19 December 2012

Who do we think we are? Britain in 2012

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Photo: Dennoir

British Future’s Matthew Rhodes gave a speech in Dudley on International Migrants Day, at a Migrants Alive event run by the 5 Estates Plus Project. Here is what he said.


Good evening – and thank you to The 5 Estates Plus Project for inviting me to speak to you this evening – I’m delighted to be with you in Dudley tonight to join in the celebrations on this the 12th International Migrants’ Day.

Before I get to the substance of my remarks I wanted to say just a few words about the organisation I work for, British Future, which I hope at least some of you will have heard of.  We are a new non-partisan think-tank which launched in January this year, with the aim of deepening the public conversations about those issues which are most heated and sometimes toxic in 21st century Britain – identity and integration, immigration and opportunity.

We think these are the issues which are most likely to erode public and political trust, to divide and to polarise, and which can sometimes even threaten to pull our society apart.

At British Future, we are particularly interested in how public attitudes can shape the national debate about the issues I mentioned and how we can find new narratives, messages, and positive arguments to reach those who feel anxious about 21st century Britain – particularly immigration – and this evening I’m going to address the current public debate about immigration by reflecting on this remarkable year – what it has told us about modern Britain – and in particular what we can learn about how national events like the Jubilee and the Olympics can bring us all together.  I’m going to outline where we are as a society in terms of how we address immigration in our national political debates and draw it all together with a few lessons I think we can learn from this extraordinary year.


So who do we think we are in Britain 2012?  What does it mean to be British today? In short – what’s our story? 

This summer we saw that Britain could deliver a major event – without the transport and logistical disasters that many anticipated!

We saw a country that wanted to come together and which seemed confident about its identity in the world.  We saw Britain as a country which enjoys being proud of who we are – and at ease with the society that we have become.

We had a summer in which a strong and inclusive patriotism was widely shared.

From the journey of the Olympic torch across Britain – which I saw in my home city of Leeds – to the way in which the opening ceremony, watched by 27 million people told our national story, to how the Team GB gold rush reflected the everyday reality of a multi-national and multi-ethnic Britain, to the way in which the Paralympics were embraced more strongly than by any previous host city and nation – this was, in my view, as inclusive a celebration of modern Britain as anybody can remember.

Some figures for you – polling undertaken for British Future shows that:

– Eight out of ten people believe the Olympics have made us prouder to be British.
– 75% of people say that they showed that Britain is a confident multi-ethnic society, with only 7% disagreeing with that.

So, there has been plenty of good news – but as usual in the UK, that is not necessarily what everybody was expecting to happen!

Most people – two-thirds of the country – say that they have been surprised by how much the Olympics brought people together.

Late last year, when Ipsos-Mori first asked the question for British Future, just under two-thirds of people were expecting the Olympics to have a positive impact on the national mood. Now, almost nine in ten think that it did so.

Most people – two-thirds of the country – say that they have been surprised by how much the Olympics brought people together.

Perhaps we might also ask what it tells us, that so many people have been surprised by the spirit of this summer – what does that say about Britain today?

– Did this happy Jubilee and thrilling Olympic summer settle all our questions?

– Did it bring closure to all the anxieties that people feel about modern Britain?

– Did it resolve our often polarised public debates about immigration and identity, integration and opportunity?

– Did it mean that we were not to live through another period of anguished discussions about the re-emergence of racism in football, as a front page issue?

– Did it deal with all the substantive socio-economic issues of disadvantage and inequality amongst many of our migrant communities, as highlighted again recently by the report on ethnic minority female unemployment amongst in particular, Black (Somali), Pakistani & Bangladeshi heritage women?

Of course not.

There are massive challenges which need to be addressed in local communities the length and breadth of this land, which need political and also community lead solutions.

A happy Olympic summer certainly isn’t going to be a long-term answer to economic insecurity and the growth which we all long for.
It was a year of great national occasions taking place at a time of widespread economic uncertainty and cultural anxiety.

However, in Ipsos-Mori’s polling for us, only one in five people think events like the Olympics and the Jubilee are a distraction from the real challenges facing the country.

Seven out of ten think it is particularly important to have experiences that we share in tough and anxious times.

