14 December 2023

Identitarianism is rotting British social policy


While the British political Left has been responsible for the importation of American-inspired ‘white privilege’ theories into the UK, there is growing reason to believe that the identitarian rot is deep in both government and the Conservative Party.

This week, Ryan Henson – a Tory candidate in the 2019 general election and current member of the Cabinet Office-sponsored Social Mobility Commission – authored an article for The Independent which can only be described as pseudo-intellectual grievance politics.

For what it’s worth, Henson did make some reasonable points – especially the need to counter the enduring culture of snobbery towards vocational skills which are of meaningful value to wider society. But this was utterly spoiled by outrageous claims that ‘white British working class children face far fewer challenges than many other communities’ and that compared to their ethnic-minority peers, they ‘benefit from community ties and deeper roots in the country with the world’s sixth largest economy’.

This exposes a fundamental lack of understanding of the realities of modern Britain. Some of the most ‘left-out’ and under-invested communities in the UK are predominantly white British – especially seaside towns such as Blackpool in Lancashire and Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. The English local authority with the lowest average Attainment 8 score (across eight GCSE-level qualifications) is Knowsley on Merseyside – which in recent times did not even have the capacity to provide A-level exams.

Another low performing local authority on this front is North East Lincolnshire, which incorporates the port town of Grimsby as well as other towns such as Cleethorpes on the Humber estuary. Coastal deprivation remains neglected in Britain’s social-policy thinking. The same can be said about isolated rural communities which are largely disconnected from the UK’s digital infrastructure – especially in the south-west of England, the ‘forgotten’ region in mainstream political discourse on ‘levelling-up’ which tends to be framed on ‘North-South’ divides.

It is also a myth that being part of the ‘native’ population, such white-British working-class communities have advantages in terms of social capital – in fact, the opposite is true. Compared to their similarly deprived Asian-heritage peers, white-British working-class children are notably more likely to be part of a lone-parent household and less likely to live in tight-knit local areas with cultural values that can provide a sense of belonging and rootedness. Many ethnic minority pupils are born to parents who have ‘migrant optimism’ – originating from relatively unstable and chronically corrupt countries, they often have hugely positive attitudes towards Britain’s social and economic systems. The town of Slough and the Isle of Wight may both be similarly income-deprived parts of England – but the former undoubtedly ranks higher in terms of multigenerational cohesion and local civic assets (as well as being much closer and well-connected to the high-opportunity London city region). It is no surprise that the latter fares much worse across a range of educational outcomes.

The UK needs a reckoning when it comes to its thinking on social mobility. This must include doing away with paralysing American-style obsessions with race and focusing on family dynamics, local civic assets, and wider regional disparities in the UK. Being a white-British working-class child in Hartlepool, County Durham means living in one of the most deprived towns in one of the poorest regions in the most regionally-unequal society in the industrialised world. It matters little that they are a native who happens to be in the sixth largest economy on Earth.

The Social Mobility Commission should also investigate the degree of outreach activity by London-based businesses and universities in coastal areas, rural communities, and post-industrial districts in the provinces. There needs to be a joined-up, ‘levelling-up’ approach which shifts away from reductive ‘North-South’ framings which tend to overlook considerable forms of deprivation along much of the southern English coast. More generally, practical skills ought to be aggressively promoted in our education system – the creation of German-style vocational centres of excellence should be at the heart of this (geared towards our advanced automotive, aerospace, and maritime manufacturing sectors).

The UK simply can’t afford forms of navel-gazing identitarian activism in the sphere of social mobility policy. If it continues to do so, it will further fail many neglected communities and risk falling behind in the competitive global economy.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a senior research associate at the Institute for the Impact of Faith in Life (IIFL).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.