30 June 2012

Why do non-white Brits feel that little bit more British?

View all news

Ethnic minorities living in Britain identify more strongly with “Britishness” than do their white counterparts, The Times reports this weekend (£, paywall), as it previews a huge 40,000 strong Understanding Society survey from the Institute for Social and Economic Research and the Institute for Education.

The newspaper notes that the results “fly in the face of suggestions that ethnic groups are unable or unwilling to integrate”.

Asked “how important is being British to you?” the average scores by ethnicity on a 0-10 scale were as follows:

Pakistani (7.76), Bangladeshi (7.75), Indian (7.68), Black African (7.64), Middle Eastern (7.48), Other (7.03), Chinese (6.90), Caribbean (6.89), Mixed race (6.78), White (6.58).

The research also finds that people in Wales have a slightly stronger sense of Britishness than the English, while there is a weaker British identity in Scotland – with an average score of 6.30, compared to 7.44 in Wales.

Surveys consistently find that a majority of Scots (around six in ten) do have a strong sense of British identity, though less intense than their Scottish identity for most, but about three in ten reject being British entirely, saying they are Scottish, not British.

In England, the Midlands (7.38) and London (7.34), perhaps a little boosted by minority patriotism, have a stronger sense of British identity than the north (7.24) or the south outside London (7.11).The research will be presented by Dr Alita Nandi at the ESRC research methods festival in Oxford next week.

The reported findings are consistent with several other surveys, including an Ipsos MORI poll carried out for British Future, which have consistently found strong British patriotism among ethnic minorities is often just that little bit stronger than among the general population.

As I wrote in The Observer in January, of the State of the Nation Hopes and Fears report published (PDF file) for the launch of British Future: “Our poll also finds that ethnic minorities feel just a little more proud to be British than white Brits, and immigrants most optimistic about the future. That could be good news for integration, as long as we pay more attention to those who fear being left behind”. The Demos A Place For Pride report the previous Autumn also generated headlines such as Muslims “are more patriotic than most British people” in the Daily Mail.

This raises two intriguing questions.

Why would those from minority backgrounds feel not only just as patriotic as the majority of people, but more so? And why is this consistent finding so often greeted as a surprising revelation?

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch today writes that “it shouldn’t really be a shock”, noting a parallel with the history of immigration and integration of British Jews across the last century.

“My immigrant grandparents were illiterate and my grandmother was one of those recalcitrant women, much maligned these days, who never mastered English. Perhaps part of her always remained gossiping over the washing in some village on the shifting Polish-Russian frontier. Their children, however, were not Russian or Polish. They were British. Today you will walk many a country mile before you encounter anybody more British than the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. The very expectation on the part of others that it would be otherwise – this Britishness of the newcomer – may itself help to intensify it.”

However, the desire of minorities to integrate is not, in itself, enough to create a sense of belonging. The desire to be integral to society has to be reciprocated too, in terms of the opportunity to belong to the national community, as well as in terms of socio-economic inclusion. So the long-term intergenerational decline in racism in British society is also an important and necessary condition for integration and patriotism.

It is very difficult to go around shouting “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack” as the National Front used to in the 1970s, and also say “why don’t these people want to be like us?”.

We naturally, and correctly, think that racism is wrong because it is unfair to the individual or group denied fair treatment and equal opportunity because of prejudice.

Less often discussed is another social cost of racism: that racism also presents an important barrier to the integration into a shared society that most white citizens, as well as most from ethnic backgrounds, say that they want.

Another question is how much integration a liberal society believes that it needs for a shared society. There is a strong pro-integration preference among minorities – for civic and political participation, democracy and the rule of law, and most recognise the importance of the English language for social, economic and civic inclusion. What is difficult is if those demands go further into a demand for complete assimilation, demanding a severing of all cultural connections and affinities, or creating a culture which discourages freedom of religious expression, as for example in some continental European countries discouraging the building of mosques or minarets. These “pro-integration” demands risk crossing the boundary to where they will repel the thing that they claim to want. Yet Britons could agree on this too: most people agree that the Tebbit test takes a step too far.

