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2 May 2023

The UK is less racist than the left – and the right – think

New polling shows that Britain is one of the countries most comfortable with ethnic diversity and immigration.

By Jonathan Portes

Almost 20 years ago, in an influential essay for Prospect magazine entitled “Too Diverse”, David Goodhart argued that, with around 9 per cent of the population from an ethnic minority background, immigration was eroding our common culture and the mutual solidarity that underpinned the welfare state: “To put it bluntly – most of us prefer our own kind.”

Earlier this week at the Policy Exchange think tank, where Goodhart is head of demography, immigration and integration, the immigration minister Robert Jenrick said that those crossing the Channel “tend to have completely different lifestyles and values to those in the UK and tend to settle in already hyper-diverse areas, undermining the cultural cohesiveness that binds diverse groups together”.

The claim that immigration and diversity is bad for “social cohesion” has become received wisdom among right-wing politicians and intellectuals, and indeed some sections of the left. It’s not hard to see why – it gave a semblance of academic rigour to the long-standing but unevidenced claim that “good race relations” required tight immigration controls and plausible deniability towards accusations of racism and xenophobia.

But two decades have passed since Goodhart’s article, during which both the ethnic minority population and the foreign-born population have almost doubled, as the most recent Census shows. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if these concerns were real, they would have manifested themselves by now.

Here’s the data from my colleagues at the Policy Institute at King’s College London. As they put it: “The UK now has some of the highest levels of neighbourhood trust internationally, while Britons have also become much more comfortable with having neighbours who belong to historically marginalised groups, such as gay people, those of a different race, immigrants, and people who have Aids.”

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[See also: What Diane Abbott gets wrong about racism]

There’s plenty more evidence on similar lines: for example, that “social distance” between people from different ethnic groups has declined. And, as the director of British Future, Sunder Katwala, using Ipsos UK polling, has pointed out, the view that “to be truly British you have to be white”, which has a long tradition in elite conservative circles in the UK, is now very much a fringe one. We may, as Goodhart argued, “prefer our own kind”. But who that includes can change – and it has.

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Yet while these results make uncomfortable reading for some on the right, and should allow us to see the fear-mongering peddled by the likes of Jenrick for the reheated Powellism that it is, they should also prompt some self-reflection – and perhaps a little less self-flagellation – in some sections of the left, parts of which are all too prone to reach for the lazy and simplistic “rainy, fascist island” trope.

The government-commissioned Sewell Report into institutional racism from spring 2021 was rightly criticised for its muddled thinking and garbled analysis. But its thesis that, as the author Rakib Ehsan puts it, “for all its flaws, Britain has established itself as a European leader in fostering social cohesion and economic fairness – especially when it comes to race”, has plenty of evidence to back it up. Those of us who have broadly supported a liberal approach to immigration and the UK’s muddled and incoherent, but nonetheless rather successful, approach to diversity and multiculturalism, can legitimately claim to be vindicated – not by elite opinion or the politicians, but by the way ordinary Britons live, work and interact with each other.

[See also: Gary Younge: how racism shaped my critical eye]

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