Last month, I reviewed David Goodhart’s book The British Dream which explores, in the words of its subtitle, the ‘successes and failures of post-war immigration’. Goodhart, I suggested, ‘touches on some of the critical issues that we face today’. But ‘his insistence on seeing contemporary problems primarily through the lens of immigration only obscures those issues and makes it more difficult to formulate adequate responses’.

In his response to the review, Goodhart raised three main issues. First, he suggested that too much immigration undermined the ‘stability and continuity’ necessary for a ‘decent society’. Second, David insisted that I am only able to defend mass immigration by adopting ‘a sort of methodological individualism’, and by denying that there is any such thing as a society. Finally, he asked, what does integration mean for me? I have already responded to the first two issues of stability and society; this post is about integration.  David will himself respond in time.

Goodhart himself defines integration as the ‘convergence of life chances without convergence of lifestyles’. As a definition that is neither particularly controversial not particularly illuminating. Few people – not even the most hardline multiculturalist critic of Goodhart’s approach – would disagree.  His specific policies are a mixture of the obvious – ‘English language teaching should be more easily available to newcomers’ – and the deeply illiberal – the use of quotas to limit the number of migrants on a housing estate, and reducing the number of ‘spouses brought over from ancestral lands’.

Such illiberalism exposes a more profound problem with the very idea of integration. In my review of The British Dream I suggested that the ‘twin track’ strategy adopted by policy makers from the 1960s onwards – the imposition of increasingly restrictive controls combined with a legislative framework to outlaw racial discrimination – helped promoted the idea of Britain as a tolerant nation, while also implying that social problems arose from the very presence in Britain of culturally-distinct immigrants.  In other words, the debate about immigration has been framed in such a way that immigrants have from the beginning been viewed as a problem that needs to be resolved. Something similar can be said of the discussion around ‘integration’. The very notion of integration presents immigrants as a problem to solved, and integration as the solution to that problem. The trouble is, framing immigration in this manner makes ‘integration’ in any meaningful sense much more difficult.


What should immigrants be integrated into? For critics of mass immigration the something into which immigrants are to be integrated is usually defined in Burkean terms: a nation, or a community, shaped by a set of values, which in turn are defined not merely by moral or political content but also by the history, tradition, ethnie and place. This is certainly the argument that Goodhart makes. The consequence, as Bridget Anderson observes in her book Us and Them?, is that such nations and communities are also often defined against those without such a history, tradition, ethnie and place; in other words, against the migrant. As a result, the migrant comes to be defined not just in legal but also in normative terms. ‘Part of being an outsider’, Anderson writes, ‘is not sharing the same values – which easily becomes not having the “right” values’. Debates about immigration, integration and citizenship, she adds, ‘are not simply about legal status, but fundamentally about status in the sense of worth and honour’. The irony, again, is that to pose integration in this fashion is to undermine any meaningful notion of integration.

Rather than look upon integration as a special process applicable only to immigrants, it is better seen as an expression of a much broader set of developments through which the relationships between individuals, communities and society  are forged. Consider, for instance, the 2001 riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, the riots that led Ted Cantle, in his report on the disturbances, to talk about the creation of ‘parallel communities’. What caused such parallel communities to be formed in the first place? David Ritchie, author of the independent report on the Oldham riots, criticised the ‘self-segregation’ of ethnic minorities. The Home Secretary David Blunkett urged ethnic minorities to become ‘more British’.  The problem, in other words, was seen, as it has been throughout the debate about integration, as one of immigrants and their failure to integrate and to be sufficiently British.  It was not, however, just Asians who rioted in the northern mill towns; white youth did too.  And white youth were undoubtedly as disengaged from society and as alienated from any notion of Britishness as were the Asians.  Yet, their disaffection was never seen in the same context as that of Asian youth.

Interesting in this context is ‘Who feels British?’, a recent study of the 2011 census by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at Manchester University. While the majority of people of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Caribbean origin defined themselves as British, 72% of ‘white British’ rejected that label, viewing themselves only as English. They could have defined themselves as both English and British, but the majority chose not to. The figures suggest a fragmentation of identity, and a high level of disengagement among those classified as ‘white British’ from a sense of Britishness.  They suggest, too, that ‘integration’ is not merely a matter for minorities; indeed, that it might be more of an issue for the ‘white British’.

