7 June 2024

We need to talk about integration


It is little surprise that immigration, and the main parties’ approach to it, is central to the current general election debate. That is a good thing: immigration is an issue of importance to voters and the democratic process allows us to interrogate the competing policies of those vying to lead the country. Integration – how those of us already here can live together well – is also important but often gets overlooked.

The most prominent sceptical arguments about immigration involve several recurring themes. Arguments about numbers – ‘there are too many of them’ – are linked to concerns about resources – ‘they are taking things that could be ours’ – such as jobs, housing or public services. There is often an argument about identity, culture and integration – ‘they are not like us’. Finally, if these arguments do not prevail in the political arena, there can be frustration about voice and democracy – that ‘we are not even allowed to talk about it’. This is often a complaint directed not only at migrants themselves but at political, business and media elites, accused of ignoring popular sentiment to pursue pro-immigration policies which reflect their own distinct interests and values.

Shifts in attitudes towards immigration after Brexit had many and complex causes. It became much less credible to argue that people could not talk about immigration at all. More control means new choices too. Considering the trade-offs between the costs and benefits of immigration can help to normalise discussions about immigration, rendering them more similar to those about, say, taxation and public spending.

Yet immigration and integration are existential issues too. They are not only debates about ‘them and us’ – but are ultimately about how new people can become ‘us’. Different societies have had different intuitions about citizenship and national identity. The United States of America has a long tradition of celebrating how new arrivals could become American. Like Australia and Canada, it has sought to champion a ‘civic’ idea of citizenship, where the willingness to declare a commitment to constitutional principles and values matters most.

Others adopted a more ‘closed’ conception of national identity, allowing temporary migration – for high status roles in academia and finance, or low paid work, such as construction – without encouraging incomers to be citizens. The Federal Republic of Germany was the most prominent convert after WWII, with its Gastarbeiter (guest-worker) model welcoming hundreds of thousands to come and fill labour gaps on the assumption that most would later return home. Germany switched at the start of this century to the ‘civic’ model – and has a good claim to now be the liberal democracy that puts the most proactive resources into migrant integration today.

One way to promote citizenship is to have clear policies and rules about what long-term migrants need to do. But a sense of ‘joining the club’ is about more than that. One test of how well this ideal works would be tangible social measures of equal opportunity – how far migrants and their children have fair chances and good outcomes in education and employment. Britain scores relatively well on these metrics.

Yet there is another, less tangible, sphere – equality of status. This could prove just as important in whether equal citizenship feels real enough that the legal acquisition of citizenship does transcend ‘them and us’ categories, for example for citizens from different ethnic or faith backgrounds from the majority group. Equal status depends upon reciprocal relationships: the new citizen needs to feel that British identity is just as open to them – and that citizens of every background are seen by their fellow citizens as full and equal members of their new society. If that is how it feels, then people can truly ‘become us’.

The potential power of citizenship as a signal was demonstrated in a striking recent YouGov research finding, reported by Labour Together. Asked about somebody from Nigeria who had come to Britain in 2000 and who had worked as a building contractor, without becoming a citizen, 62% of the public felt he was likely to have made a meaningful economic contribution. That rose to 83% where a similar description added that he had become a British citizen too.

Public policy can strengthen the bonds between those who settle in Britain and the communities they join. That a common language is essential for integration commands the broadest consensus across all political and cultural viewpoints. Delivering universal English fluency would involve a range of roles and responsibilities – for governments, employers and migrants themselves.

Civic welcoming efforts, such as local conversation clubs to supplement formal classes, could invite existing citizens to play their part – and so catalyse the meaningful social contact that can break down barriers between incomers and the society they join.

The citizenship process itself could do more to encourage those settling long-term to become British. And it would be good for inclusion and confidence to do more to celebrate that they do so. There are citizenship ceremonies every week across the country. Once a year these could take place in the 10 Downing Street garden or Buckingham Palace, and in cathedrals of sport and culture across the nations and regions. That would be one way to communicate and celebrate an everyday reality with powerful symbolic resonance: people choosing to become part of ‘us’.

While managing tensions over numbers and resources are essential for addressing short-run pressures over immigration, successful migration policies also depend on a shared perception that change is managed fairly both for newcomers and the communities that they join. And, in the long-run, what will make migration work well is less the question of whether ‘they’ are good for ‘us’ – but how far our societies can turn the aspiration that people can ‘become us’ into a reality.

This is an edited version of an article in ‘Migration to the UK after Brexit: Policy, politics and public opinion’ a collection by UK in a Changing Europe, published next week.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future

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