So, these are times when our hopes and fears jostle for supremacy, when we are bound to think more than one thing at the same time. At the start of the year, British Future’s launch  report called “Hopes and Fears”, found people highly pessimistic about the national and European economies, anxious about the state of the nation, on balance confident about the capacities for resilience of the places they lived, and overall, optimistic about the year ahead for themselves and their families.

Concerns about economic growth, about deficit reduction and public spending, about jobs and opportunities for young people, and competing ideas of what’s fair in welfare, will remain the dominant public and political themes of this Parliament and beyond.

However my contention is that despite the stagnant economy, there are also many positives that we shouldn’t take for granted in 2012.

Firstly, that Britain is and will be a multi-ethnic society is a settled social fact – and last week’s census details show how this is increasingly the case, particularly with the 100 fold rise in people self-describing themselves as of “mixed ethnicity”.

Secondly – and this is crucial – polling shows that there is also a widespread acceptance of a civic, not ethnic, basis for citizenship and belonging in Britain today.  The importance of this in terms of integrating new arrivals should not be underestimated.

Highlighting and accepting these two positives is clearly not the same thing as believing that the Olympics could possibly have legitimately contested substantive questions about multiculturalism.  Those are public debates about what common citizenship means for how we live together – debates which run on and on, whether or not prompted by high profile speeches by the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition.

Where and when multiculturalism has been a force for integration and/or separation, do not seem to me the sort of questions which could be settled by a brilliant Mo Farah kick on the last lap of the five thousand and ten thousand metres.
However, Team GB did offer a powerful image of the making of modern Britain as the story of Team GB helps to animate how public majorities can and do accept migration that can be seen to contribute to Britain’s interests and reflect Britain’s values – something I will return to later.


Migration today

We know today is International Migrant’s Day and it is worth just pausing to reflect on the latest figures from the International Organisation for Migration on the international scene.

– These show that the total number of international migrants has increased over the last 10 years from an estimated 150 million in 2000 to 214 million persons today.

– Migrants would constitute the fifth most populous country in the world.  Migration is now more widely distributed across more countries and today the top 10 countries of destination receive a smaller share of all migrants than in 2000.

– 49% of migrants worldwide are women.

– And, remittances have increased exponentially: up from USD 132 billion in 2000 to an estimated USD 440 billion in 2010, even with a slight decline due to the current economic crisis. The actual amount, including unrecorded flows through formal and informal channels, is believed to be significantly larger.

Without being too basic, it is clear that today, globalization, together with advances in communications and transportation, has greatly increased the number of people who have the desire and the capacity to move to other places.

This can be seen too in the figures from the 2011 UK census.  The population of the United Kingdom is at all time high – 63.2 million – and has grown by 4 million since 2001.  Figures for England & Wales show that 7.5 million people living here were born abroad – 2.9 million more than in 2001 and immigration accounts for more than half of that growth in a decade.

Half of the total number of people born abroad have arrived in the UK in the last 10 years and the spread across the country obviously varies.  14% of the population were born abroad but in London that figure is 1 in 3, in the North East as low as 1 in 20, and here in the West Midlands just above 1 in 10.

The changing nature of migration to the UK can also be seen by the countries which people are coming to the UK from.  India is the largest and Pakistan the third largest, however the accession of the A8 countries to the EU in 2004 plays out in the fact that Poland accounts for the second largest number of migrants from 2001-2011, whereas in the previous decade in wasn’t even in the top ten of originating countries.

Obviously there have also been changes to the UK’s ethnic configuration too – with 14% of the population now self-described as non-white.  Again there are regional variations – in London 40% are non-white and in the West Midlands just over 17%.


Immigration in UK today – The debate

So, with these figures as a backdrop, I want to look briefly at the national discourse about immigration in the UK today, in particular, as a means of trying to set in context, the excellent work that so many of you here tonight do in your local communities and neighbourhoods, across Dudley and beyond.

Interestingly, the evidence clearly shows that tough  public attitudes about immigration, are very much linked with how people feel about modern Britain in general – hence why I started with my overview of how we feel about 2012.

So quickly – what do those attitudes tell us?

