These are my introductory comments to a debate on ‘Can Social Cohesion be Imposed?’, part of the ‘Diverse or Divided?’ conference organised by the IPPR and Canada House, London. Other speakers in the debate were Julian Baginni, Marina Jimenez and Catherine Fieschi.
Let me begin with a newspaper account of life in East London:
The Bethnal Green poor are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship… offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.
That was from an 1864 edition of the Saturday Review, a liberal London-based magazine. It is a perfect description of what today we might call ‘parallel lives’. But 150 years ago, it was seen not as a problem but as a necessary condition of society.
It’s a useful reminder that discussions about social cohesion or integration are neither as new nor as straightforward as they might seem. It’s a useful reminder, too, of the need for a historical perspective. One of the problems with much social analysis is a tendency to take a snapshot of an issue, and to assume that such a snapshot tells us something important across time. Phenomena such as ‘diversity’ or ‘social cohesion’, are not, however, static; their character and meaning, and our political response to them, changes over time. This is important, for instance, in interpreting Robert Putnam’s famous study of the relationship between diversity and trust, which undergirds much discussion on this topic.
At the same time, ‘diversity’, cohesion’, ‘trust’ are all complex terms with multiple meanings but which in both academic and popular discourse all too often become stripped of that complexity and subtlety. The very question ‘Can social cohesion be imposed?’ seems to me express the problem. Fines can be imposed. Laws can be imposed. Authority can be imposed. But social cohesion? To imagine that social cohesion is the kind of phenomenon that can be imposed seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand both the character of society and of what binds it together.
The contemporary narrative about social cohesion usually runs something like this. Britain (or Europe more generally) used to be more cohesive because it used to be more homogenous. The diversity created by mass immigration has created also social friction and problems of cohesiveness and trust.
The trouble is, virtually every step of that narrative is false. Consider the claim that Britain used to be more homogenous. It usually means that Britain used to be ethnically and culturally homogenous. But societies are diverse in many ways, cut through by differences, not only of ethnicity, but also of class, gender, faith, politics, and much else. But when we talk of ‘diversity’ we exclude most of these categories.
Social conflict was the norm in what we call homogenous Britain. Catholics were regarded until recently in the way many now regard Muslims, as ‘representing an entirely different culture and worldview’ excluded by law from most public offices and denied the right to vote. Jews were seen even more of a threat to British identity, values and ways of being. Britain’s first immigration law. the 1905 Aliens Act, was to prevent a further influx of Jews Politically, too, from the Civil War to Peterloo to the General Strike, homogenous Britain was deeply divided. Of course, we don’t think of such conflicts as expressions of a diverse society. Why? Because of a combination of historical amnesia and a restricted view of what diversity entails.
But even within that restricted notion of diversity, our historical picture is mistaken. Nineteenth century Britain may seem to us to have been ethnically homogenous. But, as that vignette from the Saturday Review suggests, that was not how it was seen at the time.
Yet, the narrative of a homogenous nation made diverse and conflictual by immigration has shaped much of contemporary discussion of social cohesion. Consider the 2001 riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. It was out of the riots that the phrase ‘parallel communities’ emerged, in Ted Cantle’s report on the disturbances.
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 then Home Secretary David Blunkett urged minorities to become ‘more British’. The problem, in other words, was seen as one of immigrants and their failure to integrate and 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.
The debate about social cohesion is framed in such a way that immigrants are viewed as the problem to solved, and integration as the solution to that problem. Yet, a series of surveys over the past decade have shown those of South Asian and Caribbean descent are more likely to identity with Britain, and define themselves as British, than the so-called ‘white British’. A 2011 study of British attitudes produced by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at Manchester University, called ‘Who feels British?’ revealed, for instance, that while the majority of people of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Caribbean origin defined themselves as British, 72 per cent 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. There is a problem of trust and cohesion, but it is very different, and its relationship to immigration very different, to the way that the conventional narrative portrays it.
The starting point is not too much diversity, but widespread social disengagement. A whole series of economic and political changes in recent decades – from the decline of manufacturing industry to the erosion of the welfare state, from blurring of the distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ to the expansion of the market into seemingly every nook and cranny of social life, from the loss of belief in universal values to the rise of identity politics – have helped create a more fragmented society and a greater degree of civic disengagement.
One way in which many people have felt this accumulation of changes is as a growing sense of being denied a voice, of being alienated from mainstream institutions. That sense has been most acute within the traditional working class, whose feelings of isolation have increased as the Labour Party – in common with most social democratic parties – has cut its links with its old constituencies, and as trade unions have lost power. The mechanisms that half a century ago gave the working class a sense of political power and social status have corroded.
People have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms, but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. As the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity.
Immigration has not been responsible for these changes. But it has become the medium through which many have come to perceive their sense of disaffection; a catch-all explanation for unacceptable social change and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of voters.
Why? Partly because of the way that the immigration has been framed, from the beginning, as a problem, even as a threat, that needs to be sorted. Partly because the forces of globalization, or the internal wranglings of the Labour Party, are difficult to conceptualise, while one’s Bangladeshi or Polish neighbours are easy to see. Partly also because culture has become the key medium through which to understand social differences and through which to define identity. Even class identity has come to be seen as a cultural attribute. As a consequence those regarded as culturally different are often viewed as threats.
And partly because public policies aimed at managing 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 – have helped reinforce the sense of social fragmentation and entrenchment of the politics of identity.
What I am suggesting, therefore, are three things.
First, that rather than look upon social cohesion as a problem of too much diversity created by immigration, 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.
Second social conflict is a necessary part of social life. Values, ideas, identities are always contested. The problem today is not the existence of social conflict, but the means through which it is expressed. Political conflicts are potentially negotiable. Cultural conflicts are far more intractable. As social differences have come to be seen primarily in cultural terms, so conflicts have become less manageable.
And finally, I would question the assumption that immigration and integration must be managed through state policies and institutions. Integration or cohesion is rarely brought about by the actions of the state, but is shaped primarily by civil society, by the individual bonds that people form with one another, and by the organizations they establish to further their shared political and social interests. It is the erosion of such bonds and institutions that has proved so problematic and that explains why social disengagement is a feature not simply of immigrant communities but of the wider society, too.
The images are, from top down, Misha Gordin‘s ‘New Crowd #62’; Alexander de Moscoso’s ‘Fault’; and Kasimir Malevich’s ‘White on white’.