Has Multiculturalism Failed? After Brexit, Britain Grapples With Issues of Immigration and Integration

British Polish Community
Polish language magazines are displayed at a Polish delicatessen in Grays, England, December 11, 2015. Prejudice against immigrants helped drive Brexit. Neil Hall/Reuters

After Brexit, Britain has to learn to live with itself. That's the view, anyway, among a number of Westminster's politicians. The issue of immigration has been consistently at the heart of British politics for a little over a decade at least. But the specific issue of integration—how immigrants and the native population learn to live together, and what each should be expected to do to further that end—is discussed only intermittently, and to little effect. In the months since last June's historic referendum, in which Britain voted to leave the EU, some are trying to change that.

Chuka Umunna, a British Labour Party MP for a diverse south London constituency and the son of a Nigerian immigrant, has long had a reputation as a pro-immigration campaigner. But he sees no contradiction between defending the rights of people to come to the U.K., and setting out some demands of them when they arrive. A report he published this month calls for mandatory English classes for immigrants—a fairly controversial idea among London-based liberals like Umunna."The historic consensus in Britain for migration has fallen apart over the last decade or so," Umunna tells Newsweek, "and the job of those of us who…believe that immigration can be a good thing is to work out how we rebuild that consensus."

Umunna is not alone in calling for greater work on integration: his report, co-authored with other members of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on social integration, is the second of two major reports on the subject published after the Brexit vote. The other, a review by government official Dame Louise Casey, blasted previous attempts at a government integration strategy as "saris, samosas and steel drums for the already well-intentioned." Casey's report went further than the APPG's, calling for an "integration oath" to be sworn by new immigrants into the U.K.

The timing of the two reports, just months after the vote for Brexit that was followed by an uptick in hate crime and much soul-searching from politicians over the significance of immigration to the vote, is more coincidence than design. However, immigration has certainly been a growing concern to voters, with 35-45 percent of voters saying it was among the most important issues facing the country in 2016, compared to 8 percent in 1997, according to the pollster Ipsos Mori. But do Britain's different ethnic and religious communities really have a problem living together? And if they do, what pitfalls could face any government that tries to address the issue?

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The charge facing successive generations of politicians is that, in true British style, they have preferred to just let people muddle along and live more or less as they liked, without making any conscious effort to ensure different groups were getting on, beyond protecting their basic rights. There's some truth to this, says Sunder Katwala, head of U.K.-based think tank on integration and migration British Future: "I think we've never had an active strategy of integration," he says.

The closest thing the U.K. traditionally had to an overarching integration strategy is a passive one, of "multiculturalism," or the idea that different immigrant communities should be able to preserve much of their distinctive culture in Britain if they want to. It's a word that appears whenever Britain's history of integration is being discussed. Umunna uses it in the introduction to his report, writing that the U.K. should move past the "laissez-faire multiculturalism" it has favored in the past.

In 1966, then-Home Secretary Roy Jenkins of Labour gave a speech setting out a policy of multiculturalism, though he didn't use the term. "I do not think that we need in this country a 'melting pot', which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone's misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman… I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity," he said. Katwala says he was probably right to do so, at a time when immigrants, largely from former colonies, had quite a strong sense of British culture and its expectations anyway. But over time, as immigrant groups grew more diverse and ideas of what British culture was became less clearly defined, this approach looked less satisfactory. By 2011, former Prime Minister David Cameron had declared that multiculturalism had "failed," but nobody was clear about what was supposed to replace it.

In recent years, politicians and the type of people who read policy reports have been well aware that there's something of a vacuum between talk and action. As Casey put it in her review, "Numerous reports on community cohesion and integration had been produced in the preceding 15 years but the recommendations they had made were difficult to see in action." A controversial topic like integration may be guaranteed to grab punchy headlines each time a review is announced, but generally proves far more complex to actually address.

One reason for the absence of government policy on this issue might be that there is less of a problem than it often seems. Buried in the Casey review were plenty of positive statistics: 82 percent of Britons socialize at least once a month with people from a different ethnic and religious background. Over 98 percent of people living in the U.K. speak English. Many supposedly isolated communities turn out on closer inspection to be boringly similar: extensive polling by the center-right London-based Policy Exchange think tank in December, for example, found that "In terms of their everyday concerns and priorities, British Muslims answer [our survey] no differently from their non-Muslim neighbors."