About a quarter of our society is very confident about the society they live in. They are generally more affluent, more educated. They include the market liberal readers of The Economist and the socially liberal readers of the Guardian.

About a quarter of our society is quite deeply unhappy about modern Britain and up to one in ten still represent hardline views about repatriation etc.  Amongst these groups are the hardcore members of parties like the BNP and supporters of the EDL but many others who may support other political parties or none.
Most people are somewhere in between. That’s about half of the country, and analysis suggests that they are broadly equally split between those for whom economic or cultural anxieties take priority in explaining their scepticism about immigration policy.
Perhaps the most important danger to avoid for those who believe that immigration is good for Britain is to make sure that we are not only preaching to the already converted, while failing to speak to this middle group, and perhaps also pushing them towards harder positions in frustration at the unwillingness to take their concerns seriously.

Another danger to avoid, which politicians might occasionally fall into, is to attempt to connect to irreconcilable opinion, whilst skipping out the legitimate economic or cultural anxieties of the sceptical but persuadable middle.

My reading of the recent British Social Attitudes data released in September, is that it suggests that this is what has been happening over the last decade.

People do largely remain sceptical about the levels of immigration that we have today, and whether it is being managed effectively, at all, or in a way which reflects what the public and Parliament want.

A poll just conducted for The Sunday Times shows that nearly 7 in 10 think that the levels of immigration over the last 10 years have been “bad for Britain” with only 1 in 10 saying that it has been good.  There is also 70% support for the proposition that the Government’s stated ambition of reducing net migration from the hundreds to the tens of thousands, supported by 80% of the population, should be hardened further, by reducing net migration to zero.  70% want to see immigration reduced across the board.

For those of us who want to make a positive case for immigration – for the cultural and economic enrichment it brings – for the broadening of horizons and the creation of a vibrant and diverse culture which includes all, these figures are hard to comprehend.  However our response must not be to hide our heads in the sand.

This is because there is also good news.  It is certainly the case that people do think more than one thing at the same time and public attitudes are more nuanced than much public discussion seems to admit.  Survey after survey shows that immigration is a massive issue when people are asked about the most important issues facing the UK today – almost always listed second after the economy with about 50% concern.

But when people are asked which two or three issues matter most to ‘you and your family’, the answers are very different. The economy still leads by a mile but immigration tumbles to just 12%.  This time more people cite pensions, health, tax, family life and education.  There is something complex going on here which simultaneously demonstrates the importance of dealing with the national and the local manifestations of these concerns, as politicians are concerned about what the polls tell them about both public attitudes to “national” issues and what they know to be true in their local communities.  That’s why the excellent work of the 5 Estates Plus Project and others is so vital.

So in terms of the nuance, the British Social Attitudes data released in September shows that the British public see skill and education levels as more important than cultural background in thinking about which migrants will contribute positively to the UK. Migrants’ qualifications are paramount in predicting attitudes, regardless of countries of origin, which in many ways is good news.

Most people believe that professional migrants are good for Britain, whether they come from Eastern European countries like Poland or countries like Pakistan, however strong majorities do also believe that the settlement of unskilled labourers is bad for Britain.

So, while top line attitudes are tough, opinion is much more evenly divided about the cultural impacts of immigration.

There has been a significant rise in those saying that the cultural impact of immigration is negative. It was just 33% in 2002 and is now 48% in the 2011 data.

However people also remain positive about many cultural aspects of immigration – especially for food and football, fashion, film and culture.

What has changed is that these benefits are being outweighed by concerns about cultural integration, which data shows have been much more salient since 9/11.

On the economy – 30% think immigration is good for the economy, and 18% think it is on balance neither good nor bad, but a slim majority (52%) think it damages the economy overall. That has risen 9 points in a decade.

Most welcome student migration – from all parts of the world and cultural backgrounds – as long as students have good grades.

The most popular student migrants are students with good grades from East Asia, with a net positive of 24, ahead of students from Western Europe at net +22 and eastern Europe net +17.  Students with good grades from Muslim countries are also welcomed, but by the narrower margin of +10.

Interestingly, students with bad grades from all of these backgrounds are seen as bad for Britain by broadly 70-75% of the public.