If we see the problem of ‘integration’ merely in terms of the ‘problem’ of immigration, then the kinds of illiberal policies that Goodhart advocates may make sense. But in purely targeting immigrants rather than considering the wider set of social issues, the debate about integration, and indeed the very concept, comes to act as a barrier to integration in any real sense. This is not to say that there are not issues specific to immigrants and minority communities, but they are best understood in the context of the wider debate about the relationship between individuals, communities and society. There are many social factors that shape the relationship between migrant communities and broader society. Let me here mention four that seem to me, or have come to be regarded as, particularly important: the character of immigration, the degree and nature hostility to immigrants, the shape of state policy, and the state of civil society.


For many critics of mass immigration the most significant of these factors is the character of immigration. So, Goodhart believes  that certain groups (Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Carribeans) are, for different reasons related to their culture of origin, much more difficult to  integrate. Britain, in his view, needs to sift immigrants and take in primarily those from a background that can integrate well.

The character of immigration is, in my view, the least important of these factors. It is true that immigrants carry with them cultural baggage, have attachments to particular traditions and institutions, and adhere to particular moral codes. But migrant communities are neither homogenous nor are such attachments fixed. Immigrants from the same origins and the same background often have very different lives, values and prospects depending on the countries to which they migrate – consider, for instance, the difference between Caribbean communities in Britain and in the USA.  In Britain, Caribbean immigration has been, in Goodhart’s view, a ‘tragedy’. In America, the same kinds of immigrants from the same islands have been seen as one of the great successes of the immigration story (a difference that Goodhart, indeed, acknowledges). There are also major differences within minority communities and especially across generations. I mentioned in a previous post the shifts between three generations of postwar Muslim immigrants to Britain. David Goodhart himself observes in his book how ‘some British South Asian communities seem laughably old-fashioned to their actual South Asian cousins’.

All cultures, traditions and institutions change and evolve. British cultures, attitudes and values are significantly different today than they were half a century ago. How those of immigrant communities transform depends less on where they have come from than on where they are. That is why the other factors I mentioned above are far more important than the character of immigration.

The character of hostility to immigrants has changed over the past fifty years. The kind of old-fashion racism that blighted the lives of minorities in the sixties, seventies and eighties is, thankfully, much reduced. Nevertheless, hostility to the very idea of immigration, and the belief that immigrants are responsible for much of Britain’s social ills, remains immensely strong. And such hostility inevitably shapes the relationship between minorities and wider society.

State policy has played a particularly invidious role.  In the first decades of postwar immigration, the attitude of state institutions to migrants was often defined by racism, from police brutality to local authorities’ discriminatory housing policies. More recently it has been defined by multiculturalism, the attempt to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. The consequence has been to create a more tribal Britain, to undermine diversity within minority communities, to give legitimacy to more reactionary voices, and to make more difficult the creation of social bonds across communities.

migrants and barbed wire

While there has been considerable debate about state policy, the importance of civil society in shaping integration has often been forgotten. The structures of civil society – political parties, trade unions, campaign groups, community organizations – are the means by which the individual becomes part of wider communities and society, and hence form the real mechanism of integration. Those structures have, however, corroded over the past three decades. And it is this corrosion of the structures of civil society that has primarily has led to the sense of social disengagement that is now so widespread, a feeling of greater political and social isolation. It has also, as I suggested in a previous post in this series, led to people viewing themselves and their social affiliations in a different way, so that ‘Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture’.

The process by which the politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity is both the cause and consequence of social disengagement and the creation of a more tribal Britain. Integration, in other words, is not a question of asking ‘what policies do we need to get migrants to fit in?’. It is rather about tackling that wider sense of disengagement that is felt by all communities, the irrelevance of ‘Britishness’ to the ‘white British’ even more than to minority communities. Goodhart’s key solution is to establish a more Burkean notion of nationhood, an insistence that a civic notion of nationality has to be undergird by an ethnic concept too. The irony is that such reworking of nationality can only reinforce the politics of identity, reinvigorate the sense of immigrants as the problem to be solved, buttress the sense Us and Them, and make integration in any meaningful sense that much more difficult.


