21 February 2012

Integration Matters

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The Department of Communities and Local Government has launched its long awaited new strategy on integration – simply entitled Creating The Conditions For Integration.  It follows a relative vacuum in this area of policy left open as the coalition has sought to develop its own approach to this often controversial issue.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has  called for people to start “concentrating on what unites the British people”, against the backdrop of a country which has a “proud history of migration and tolerance [and] is well placed to meet the challenges of integration”.

This is reflected in the DCLG findings about how strongly the vast majority of people from outside Britain feel a sense of belonging here.  Indeed Eric Pickles will find that immigrants and refugees have just as strong an appetite for playing a full role in national occasions, like the Jubilee and The Big Lunch, as the British-born.

The government is also certainly right about the importance of tackling all forms of extremism coherently and robustly, against any part of our society, whether anti-semitism or Islamist extremism, anti-Muslim prejudice or homophobia.

But the risk is that government speaks clearly about integration, yet retreats to doing less about it. The local matters, as does personal responsibility, but an argument that national government will act  “only exceptionally” is arguably too hands-off and hollows out what government needs to do to break down barriers.  As the government rightly sets out why integration matters, it must not duck its own role in helping to achieve it.

Of course, integration is a two-way street. There is good evidence that well-designed projects to support integration – for example in the English language – are effective and cost-effective.  The excellent recent report and initiative Operation Integration – The Making of New Citizens also shows how grassroots organisations working with refugee and migrant communities see encouraging and talking about integration (or “belonging”) as an important part of their work in supporting newcomers to Britain.

Some will be concerned that talk of integration at all means we are returning to the bad old days of “assimilation”.  However it is worth remembering the Prime Minister’s words in Edinburgh recently when talking about the United Kingdom:

“I think many people in the UK absolutely feel that you can have all of these identities together, and that is the strength of the UK… [a] United Kingdom which is not monoglot, monochrome and minimalist but multi-national, multi-cultural and modern in every way.”

Twenty-first century Britain is irrevocably multi-ethnic and is a better place for it – but that does not mean that we shouldn’t work together to uphold and celebrate the values that bind us all together as citizens – what the government calls “core values” such as democracy, the rule of law, equality of opportunity and freedom of speech.

If the government’s “new” approach does anything to foster Britain as a true “university” culture (able to find unity in our diversity) then it is to be broadly welcomed.


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