Little polling is more contested than that about immigration, but YouGov’s tracker is as good a place to start as any. Fifty-seven per cent of its respondents believe that migration has been too high, and 17 per cent that its levels have been about right. That leaves 26 per cent either thinking its been too low, or else not having a view.
Migration Observatory says that “there is evidence from multiple sources showing that attitudes have softened in recent years”, and different aspects provoke different responses. All the same, YouGov funds no majority support for any of them, and Conservative-inclined voters tend to be more resistant to migration than most others.
These findings are the backdrop against which public attitudes to integration and cohesion should be seen. There is an unspoken social contract between the indigenous population, of whatever ethnicity, and newer arrivals. The first expect the second to conform to the British way. The second expect to be able to help shape its future.
By and large, it has held – allowing our country to absorb migration on a scale unimaginable to previous generations without civil chaos. The Coronation’s mix of old and new showcased what it can achieve. But while the odds are that it will continue to work, it has come under serious strain in recent years, and there is now a real risk that our politicians will fail to preserve it.
Indeed, they already have – starting with Labour, who relaxed the control on numbers exercised by previous governments of both main parties. As the Guardian reported in a historical retrospective, “in 1997 net migration had been 48,000, but it rose extremely rapidly over the next 12 months, almost trebling to 140,000 in 1998. It was never to fall below 100,000 again.”
That control was part of the contract – and, since the base of Labour’s support is among younger people, within universities and in cities, where support for migration is higher, there is no reason to believe that Keir Starmer would restore it in government, whatever the composition of the Labour benches might be after an election win.
But the Conservatives are scarcely in a better position. To illustrate the point, I must turn to the two main policy-shaping Ministers – the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. But, first, it’s necessary to explain exactly why the social contract that has governed integration has frayed.
I wrote earlier that it has mostly held – but mostly is not entirely. As I write, a teacher who showed his pupils illustrations of the prophet of Islam is in hiding with a new identity in fear of his life after losing his job. The incident had nothing to do with Afghanistan or foreign policy or “illegal wars” or Iraq.
The best part of 20 years on from 7/7, British Islam hasn’t produced a leader or movement that campaigns against governance under pre-modern law – the ideal championed by Islamist extremism. Government’s focus has shifted from terror within to war without, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of Chinese power. But that fanaticism lives on.
The contract has also frayed at the edges for more subtle reasons. The assumption of a generation ago was that ethnic minorities get the short end of the straw. The report of Tony Sewell’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities showed that assumption to be out of date.
As Raghib Ali has systematically explained on this site, the main factor in health and educational inequalities is deprivation, not race: Britain is experiencing systemic classism, not racism. Many people, not all of them white, get the point intuitively. Others, not all of them members of ethnic minorities, believe that social progress has been too slow.
Enter, into this uneasy household, the hysteria of woke. Its foundational reflex is hostility to Britain’s past – or rather, since the movement is American in origin, to the entire western project. Hence the movement for reparations, now knocking on Buckingham Palace’s door.
No wonder, in response, that both conservatives and liberals (in the non-American sense of the word) unite to argue that Britain’s history, like that of others, is a mix of good and bad, and that we’ve much to be proud of. The classic illustration is our role in abolishing the slave trade. One of the best expositions of the case is Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.
Conservatives tend to stress the contribution of Christianity (and, in Britain, the historical contribution of the church that is an integral part of our constitutional settlement, the Church of England). Some now want to go further – which takes me to the National Conservatism conference taking place in London this week.
Among the movement’s ten statements of principle, you will find the following statement: “where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private”.
On the one hand, it wouldn’t be fair to claim that British speakers at the conference have promoted the view of this international statement. On the other, it isn’t clear that they all disagree with it, either – and there would be limited political traction, if any, for the Conservatives in pushing explicitly religious politics at a largely non-churchgoing population.
In the Balkans within recent memory, religion became a sectarian marker – at least to some, with Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Roman Catholics drawing each other’s blood. Further away, one might look at Nigeria. At home, up to a point, Northern Ireland. The vista is endless.
We are a very long way away from most of all this, and if Britain can’t draw inspiration from its Christian past, its future will be more pinched, meaner, and less rich than otherwise. But there is a risk of the Conservatives getting their policy precisely the wrong way round.
It should, first, seek to bolster that unwritten contract which means, second, reducing immigration levels – the last being a precondition of the first. I understand that a speech claiming that multiculturalism is “a recipe for communal disaster” will go down well with a conservative audience (especially if a Tory leadership election may come after the next election).
But multiculturalism, as most people understand it, is part of the social contract. Our proprietor’s polling found that 71 per cent of Conservative voters support it. As I wrote at the time, the most likely explanation “is that they see it as a form of shorthand not for a multicultural society, but for a multi-racial society”.
And while the Home Secretary’s rhetoric is careless, the Prime Minister’s grasp is limited – at least if my recent interview with him for this site is anything to go by: “the most important question, the thing that everyone talks to me about, is not that. It’s the boats,” he said, when I put to him the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast of record levels of net migration.
I understand that Rishi Sunak is focused on stopping the boats – and why. And why the Treasury feels present migration levels to boost growth until the Budget’s work-related measures kick in. But the fact is that Boris Johnson – the hero of parts of the Conservative right – took the lid off migration.
The vote for Brexit was shaped by people wanting a different economic model – less southern, less finance-based, less migration-reliant. Over five years on, there’s little sign of it. At its best in the past, Conservative policy on integration has been “tough on numbers, open to change”. If it becomes “lax on numbers, closed to change”, we’ll have the worst of both worlds.