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The Future of ‘Us’; Majority and Minority Relationships in a Changing Britain

Event type: Panel Discussion
Date: 21/11/2023
Location: London, UK

In November 2023, British Future in partnership with Dr Varun Uberoi (with thanks to Brunel University and Loughborough University) hosted this half day event looking at concepts such as identity, culture, and history wars, multicultural and multi—ethnic Britain, racism, recognising history and painful pasts, immigration, and public debate, all through the medium of two specific panels:

  1. Inclusive Identities in Modern, Multi-Ethnic Britain
  2. Defusing the ‘History War’

Attendees came from different backgrounds including civil society, academia, media, think tanks civil service and more, and the space allowed for interesting discussions among peers.

Below is a detailed account of both panels:

Inclusive identities in modern, multi-ethnic Britain

The ethnic diversity of Britain will be a growing public theme in an increasingly diverse society. This panel sought to address the potential disconnect between an increasingly heated national discourse and the lived experience of identity and inclusion in Britain today. There is evidence of long-term shifts, particularly across generations, towards more liberal attitudes on both immigration and ethnic diversity, and closer social relationships between those from majority and minority groups. Yet those gradual positive trends are not much reflected in a public debate that often seems more heated and polarised, as Sunder Katwala noted in opening the event. Contributors identified several sources of this disconnect, including in how a range of political, media and especially social media dynamics tended to give a greater profile and share of voice to more polarising voices, presenting challenges regarding the practical ways in which leaders, institutions and civic networks could seek to strengthen ‘bridging’ capital and voices where they risk being crowded out.

National identity can – if it includes minorities, rather than excluding them – play a role in helping reduce discrimination, Varun Uberoi argued. Just as narratives of the nation can exclude minorities and be used to exclude them, he argued, these narratives of the nation can also include minorities as normal and equal members of the nation, like its other members. These more inclusive narratives of the nation normalise the presence of minorities and, in doing so, they can help to reduce hostility towards them. Such narratives are not only potentially appealing to minorities but to a majority’s more inclusive tendencies in thought and behaviour too. Such narratives can thus be inclusive, reduce hostility to minorities and appeal to members of minority and majority groups alike. But such activity is made more challenging when there are vocal efforts to mobilise and organise the opposite sentiment.

Christabel Cooper of Labour Together noted that ethnic diversity and representation in politics had increased rapidly and dramatically at the top – but how there was a significant lack of diversity among backroom staff, in many local councils. This had drawbacks for ethnic minority voice and representation – but was also one source of a lack of confidence in civic and political institutions about how to engage with issues of identity, race and integration.

John Denham emphasised the importance of focusing on both English and British identity in England. Without this, he suggested, the implicit message sent is that Britishness is inclusive of minorities while Englishness is not. That could then sustain an identity divide between the majority and the minority group if both identities matter to the majority, yet minorities feel that only Britishness is open to them. A plural and multicultural society would not necessarily involve a convergence towards one particular view about national identity. The difficulty is not, he argued, that people have different views about identity and nation – but rather it arises if those groups do not have contact with each other or talk to each other.

Andrew O’Brien of Demos suggested that one litmus test of national identity was how far people are willing to make sacrifices for that nation. Voting in elections, volunteering and other measures suggest a decline in many forms of civic participation. A greater focus on initiatives to promote community dialogue, he argued, could help bring people together: greater participatory decision-making as a process would offer opportunities to bridge identity divides. One of the key contributions of policy-makers and politicians could be to create civic spaces where different groups do meet and mix.

Perhaps the central challenge for a politics of ‘us’ would be how far there was clarity about the roles and responsibilities for making that happen– including how to get the balance right between national leadership in framing these issues and a more plural, localised and participatory experience.

The recurring theme of the panel conversation was how local stories and experiences of communities could be interwoven into larger narratives of ‘us’ in Britain today. Place-based identities start locally, based on lived experiences, with more confidence in the local and the hyper-local than the state of the nation. It was important to recognise that experiences, stories and narratives shift over time. For example, the experiences of the first generation of Commonwealth migrants, and the changing expectations of their British children and grandchildren, often shaped public narratives about identity and race, discrimination and integration in recent decades. These narratives had often provided a sense of solidarity across black and Asian minority groups with distinct ethnic and faith identities, as well as a reduced sense of distance between minority and majority groups over time. Yet more recent arrivals to the UK may not share those same experiences, narratives or expectations, either locally or nationally. Efforts to build common ground therefore need to be renewed and refreshed, or they could risk becoming complacent.

