Sunder Katwala is Director of thinktank British Future. His new book How to be a patriot is published this month by Harper North.
Why am I still an optimist about modern Britain’s multi-ethnic society in these heated and polarised times? Three reasons: experience, the evidence – and what we could decide to do to make sure that this is the future that we do secure.
My optimism is a product of personal experience. I certainly saw my country change for the better in my lifetime, particularly during my formative years. I was born in Doncaster, in the mid-seventies, to parents who came to this country from India and from Ireland. My football-mad teenage self saw overt racism on the terraces in the 1980s on a scale that I will never see again when I take my teenage children today.
I graduated in the mid-nineties at a time when ethnic minorities had little presence in public or professional life: there had never been a single black or Asian government minister in this country. So the rapid acceleration in the voice and visibility of ethnic minority Britons in our public and professional life felt like dramatic progress.
The evidence is on my side too, in the long-run, where the sustained shifts are towards greater integration, not the reverse. There have been dramatic gains in educational outcomes, where Britain is the first major democracy where there is no aggregate majority/minority gap, but rather a complex pattern within and across groups, presenting new challenges to make sure some white and black working-class boys are not left behind.
After a polarised debate about whether we were “sleepwalking to segregation”, there is a consensus that residential segregation decreased, albeit gradually, across the last two decades; it is much lower in Britain than in the United States. That helps to explain the sustained inter-generational fall in prejudice: it is the product of a reciprocal reduction in social distance between minority and majority groups.
The balance of evidence contains more support for Rishi Sunak and Kemi Badenoch’s idea that Britain can be a leading example of how to make a multi-ethnic democracy work than Suella Braverman’s fears that rising migration and the failures of multiculturalism present an existential threat.
Yet all of this could be too complacent. How we think about the state of the nation is more about feelings than facts. That sustained shift towards rising confidence across generations is unevenly spread by geography – often matching the uneven distribution of meaningful contact across ethnic and faith lines.
Those generational differences can create new political divides too, though Britain’s so-called culture wars are more moderate than America’s clashes over abortion, guns, and faith versus secular worldviews. There is a broad British consensus on the socially liberal shifts of the last three decades, as well as a sceptical desire to question new vanguard claims couched in unfamiliar, so-called woke language.
Gradual progress may not be enough when new technologies make the world seem to speed up and shrink, so that the conflict in the Middle East can feel up close and personal to many people in Britain.
My confidence about the retreat of racism in society is shaken by the experience of social media. The paradox of racism is that I face much more racism, more frequently, than thirty years ago, despite living in a less racist society, because the bigots are only one click away and social media companies are not taking responsibility for achieving in their spaces what was achieved in school playgrounds, on public transport and football grounds.
So it is not surprising that young people, born in this century, do not share my confidence in how far we have come, but have higher expectations and want the focus to be on what still needs to change.
So while my glass half-full story may be true, integration is often invisible when it works, while failures of integration stick out like a sore thumb. We naturally take the everyday lived experience of living together in schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods for granted.
Meanwhile the burning of a poppy by an extreme Islamist, offering to be the best recruiting sergeant the far right could ever hope for, gets much more attention that the millions of ethnic minorities and Muslims who respect and participate in Remembrance can ever hope for.
So I became sceptical about a community-of-communities multiculturalism a long time ago, though our new King has become a positive champion of the symbolic inclusion of Britons of every colour and creed in our major shared national moments.
The word multiculturalism means different things to different people: for some, the social fact of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society; for others, scepticism about whether the right policy response to increasing diversity is to emphasise difference. Multiculturalism seemed to be mainly a question for minorities, about minorities. An approach that recognises why identity matters to minorities without having a clear understanding of how it matters to majorities too will risk a populist backlash if it seemed to perpetrate a double standard.
We will find more common ground if we think about what integration and equal citizenship should demand of us all – that we should respect the social fact of our faith and ethnic diversity, and put our efforts into what can bring us together.
Despite the real progress we have made, Britain is a more anxious and fractious society than any of us can want. But although we will need to challenge any form of intolerant extremism more confidently, we should not talk ourselves into a crisis of social collapse.
Such a challenge needs to involve more than a counter-narrative against extremism. After all, “Don’t be an extremist” is simply a call to inaction – and it can backfire if young people from specific faith minorities, or indeed parts of the white working class, start to wonder if that is always the first question that their society has to ask about them.
So we need our own calls to action: about being part of this society, what we can share in common and do together. We have made progress on inclusion and integration, but we need to do more.
Whether you see the glass as still half-empty, rather than half-full, the question we all face is the same one. If we are starting from here, now, can we imagine again a sense of the future that we do want to share?