The top image is of ‘Crowds in the war’ by Petra Olsakova.


  1. Marcus

    Blaming the increased tribal nature of British society on the “corrosion of the institutions of the British state” and also this ridiculously woolly phrase “lack of engagement”, rather than the fact that 4 million people from all over the world have joined a previously relatively ethnically and religiously homogenous society, is really an unbelievably lame and unrealistic argument.

    • Sigh. Since I have already in previous posts shown at greater length why 1. The actual numbers make little difference to the perception of, or debate about, immigration; 2. Immigrants are not responsible for many of the changes for which they are blamed, but rather have come to be symbolic of these changes; and 3. Social and policy changes have created a more tribal Britain, perhaps you could start your reading there. And if you want to know why the myths of immigration are just that – myths – and why it is not immigration but public policy towards immigration that has helped create a more tribal, segmented nation, try my Milton K Wong lecture. Perhaps then we can have a discussion about who is being ‘ridiculously wooly’.

      • Marcus

        Regarding your numbered points above:

        1. I have read your argument and absolutely do not accept that actual numbers make “little difference”.

        Also, you seem to make a great deal of this point in the 1st (and 3rd) articles you link to:

        “the idea that immigration is disruptive of culture, identity and social cohesion is, in other words, as old as immigration itself”

        … as if the age of an idea automatically invalidates it (surely it acts more as its proof), and as if the fact that *some* or many people have always expressed a fear of migrants (with the number expressing that fear surely dependent on the numbers of immigrants and circumstances around their arrival) means that that fear is then “irrational”, or so groundless that it can be ignored.

        Clearly from history, many tribes have really suffered in terms of their actual autonomy over the territory they inhabit, some have even been wiped out as a consequence of migration, e.g. many American Indian tribes (both North and South). So no, I don’t accept that the fact that a fear of migration is a constant throughout history means that that fear is necessarily irrational or can be disregarded, and I don’t see why you would propose that – it is carelessly dismissive. Rather like telling an environmentalist that they’re just talking crap, don’t worry about the trees, they’ll be fine, stop being such a luddite, don’t you know that people have been worrying about the climate since Moses, etc. crass, crass, crass.

        2. I don’t accept that Immigrants are considered responsible for all changes in a society by many/most people – however I do think immigration, or rather multi-ethnic/multi-religious society dilutes people’s sense of autonomy with regard to decisions that are made within a society – as they feel compromises have to be made, so that change then becomes harder for people to deal with. But I am not interested in whether this is immigrants’ “fault” or not, I know it isn’t their personal responsibilities, the point relates to a multi-ethnic society’s ability to change and deal with change, which is not competitive in comparison to homogenous societies.

        Also I understand that working class Britain has changed as a consequence of a large number of things, some/many of them completely unrelated to migration, but then which society has ever remained static, and which lowest group in that society has never suffered disproportionately (and gained to some degree normally) from that change? The point is that a multi-ethnic society makes it much harder for people to rationalise changes in their environment and consequently behave in a non-violent manner.

        Finally I love your definition of multiculturalism:

        “Part of the problem in discussions about multiculturalism is that the term has, in recent years, come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.”

        But then:

        “The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.”

        Back to the crass wooliness.

        And I don’t accept that either the UK or France has historically been as ethnically “diverse” as they are now (in terms of their histories as actual nation states (though they have been v ideologically diverse)). And I don’t believe that ideological plurality causes people to act and rationalise politically in the same way that ethnic plurality does – ethnicity being a stage beyond ideological separatism, in that is often marked by genetic facial features, which are in effect an inescapable marker of who we belong to that we cannot ever change (unlike our ideological identities e.g. Jew to Catholic Christian during Span Inquisition etc).