How far identity divides or unites can depend on how prominent public voices, in national politics and the media, choose to use their platforms. Contributors wanted to see a stronger response than a shift in tone and rhetoric: turning down the volume and reducing the heat was useful, but insufficient. A stronger account is needed of how approaches that could be effective in strengthening bridging and shared identities could be extended in practice.

This panel featured Varun Uberoi, Reader in Public Theory and Public Policy at Loughborough University; Christabel Cooper, Director of Research at Labour Together; Professor John Denham of the University of Southampton, formerly a Labour MP and Communities Minister; and Andrew O’ Brien, Director of Policy and Public Impact at DEMOS. Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, chaired the discussion.

Defusing the ‘History War’

Our second panel asked why history has become the apparent epicentre of cultural conflict over the last three years.

Corinne Fowler opened the discussion by looking back at her own education at school. Like most people in the UK, she said, this offered a very thin understanding about Empire – because we tend not to talk about it. She emphasised that remembering where people are starting from was an important foundation for engaging in a conversation, rather than creating a perception that expert professional voices were somehow weaponising their knowledge. Fowler spoke about her experience of trying to put this into practice when she came under fierce and sustained criticism in the national media and politics for her role in the National Trust’s project of understanding the role of Empire in the history of its properties. Yet her constructive engagement with individuals who sent her hate mail, hearing their concerns and signposting them to evidence, helped broaden understanding and ease anxieties about reinterpretation of Britain’s complex colonial past.

Shahiem Minzie of Integrate UK in Bristol questioned whether arguing about injustices of the past can be a way of avoiding talking about ongoing injustices today – citing the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. ‘Empire hasn’t ended’, he added.

On ‘culture war’ issues, elite opinion has become very polarised, said Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue. But that heated debate within politics, media and civic society doesn’t reflect the balance of views across the broader public.  Some of that is about the very adversarial way we do politics in the UK and incentives in the media culture. Shorthouse talked about how a more positive, ‘civic Britishness’ could navigate some of the more controversial associations of our imperial past.

Samuel Kasumu agreed there are not enough spaces where people who are ‘moderately in the middle’ can have a conversation – on history, politics or indeed on much else.

So, the theme of the panel was that creating offline spaces for engagement among those with different views would be crucial to lowering the heat of debates, too often waged online through controversial headlines. There need to be calmer, less polarised spaces for conversation in the real world.

Chairing the panel, British Future’s Jake Puddle rounded off the discussion with some concluding suggestions for routes forward. Museums and heritage organisations can play a crucial role, he said, to facilitate constructive public conversation. Manchester Museum, for example, had integrated a section into its exhibition for viewers to share their thoughts, hopes and concerns about whether some sensitive artefacts should be repatriated to the country from which they originated. Public consultations also offer a powerful yet under-recognised way to foster a calmer exchange of views about Britain’s past. A quiet success story included Bristol’s public decision-making exercise to move Edward Colston’s statue to a museum. Having amassed heated national headlines after the memorial of the philanthropist, whose wealth derived from the slave trade, was toppled, a city commission was founded to ask the public how to acknowledge his difficult legacy and connections to historic injustice. Collating over 14,000 views, the result discovered a surprising consensus: 74% voted to move it to a museum, and 65% supported a proposal to add a reinterpretation plaque at its former plinth.

The panel ended on a call to see such calmer conversations take place more often, with broader efforts to engage and uplift the voices of the public. These spaces for dialogue offer a first step to a more balanced, reflective debate about our nation’s past: both who we were and how this has shaped the society we share today.

This panel featured Corinne Fowler, Professor of Colonialism and Heritage at University of Leicester; Samuel Kasumu, Co-Founder of the 2022 Group and Former No.10 Advisor; Ryan Shorthouse, Executive Chair of Bright Blue; and Shahiem Minzie of Integrate UK. It was chaired by British Future Researcher Jake Puddle. 


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