This would at least appear to clearly indicate that education and skill levels trump culture when it comes to student admissions.

In early work we have undertaken, it is clear that there is a public appetite for people to come to UK – including students – who have something to contribute – both financially and socially.  And this is where groups represented tonight have a huge role to play.  I know many of you will rightly want to use your campaigning capacity to highlight the injustices still faced today by many immigrants in our communities.  This work is both important and necessary.  However, equally important, is the work I know you all do highlighting the massive contributions migrants make to this country in terms of the jobs they do, the families they raise and their overwhelming willingness to become part of and simultaneously define modern Britain.  Events like tonight which demonstrate how many migrants are truly “alive”.

It is important, too, to realise that the economic and cultural insecurities are linked – and will not remain silo’d off from each other in how people think about these questions.  Few advocates and activists attempt to address both of these spheres. In fact those making an economic benefits case and those making a humanitarian case for the social values of a liberal society are often accidental rather than strategic allies.

In the future, I believe that better understanding the relationship between economic and cultural anxieties is also going to be key in terms of working out how best to address them, both in terms of policy responses and also advocacy which specifically addresses anxieties which have yet to be properly dealt with.

At British Future we are particularly interested in what we call “the persuadable middle” – the middle 50% – that helps to explain the often hidden complexity of public attitudes towards immigration.

As we have said, a very broad majority want to reduce immigration – 75% – yet once the numbers are disaggregated, around 30% of the population want to see immigration reduced “a little” and there are majorities who oppose cuts to forms of immigration, such as genuine students paying fees to our universities, professional migrants, and indeed care workers as well as IT workers.

As we have noted, encouragingly, people do seem to be as interested in the make-up of migration flows as in their overall scale.
As mentioned earlier, over three-quarters are in favour of civic ideas of what makes us British – and the ability of the citizenship club to admit those who can and will contribute positively to it.

But a large share of those are anxious about whether new groups of migrants will integrate and this complex pattern of attitudes presents real challenges for policy-makers and activists but it also presents opportunities too.
So what to make of this?  There is clearly not a liberal majority today on immigration in Britain, but this is very important – there is not a rejectionist majority either, which seeks to shut the borders and send everyone back.

What should be done therefore?

It would not be easy, but it should be possible, to construct a moderate majority, across those who are content with current levels of migration and those who would like to see it to be reduced a little.

Because when people are asked about exactly how to get net migration below 100,000 per year it is clear they have quite a clear headed approach to not stopping the immigration which is in our interests and which is therefore good for Britain.  The BSA data suggests the British public perhaps take a more sophisticated and nuanced view of the issues than many politicians seem to recognise at present.
This is partly because they tend to think that the immigration flows they like and see as benign – such as student immigration – are quite small, and to exaggerate the impact of the flows of immigration that they worry about.

It is difficult, therefore, to easily identify any further ways to considerably tighten immigration numbers which would be unambiguously popular with the public, even before we consider the trade-offs for other policy goals and the views of more liberal stakeholder groups.

And of course, the big difficulty for the current Government’s flagship net migration target is that although people like the sound of it – there is then frustration that what is being promised isn’t being done – nearly 80% think it likely that the Government will miss its target – which in turn risks increasing political mistrust, when the pledge was designed to rebuild it.

Lessons of integration

In drawing my remarks together I want to return to where we started – and reflect on what we can learn about our common life together in 21st Century Britain from the events of 2012.  I have 3 lessons in mind.

1. Integration happens all the time and it’s often unnoticed

In people’s responses to our Olympic champions, 2012 showed modern Britain broadly comfortable with its lived diversity.  The two athletes who made the public feel the proudest in polling we conducted, were Jessica Ennis – of mixed ethnicity and daughter of a Jamaican migrant and Mo Farah – a Muslim Somali refugee whose inimitable reply to a journalist when asked if he would feel prouder if he’d won his gold medal for Somalia rather than Team GB was No mate – this is my country!”  The issue here is not only Farah’s passion for this country – his country – but also the fact that the vast majority of us felt that here was an image of 21st century Britishness which made sense in every single way – you categorically don’t have to be born here to belong.  To underline this point we produced a piece of research just after the Olympics which showed that a third of the medals won at London 2012 by Team GB can be attributed to 2 generations of immigration and integration.

