Ukip leader Nigel Farage was dog-whistling for all he was worth at his party’s spring conference this week:
“In scores of our cities and market towns, this country, in a short space of time, has, frankly, become unrecognisable. Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact that in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more, this is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”
There can be no doubt to whom Farage’s words are designed to appeal. But, regardless of what liberals like us think, is he right? Have the British people got to a point where we no longer recognise our country?
Well, you’ll have your views just as Farage clearly has his. But when we look at surveys which ask this question, it seems there’s not much evidence to back up the Ukip view. Here’s Bobby Duffy from the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, writing for the Demos publication, Mapping Integration^:
… we may expect to have seen declines in measures of social cohesion as the minority population has grown – but we don’t.
Large, robust surveys show levels of belonging to neighbourhoods, local areas and Britain have all increased in recent years. For example, our sense of belonging to our neighbourhoods increased from 70 per cent to 78 per cent between 2003 and 2011 and belonging to Britain increased from 85 per cent to 89 per cent over the same period.
There are differences between minority and majority groups, with those of Asian ethnic origin slightly more likely to say they feel they belong, while Black groups are slightly lower – but there are no huge differences in levels or in trends. Analysis shows that minority views on this are dynamic, as with other values: recent immigrants are less likely to feel they belong, but longer-term immigrants actually have a greater sense of belonging than native residents.
And it’s the same with perceptions of whether people from different backgrounds get on well together and whether people respect ethnic differences. Both of these measures see high levels of agreement, and each have been on the up, with, for example, 86 per cent agreeing that different backgrounds get on well together in 2011, and just about all ethnic groups showing an increase.
That’s not to say there aren’t concerns among the wider public – where questions of British identity are linked directly to immigration we find the public more likely to think Britain is divided, or that their neighbourhood ‘doesn’t feel like Britain any more’, or even that ‘we’re in danger of being swamped’. However, this probably says a lot more about the impact the public feels immigration has on their own jobs, wages and housing (as well, of course, as persistent scare-mongering in the media) – regardless of the clear facts that immigration is good for the economy.
Here’s Bobby Duffy’s spot-on conclusion:
This mixed and contingent attitudinal picture on integration perhaps reflects our shaky sense of identity and what we’re expecting minorities to integrate into. The largest single answer to survey questions that ask what we understand by the ‘British way of life’ is ‘don’t know’. And when prompted with a list of what makes us proud, it tends to be objective factors like our history and the NHS. Our values are an odd mix of civic behaviours
(respect for the law) and character traits (sense of humour). The eclectic opening ceremony at the London Olympics could have been based on a checklist from survey responses.
But one common feature throughout most of these questions on how we define ourselves is the emphasis we place
on our tolerance of difference. This, combined with relatively strong pride in our identity but weak understanding of its basis, helps explain some of the contradictions and nuances in our views. Our attitudes to integration, majority and minority alike, are a very British compromise.
^ Hat-tip to Sunder Katwala from British Future for drawing this section to my attention.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.