23 April 2019

On integration, a polarised debate masks public consensus

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Tony Blair has courted controversy with his recent claim that upholding the “duty to integrate” – that migrants must accept the rules, laws and norms of British society – is key to tackling far right bigotry. Some have challenged the former Prime Minister for blaming the victims of prejudice for the racism and bigotry of others.

That Tony Blair creates polarised reactions on the internet may not be news – but there are lessons from this episode in how the debate about integration gets stuck. Especially as this is a case of déjà vu all over again.

Blair first set out his views on the “duty to integrate” back in December 2006. I remember attending his Downing Street lecture on Multiculturalism and Integration, co-hosted by the Runnymede Trust, part of a legacy series in which a prime minister conscious that he had only months left in office offered some big-picture thoughts about the challenges of the next decade. Blair talked about the benefits of immigration and ethnic diversity, celebrated the long-term decline in prejudice, and asked how a liberal society could balance “the right to be different” with an inclusive, shared identity that could underpin the obligations of a common citizenship.

This was well received by his audience – largely those working on issues of race, discrimination and equal opportunities. There were constructive challenges to the analysis and prescription, alongside an appreciation of the importance of national political leadership making a serious effort to engage with race and diversity. That sense was somewhat diminished by the following day’s headlines: a crude briefing of a nuanced speech generated punchy headlines: “adopt our values or stay away, says Blair”

Blair’s latest comments come in a foreword to a detailed report from the Institute for Global Change, The glue that binds: integration in an age of populism. It again makes a much more nuanced case than either the headlines or the online reactions acknowledge, identifying practical actions that government, schools, businesses and citizens can take to promote inclusion and integration.

Yet language and tone do matter in the debate about integration.  An integration debate which is framed in “them and us” terms can fuel and stoke the differences and anxieties that it is seeking to address.

The irony is that our polarised debate about integration fails to reflect the degree of consensus about what is practically useful. British Future’s National Conversation on Immigration found much scope for common ground, with migrants to the UK, ethnic minorities and the white British converging on common-sense foundations for making integration work. Promoting a shared language; contact in schools and workplaces; and action to tackle hate crime and prejudice all found broad support.

The Blair Institute also reports Eurobarometer data that shows how Britain is, comparatively, on the glass half-full side of the debate in public perceptions that we can get integration right. People are positive by about 55 per cent to 30 cent that integration is succeeding, though the media and political discourse is primarily about failures. Belgium, France, Germany and Italy have much gloomier public perceptions.

We have never had a proper integration strategy in this country. Green shoots are emerging – such as in the government’s integrated communities plan for England, in which pilots are being undertaken in five local areas across the country – Bradford, Blackburn, Peterborough, Waltham Forest and Walsall – and in strategies in London and other city-regions. There is some distance to travel before integration is seen as a policy priority, for everybody, everywhere.

It is a mistake to reduce the case for an inclusive and integrated society to being an antidote to far-right extremism.  A shared identity, more contact across social divides and fair opportunities across our society are important goods in themselves, and should be pursued for that reason. Hateful ideologies, whether the racism that fuels the far right or Islamist extremism that justifies terror, need to be tackled head-on.

It would indeed be victim-blaming to say that the lack of English fluency is a cause, still less a legitimiser, of hate crime or racist bigotry. The links between integration and challenging extremism are complicated and contentious – but it is not victim-blaming to pay close attention to how social inclusion can help to remove the conditions which can breed prejudice.

There is strong evidence that meaningful social contact reduces stereotyping and prejudices towards out-groups: this is one reason why anti-migrant prejudices can often be highest of all in areas of the lowest migration and diversity, not just in areas of rapid recent change. It would be mistaken to say it is the primary responsibility of migrants and minorities to close these contact gaps in our society.

But it should be the responsibility of national and local government to think about how the choices that they can make, for example in education and housing, can affect them. Many other institutions in our society can play a positive or negative role in promoting contact, or impeding it. The Blair Institute report is right to say that, if employers find it convenient to segregate factory shifts by language or national group, they are making a damaging choice, by undermining the practical contribution which contact at work makes to people getting to know each other.

If it is to unlock the latent consensus for practical progress, the integration debate needs to move beyond rhetoric towards action. Maybe former Prime Ministers are always going to have too much baggage to start the debate we need. We will hear, soon, from those who want to lead our country. We should expect them to have something to say about integration in polarised times – but the crucial test will be what they propose that we can do to bridge our divides.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future