Remember also – the remarkable story of the footballer Fabrice Muamba – who was brought back to life after suffering a near fatal heart attack – how many knew (even those who shouted for him when he played for the England under 21s?)?  that he was a Congolese refugee until then?

It is therefore the integration we don’t notice or perhaps even know about, which might be one of the best tests of whether it has become truly integral.

2. We need to get away from the them & us frame when thinking about race, ethnicity & especially migration.

It’s important to those who want to argue that modern multi-ethnic Britain is a failed experiment to maintain a them & us way of thinking about race, ethnicity and immigration.  The ‘othering’ of individuals and groups plays an important part in a negative argument that modern day Britain is simply too diverse to work.  However, this can also work the other way.  It’s really important to be able think about breaking down the “them v us” frame by actively considering what it means to live together in modern 21st Century Britain.  Using the language of that model – it’s important that the “them” can become “us” – which I would argue is more possible in 21st Century Britain than in many continental European countries.  And this does mean the things that are different about us – things to be treasured and ways of life to be preserved – but also the things which bring us together and bind us to one another.  That’s why integration is a very important idea.  The fact the we live together in one country – a shared society – is indisputable and the vision of a society which isn’t whole – the opposite of integrated – segregated even disintegrated – is simply too individualistic a view of society as it implicitly rejects any notion of our common life together.

3. Finally, as touched on when discussing the census earlier, modern Britain is changing faster than ever before and we need to highlight and recognise the progress without ignoring the continuing challenges.

Whilst there are still significant issues to be addressed when it comes to race in 2012, a piece of work we released last week shows that the public have become much more relaxed about race.  When Jessica Ennis’ parents met in the mid-1980s, data shows that 50% of the public were opposed to marriages across ethnic lines, with 40% still saying so in the 1990s.  In 2012 that figure is down to 15% and for the under 25s it is 5%!  The census shows that people describing themselves as of mixed ethnicity has gone up 100% in 10 years.  Britain has truly become a ‘melting pot’, arguably even more so than the US – where those of mixed descent themselves are more likely to marry non-whites – in Britain it is broadly the opposite.

However, social integration – gauged by inter-marriage rates – and economic integration – in terms of education and employment – have not gone together.  Some groups (Indians) combine educational success and social mobility with low levels of intermarriage, others (Afro-Caribbeans) show high levels of inter-marriage despite persistent economic disadvantage, whilst others still (Pakistanis & Bangladeshis) show low rates of both.  Broadly, until economic integration catches up with social integration then there is clearly still work to be done.

But, the sharp increase in mixing and mixed heritage should, in my view, be celebrated as evidence of an emerging Britain where minorities are integrating into the mainstream, and where the majority is open to real diversity.

So, in conclusion, could this remarkable year give us more confidence that we can have a country which honours its history, is secure in its identity and which looks out at the world confident of what it has to offer in an ever more competitive global world?
Certainly, one thing I think it does do, is delegitimise a public narrative of extreme pessimism about British society.  When it came to the crunch, and we needed to tell a story to the world, that often dominant narrative which tells us that ours is a broken society, heading towards the inevitable break-up of Britain, as our unhappy, overcrowded island continues in inexorable decline, just felt too miserable to fit the bill – and in the Olympics Opening Ceremony Danny Boyle told a different story.
But what, outside of the Olympic and Paralympic moment, do we want to say and think about our society instead?

I believe that avoiding potential social harms depends on engaging fully and frankly with the cultural and economic anxieties which people feel in Britain today – whilst remaining outward looking, “open for business” and asking how we bring people together to find constructive, workable responses to those anxieties.

I began by asking the question “2012: what’s our story?” because it’s important to engage with both hopes and fears, to speak to anxieties, but also to unlock the sense that we have about the society that we want to share.

The summer of 2012 provided a glimpse of a confident, shared Britain that we liked being part of.
There is more work to do to win confidence that it is the society that we can share together and we all – migrants and non-migrants – all have a role to play.


Thank you.


Matthew Rhodes is director of strategy and relationships at British Future.

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