And, some would argue, as long as people are generally getting along OK, why should they have to subscribe to sets of ill-defined cultural values that nobody can agree on anyway? "There's a brilliant quote from the rapper Heems where he says: 'My parents didn't come here to assimilate, they came here to make money,'" says Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant, an essay collection on the British immigrant experience. "Wherever [people] move in the world, their first thought isn't 'I'm moving to integrate into society.'"

Defending her review from critical questioning by MPs in parliament on January 10, Casey gave examples of supposedly British traits Eastern European immigrants had not learned, including taking out the trash on the right evening and being "nice." Neither is a practice unique to Anglo-Saxon culture.

However overblown the headlines that emerge after reviews like Casey's, it's important not to forget that some genuine issues do exist. Katwala points to the problems with integration, particularly how concerns about the topic are a significant driver of the spiraling anti-immigration feeling in Britain. "If you're a country that's quite confident about integration…you're probably a country that's got more consent for immigration," he says. To take the issue of language, for example: While the vast majority of people in the U.K. speak English, there were 850,000 immigrants in 2011 who did not, according to the last British census, making it far harder for them to navigate British society by themselves.

So where there are problems, what can the British government do to address them? For the opposite approach to Britain's—with its own substantial pitfalls—we can look to France, where immigrants have traditionally been expected to sacrifice many aspects of their home culture in the name of becoming French. This more "assimilationist" approach goes back to modern France's revolutionary origins, as Joseph Downing, a Marie Curie fellow at Aix-Marseille University, explains: "The political elite after the French revolution felt that the ethnic diversity of France itself…was a weakness," he says. The Constitution of the Year III, adopted by revolutionary France in 1795, enshrined the country's colonies as "integral parts of the republic." From that era on, the French approach has broadly been to ignore ethnic differences and maintain a strict separation between religion and government in favor of a shared national identity.

In his report, Umunna says changing Britain's approach to integration should stop short of France's "assimilationist politics." It's right to say that the French approach has brought substantial problems, says Downing: "because the state doesn't recognize difference, it doesn't have the means to fight…discrimination." This "colorblind" approach has led to entrenched inequality in a range of areas of French life, from prisons (it is estimated that 70 percent of inmates are Muslim, but the lack of official statistics that confirm that add to the difficulty of tackling the problem), to schools (the equality required by the constitution has made it difficult to pass laws to make it easier for poorer students from different backgrounds to reach the top universities until recent years). At its most extreme, it manifests itself in policies like last summer's attempted ban on the burkini, Islamic swimwear for women, that sparked condemnation across Europe.

One answer, says Katwala, is to work out what demands should be made of British citizens, and then communicate them not only to immigrants and the descendents of immigrants but to white British people too. Often, as Shukla points out, the integration debate "lacks nuance, because it seems to just go on skin color." People whose families have lived in the U.K. for generations are lumped in with recent arrivals, while the responsibilities of white British people are ignored. "Integration has now got to become a sort of 'everybody issue,'" Katwala says. "The majority hasn't really known what its role or place in integration is." Any approach to integration in contemporary Britain will need to emphasize the responsibility of all citizens equally, says Katwala, or risk provoking a backlash.

But in more concrete terms, where there are clearly identifiable issues, the problem often comes back to government planning and funds. A report by the think tank Demos published in 2014 blamed language problems among immigrants partly on "a poor understanding of the scale of need, and of the quality of provision" of language classes. The APPG report noted that the economic security of immigrants is one of the most important factors in how easy they find it to integrate, and said there might be a need for government to invest more in helping migrants to enter the labor market. It also said that local government should take more of the responsibility for improving integration, to increase pressure for change and ensure policies are carefully tailored to requirements in an area.

After Brexit, immigration is likely to be at the heart of the British political debate for some time, and it's essential that the conversation focuses on how British society works, not just on the numbers of people arriving. But any such discussion has to acknowledge Britain's relative success so far at integrating migrants, and address immigrants arriving in the country as equals, not treat them as problems to be solved. "I don't think acknowledging that migration and population change can pose challenges means that we need to kowtow to a UKIP agenda," Umunna says. However, only a genuinely positive and inclusive approach to drawing British society together can solve the problems that do exist, without creating new ones.