      • The comparison you make between the wiping out of Native American tribes by European settlers or conquistadors and the migration of Jews and South Asians and African Caribbeans to Britain is bizarre and tells us more about your view of immigration than it does of the character of immigration itself. Your recasting of ‘autonomy’ in ethnic rather than political terms is equally bizarre, while the claim that ‘a multi-ethnic society makes it much harder for people to rationalise changes in their environment and consequently behave in a non-violent manner’ seems merely to be a rationalization of racial violence. Finally, your genetic view of identity is both genetically and historically false. Talk about ‘crass wooliness’!

  2. Sarka

    Very interesting as always. But I think the argument suffers from a certain lack of understanding of the admittedly tricky relationship of Englishness to Britishness.
    Britishness as opposed to Englishness (Scottishness, Welshness too) has historically been a concept fostered from above for state purposes (see e.g. Linda Colley’s study Britons). It has taken root, but from the point of view of that majority of “British whites” who tend automatically to define selves as “English” in social situations (as Scots and Welsh would do too), it has a different and more sporadic function. I.e. for bureaucratic official purposes, obviously – passports and such, but also as a focus of identity appealed to for purposes of unity, historically especially in time of war (the Napoleonic Wars were the key period of its popularisation), in relation to the Empire, and more generally in political or other contexts where the whole UK is being politically invoked as against sme other entity (usually Europe). Here it can have some emotional power, but from the English point of view it’s probably wrong to see it as ever having been a “parallel identity” thing, In other words, very many of those English whites in the survey who asserted English identity alone are not really disengaging from Britishness, because there was NEVER a time when they engaged with it more consistently, although they hardly reject it at moments and in registers/discourses when it is and was relevant – unlike for example Scottish or Welsh nationalists who reject it on political principle. Another way of putting this is to say that for the English (unlike the other ethnicities of Britain), Britishness has in the last two centuries tended to be more just a vague cultural and political concomitant of Englishness, activated or de-activated according to context – so why should anyone want or need to assert that they were both English and British? – for many the question will still feel artificial,
    I know plenty of British non-white descendants of immigrants who as individuals in many contexts identity quite unselfconsciously as “English” (or Scots, or Welsh) (meaning – the form of native English they speak, their English education, attachment to English locality etc etc. But obviously, Britishness with both its bureaucratic citizen aspect, but also its ideological inclusiveness, has been the more appealing and accessible identity at many levels…and paradoxically I would say that the less integrated a group, the more likely its members are to prioritise Britsh as identity. It’s my personal experience, for what it’s worth, that Indians are more likely to self-define as English than Pakistanis, and that the more middle-class and educated they are, the stronger this tendency is.

    But anyway, this brings us to a massive question that you do not address. Which is that inclusive Britishness as identity is more under threat than at any previous time in modern history. Not from immigrants, not from Islamists, not from the EDL …but from.,… Scottish nationalism. It’s not at all impossible that Scotland will secede leaving just, basically England, with tiny Wales and NI as components too marginal to support Britishness in the old sense. And then what happens to “British Asian””, “British Muslim”” or whatever, as identity categories….?
    It may, of course, never happen, but just the thought experiment (hardly wild and implausible in the circumstances) indicates the problems of the essentially de-ethnicised civic concept of Britishness that you are trying to explore and defend,

    . .


  3. Angela Squires

    Defining oneself as English is a pushback, to particularly Scottish but also Irish definitions. I live in Canada and many born here describe themselves as Scottish or Irish when the reality is their descent.
    When I describe myself as English the assumption is presumed that I am also British.
    I am horrified by what has happened to Britain, we should have listened to Enoch Powell!


    I have form on this forum so I will try to be polite.

    The question that Kenan asks. ‘What should immigrants be integrated into?’ is an important one. Without implicating Kenan in its logical extensions, What if the ideal — Burkean or otherwise — identifies itself as everything that the other is not and cannot aspire to be. The integrability question cannot be discussed purely in terms of aliens’ eagerness to integrate but also in terms of the hosts to accept those enthusiastic to integrate.

    Meanwhile I am only mildly amused by the unsettling of David Goodhart. His intemperate tweets to anyone who questions the basis of his argument: the casual mud-slinging, branding those who challenge his as “dimwits”, and his strident assertion that he has “ploughed through” the economics, are not convincing.

    In finishing, let me remain polite.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: