Left between its commitment to solidarity and community, on the one hand, and diversity and difference on the other.

The conflict can be managed, I argued, but that requires being careful about the scale and speed of immigration and giving some thought to integrating newcomers, so “they” became part of the “us” over time. If that does not happen, common norms are likely to weaken and along with it the precious idea of pooling resources with fellow citizens.

We do not all have to be the same, or have the same interests, to share a public space. After all, national social contracts and welfare states evolved in European societies that were sharply divided by class and region but a sense of national solidarity, of sharing a common fate, transcended those differences.

Ethnic differences too can be, and are, absorbed into the national “we” but it is not a simple or swift process. The academic evidence suggests that ethnically heterogeneous societies show lower levels of support for redistribution and thus in the longer run have weaker welfare states. This has long been evident in the US but is now emerging in Europe too.

There are two separate explanations for this, though they both have the same outcome. One is that migration has produced an “Americanisation” of European welfare by making poorer people less likely to support left-wing pro-redistribution parties (even though they benefit economically) because of concerns about culture and values often related to rapid ethnic change.

The second argument set out in a recent paper by David Rueda of Nuffield College, Oxford, challenges that account in favour of the claim — based on analysis of 15 European countries — that better-off people simply show less redistributive altruism in more ethnically diverse societies. That means poorer people from the ethnic majority have an economic interest in resisting too much diversity.

Such evidence underlines just how important it is to think clearly, and long-term, about the issues of integration — something barely mentioned in the current refugee debate.

That is easier said than done. Integration is a subjective and disputed idea. It is hard to define or measure, and therefore hard to say with any confidence when we have reached an adequately integrated society (and ethnicity is just one aspect of integration). The public conversation tends to grasp at passing events to declare Britain hopelessly divided (following, say, a terrorist act by a British-born Muslim) or one big happy family (when, for example, the charming British Bangladeshi, Nadiya Hussain, recently won The Great British Bake Off).

Moreover, most people, whether from an ethnic minority or the White British ethnic majority, tend to feel conflicted about the idea of integration. On the one hand we understand that we are not just individuals, that we come from groups with particular ways of speaking and thinking and behaving, and often feel most at home among people like ourselves, especially when we are first in a strange country; on the other hand we also grasp that a good society cannot consist of many inward-looking tribes living parallel lives with little mutual regard or common life.

Despite all these caveats it is reasonable to see convergence in life chances, and to a lesser extent in lived experience, between the largest ethnic groups as central to integration. This does not mean that everyone should be converging on lifestyle norms set by the White British majority — in any case in contemporary society those norms vary widely. It may, indeed, be easier to recognise integration by its opposite in the most segregated places. It should certainly be a cause for concern if some groups are diverging too far, especially in the “harder” quantifiable outcomes in economic life and education. And upward mobility for minorities is tougher if they are not connected to mainstream networks.

Recent decades have seen significant advances in the openness of British society and the decline of overt discrimination against minorities but in other respects integration has become if anything more problematic: the greater liberalism and individualism of British society means there are fewer national landmarks of shared allegiance to rally around, the scale and speed of recent immigration has significantly increased ethnic minority concentration in some areas making it easier to live separate from the mainstream (reinforced by media globalisation), and greater choice in schools and other public services makes it less likely that people will have shared experiences.

Some degree of ethnic clustering is the norm, especially when minority groups reach a certain critical mass, Poles in Boston, Lincs, for example, or where group institutions — such as mosques, halal shops and madrassas for Muslims — draw a minority together. One of the great policy questions of our times is how much separation is compatible with an open and healthily mixed society.

It is a question that the British state has not been much interested in answering. Unlike France, Britain recognises the existence and significance of ethnic groups (which is why we have the data to talk with some confidence about ethnic group outcomes) but it has not on the whole regarded it as part of its role to promote ethnic mixing. The policy over recent decades has been one of benign laissez-faire rather than a more interventionist “integrationism”.

In a liberal society that stresses choice and personal freedom there are, in any case, strict limits on the extent to which integration can be imposed. You cannot tell people where to live or where to send their children to school. In Britain there has never even been an official integration policy (except in a small way for refugees) or a minister for integration. The state has intervened to try to prevent discrimination but otherwise integration policy has existed only in speeches — from Roy Jenkins in 1966 to David Cameron in 2011. That changed in a small way after the 2001 race riots and 9/11 when Ted Cantle produced his report about ethnic division in some northern towns and advocated a more activist “community cohesion” policy. The New Labour government also emulated many other rich countries with significant immigrant inflows by introducing language and citizenship tests (and ceremonies) for new citizens.

But what occurs on the ground is only indirectly related to government policy. So what do we know about what is happening in today’s Britain? More than you might think. A few months ago I set up the Integration Hub, a website that pulls together all the relevant data and research relating to issues of integration and segregation (find it at integrationhub.net).

As you might expect it is a mixed picture. Most people from ethnic minority backgrounds identify as British and speak English as their main language. And in some places the laissez-faire approach has worked pretty well. If integration is in part “how far and fast they are becoming like us” (Professor Shamit Saggar) then at least in the harder objective measures of educational and economic outcomes several ethnic minorities have swiftly reached and then outperformed the White British average.

On the other hand certain other groups, including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, Somalis and some Black Africans, continue to lag behind and/or to live somewhat more separately. Moreover the scale and speed of immigration in recent years seems to have created more separation in housing and schooling in certain areas at least between the White British and most visible minorities (who are mixing more among themselves).

To call this “white flight” makes it sound a more active rejection of mixing than it appears to be. Nonetheless, Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College, London, found from the 2011 census that more than 40 per cent of visible minority Brits live in wards where the White British are in a minority, in some cases a small minority. And the figure was only 25 per cent as recently as 2001. Partly as a result of that “drift to familiarity” a majority of ethnic minority school pupils now go to schools where the White British are in a minority.

Data cannot capture some of the most important, “lived” aspects of integration, though we describe what we know about peoples’ feelings in the Integration Hub chapter on attitudes and identity. Data may also conceal big differences. For example, a majority of households of South Asian ancestry continue to speak a language other than English at home. In some cases this will mean a high degree of separation and little contact with mainstream British life, but in other cases it will signify a confidently integrated bi-lingual/bi-cultural life with an ancestral language spoken within the family but English spoken fluently at work and among friends.

Integration is not an all-or-nothing thing. Many individuals, even large groups, are well integrated at work or in the wider culture but may remain quite residentially segregated, resisting the classic pattern of moving out of the inner city and dispersing into the suburbs.

There is also a complex relationship between integration and economic success. Some of the most integrated groups in terms of human relationships, such as British Caribbeans, are among the least successful minorities economically, and some highly successful British South Asians continue to live mainly monocultural lives.

Barriers to integration are broadly of three kinds: factors such as poor education, limited grasp of English and ignorance of cultural norms which generally fade with time; resistance to integration from the minority itself; resistance to integration from the majority. But integration is not something that just happens to people or groups. Different groups bring different attributes, cultural traits and strategies to the business of integration.

Ceri Peach, one of the most eminent academics in the field, has described an “Irish” strategy, which is essentially one of assimilation, and a “Jewish” strategy, which is about combining upward mobility with strong retention of cultural traditions. Successful South Asians have emulated the Jewish strategy.

Is there a special Muslim issue with integration? The short answer is yes. The main Muslim groups in Britain — Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali — tend to live more separately, are more likely to speak a language other than English at home, are least likely to marry “out”, and in the main still cleave to traditional norms that diverge significantly from an increasingly liberal mainstream, especially when it comes to religious piety, sexuality and gender roles.

Islamic extremism has understandably provided the focus of most government thinking and talking about integration/segregation issues in recent months and years. But there are some more positive signs too, suggesting that Muslims are just taking a bit longer than Hindu and Sikh South Asians to adapt to liberal Western ways. Surveys tell us that many adult Muslims, for example, still agree with the idea that men should go out to work and women should stay at home. But younger Muslim women now reject that view.

There are also signs that Bangladeshis are pulling away from Pakistanis in educational and employment outcomes. That is partly because Bangladeshis are over-represented in London, whereas Pakistanis are concentrated in the more segregated Midlands and North, and Bangladeshis are less likely to marry someone from “back home”, which almost half of Pakistanis still do.

Integration throws up some fundamental questions about how humans live. Are people (majorities and minorities alike) justified in wanting to live among their “own”? Is assimilation a good thing or a bad thing? Some analysts distinguish between good segregation and bad segregation. Bad segregation is segregation as an end in itself while good segregation — or what Trevor Phillips has called “cultural protection” — is about the minority mutual aid that may be necessary to launch oneself successfully into a new society, a temporary means to a more integrated end. 

And what about the longer-term trends? Will we grow more separate, especially if around one million, mainly Muslim, refugees find their way into Europe every year on top of high levels of legal immigration? Or as people become more educated and mobile will they draw their identities less from place and group and more from their own achievements, making them less concerned to maintain familiar and stable communities?

Getting the right balance on the integration of Britain’s ethnic minorities into mainstream British life is one of the most important public policy issues for the next generation. That is especially the case if we continue with the current historically high levels of immigration and if upheaval in the Islamic world continues to provide radical inspiration to some British-born Muslims.

There are no simple answers. We know that some groups tend to remain more separate for longer. We know that towns where a single minority dominates tend to experience worse segregation. We also know there is no appetite either from minorities or the white majority to legislate for more mixing. This is where nudging and the power of good examples — in pursuit of more ethnically mixed schools for example — are likely to be the most effective policy tools.

One of the first tasks over the next few years is to find an appropriate language to talk about these things more honestly and publicly than we have done in the past. The goal should be to talk about ethnicity as objectively and unemotionally as we generally do about social class.

There is such a thing as society and a good one requires a degree of trust and mutual recognition. Britain is still digesting the changes consequent upon the post-colonial immigration wave starting in the 1950s —sometimes happily, sometimes less so. If we were now to welcome large numbers of refugees on top of the regular inflows we would not only irrevocably change our society but also gradually erode some of the very things that attract them here in the first place.

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Tim Waite
July 5th, 2016
9:07 AM
Lev Lafayette : your'e misinterpeting what what David Goodhart means by ' Thatcherite Individualism 'in this context . . Read the whole paragraph again and you;ll see where he's coming from ! He's saying both the liberal right and the modern progressive left converge on the ' there's no such thing as society ' viewpoint .

Lev Lafayette
January 6th, 2016
10:01 AM
> Thatcherite in its individualism. I'd rather suggest that is not the case. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/6906503/Marga...

Observer of the Scene
November 5th, 2015
10:11 AM
It also means less free speech and more sex crime. What's not to like for libertarians and feminists?

Anonymous
October 29th, 2015
1:10 PM
This is an excellent article; integration is indeed a central issue that the liberal left tends to neglect. The tendency to forget communitarian roots and regard migrants as economic units is indeed puzzling and illogical. Many self-identified progressives stand right there shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Sutherland and the corporate globalists.

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