But I am not sure we should fully understand this phenomenon as being solely about the keenness of newcomers to fit in. The claim to British identity can be about a deep sense of shared history too, particularly for those non-white Britons from Commonwealth countries. The issue is not just claiming a voice in helping to shape a common future. It is also about reminding ourselves that, complicated and contested though it certainly was, we have shared more history than we think. You can look for and find British Muslim patriotism in reports from the first world war trenches, and not only in the last few years.

If every silver lining has a cloud, perhaps we should ask too why white Britons have, on average, a slightly weaker sense of British identity. This should not be overstated: the differences are not particularly wide, and the lower Scottish sense of British belonging is distinctive. (The challenge there is to ensure the Scottish identity is civic and inclusive, for those who reject British identity).

Previous survey evidence tends to support what we might observe anecdotally: that there are different reasons for a weaker sense of national identity among some white Britons.

One group who find flag-waving unnecessary or unattractive are super-cosmopolitan liberals, especially in London, who can be found on both the socially liberal left and centre, and on the pro-market liberal right. This reflects both a commitment to individualism over collectivism and, perhaps especially, an under-examined confidence about identity, which leads to a failure to understand why it does matter to others, as David Skelton noted in a recent blog for the Huffington Post.

A relative lack of feeling for national identity among this group helps to explain why British identity matters less to graduates than non-graduates. Graduates, on average, score 6.87 on the Britishness scale, behind those with no formal qualifications (7.68), O-levels or GCSEs (7.43) and A-level or equivalent (7.18). The implication of the different scales reported is that white, left-leaning graduates will tend to score lower than those who are either from a minority group or who are Conservative supporters.

The non-patriotism of this secure, educated and mostly affluent group is, for the most part, probably mostly pretty harmless, though it was amusingly anatomised in George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn in 1940, in a period when its consequences might have been more serious. Its over-representation among opinion formers can lead to a rather skewed instinct for what most people think and feel, from both right and left of centre voices. A secure internationalist cosmopolitanism is usually founded on being able to take the protections of a nation state and a passport for granted, which is why the keenness of British refugees to participate in the recent Jubilee celebrations makes a lot of intuitive sense.

Of more pressing concern is a weaker sense of identity among those who feel socially, economically and politically excluded.The newspaper preview does not reveal whether this survey also addresses English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities.

But there is past evidence of a growing sense of English identity among the white population in England, as set out in a major ippr report earlier this year.In principle, it could be very worrying if non-white Britons felt strongly included in feeling British, while white Britons rejected it, especially if that was the cause of their doing so.Fortunately, the picture is not that stark. Ippr do report a correlation between those who say they are English not British and anti-politics and anti-diversity sentiments. But the growing English identity is combined with a strong British allegiance for most, while there is a gradual increase in non-white identification with English identity too, but from a lower base. Since almost three-quarters of both whites and non-whites agree that Englishness is not ethnically defined (while one in five of both the majority and the ethnic minorites think it is) means that it is likely that a growing public salience of English identity will see it continue to become more inclusive, as long as it does not take a closed and exclusive form, which repels allegiance to it. That is an English conversationthat is just now beginning to emerge. But this may reflect both the weaknesses and strengths of the recent history of post-war British multiculturalism. It can be argued that – in different times and places – that it had both integrative and segregating effects.

The identity evidence on national identity can be used to make the case that, in practice, it proved a route to integration and national identity for many from minority backgrounds. As Michael Ashcroft has reported, it retains a primarily positive meaning for most, tending to mean a commitment to working to make our multi-ethnic society succeed. Yet it has a primarily negative meaning for more white people, tending to be received as paying more attention to our differences than what we share in common, or an assymetric approach, seeming to celebrate minorities while leaving the majority identity out.

Whatever the merits of that argument, the value of promoting a positive and inclusive national identity that we can all share is that it may be better placed to avoid the risk of reinforcing a sense of “them and us” than a discussion of diversity or multiculturalism alone.

The good news is that most of us – whatever our ethnic backgrounds – do seem happy to fly a flag for that.


British Future’s latest activity on Twitter