David Goodhart: A race to get things right

Indian dancing at the Glasgow Mela. Picture: Robert Perry
Indian dancing at the Glasgow Mela. Picture: Robert Perry
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The Scottish experience of mass immigration is very different to that of England and should not be given too much importance in the current independence debate, writes David Goodhart

When the date for the Scottish independence referendum was agreed the UK government had probably not worried unduly that it came just three months after the June European elections. But if, as is now widely expected, Ukip wins the largest share of the vote next June it could change the tone of the debate in the final few weeks of the campaign, allowing the SNP to argue that Scotland is an open, outward-looking country both needing and welcoming higher levels of immigration, tethered to an increasingly closed, anti-immigrant (and anti-EU) England.

This story is mainly untrue but it is easy to see how it has arisen from the very divergent experience of immigration over the past 60 years.

I have just written a book, The British Dream, about the successes and failures of post-war immigration, but it could really have been called The English Dream; I hardly had reason to mention Scotland except in the context of debates about national identity and the future of Britishness.

There is a simple reason for this. The ethnic minority population of England and Wales is more than 20 per cent, and around 15 per cent of the population is non-white, that is, about eight million people. Around half of that number are a result of the post-colonial wave from the late 1940s to the early 1990s; the other half have come in a much shorter time period since New Labour’s more open immigration policy, which began in 1997.

By contrast the non-white ethnic minority population of Scotland is just 3.7 per cent, or around 200,000 people. More than half of that number are Scottish Asians and the majority of them are Scottish Pakistanis – the only significant minority settlement in the whole of Scotland – in parts of Glasgow.

In England there are six non-white groups of more than half a million, people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black African, Caribbean and mixed race heritage. Apart from London itself which is now just 45 per cent white British there are three other significant towns that are “majority minority” – Slough, Leicester and Luton.

This is an extraordinary English story about the often accidental and unanticipated human flows, of racial conflict and mutual resentment in the early decades, which then matured through contact and familiarity into acceptance and new mixed, or hybrid identities for the newcomers. Many of the people came with different ways of life, sometimes very traditional ones (especially South Asians), at odds with the increasingly free and easy ways of modern England.

A common life has been forged across ethnic boundaries in many places – witness the 1.2m people of mixed race heritage in England. But there is also the problem of segregation and “parallel lives” in many parts of northern England, as well as places such as Tower Hamlets in east London.

The English are living and grappling with these issues: of “white flight” and minority clustering in neighbourhoods and schools. For some the changes in recent years have come too quickly and although overt racism has fallen sharply in recent decades – and is now almost non-existent among the young – many older people in areas of high minority settlement feel a sense of loss. There is such a thing as society and a sense of control over how it changes is important: don’t many Scots worry about Anglicisation?

Scotland should, of course, be open to immigrants but to use openness to immigration as a measure of your political virtue – as centre-left commentators in Scotland often do – seems a little rich coming from a country that has almost none. Very few people in England are against immigration per se. It is about how much, how quickly and about who benefits. When it was low in the early 1990s there was also low public concern in England.

Recent commentators in other Scottish newspapers remind me of English metropolitan liberals in the 1990s with their stress on the necessity of mass immigration for an ageing society. But this argument has long been discredited by economists who point out that immigrants grow old too, and quickly converge on the family size of the majority; if you want to keep the current age structure in Scotland the same you have to step onto an immigration treadmill that would require millions of “new Scots” over the next few decades. Far better to encourage people to have slightly bigger families, increase the retirement age, bring more women into the workforce and use more automation for jobs people don’t like doing – and yes, perhaps have a bit more immigration too.

The debate has also moved on in a more fundamental way in England since the 1990s. Thanks to the sheer scale of recent immigration and the fact that quite a lot of it has been white East Europeans, with lower wage expectations, it has become possible to separate out arguments about racial justice from questions about the economic and social effects of mass immigrations. One person’s celebration of “openness” is another person’s competition for a low-paid job.

There is now a disguised consensus across all political parties in London that immigration was too high in the New Labour years and must return to more moderate levels, though without damaging our open economy. There is also a cross-party commitment to racial equality and a celebration of the English melting pot.

An occasional big protest vote for Ukip is just a more impatient version of that sense that things have changed too fast. It no more means that the English are turning intolerant than does the greater legacy of Catholic/Protestant sectarianism in Scotland mean the same about the Scots. It would be a shame if a kind of unearned righteousness about a mass immigration that Scotland has not experienced and does not need were to be one of the factors that broke the Union.

Steps towards further devolution could, on the other hand, be a positive benefit, allowing us to come together more consciously and appreciatively in the institutions of our shared Britishness – the armed forces, the monarchy, the currency, the BBC, Team GB and so on.

It could also allow the English to develop a more overt political identity. In recent years the Scots have taught the English to be English rather than British. The English can also learn from the Scots about the virtues of a more robust national identity; one that stresses specialness but not superiority. Having such an identity can be a great asset in helping to integrate minorities into the national story. Just compare the apparently easy patriotism of the Scottish Pakistani minority with the much more ambivalent feelings of England’s Pakistani minority.

We live in more interdependent world and a lot of people are always going to want to live in politically and economically desirable places like England and Scotland. But as immigration rises Scotland should try to avoid English absent-mindedness about helping to integrate people into a common life. In return England can take Scottish lessons in creating a civilised nationalism – a kind of English-only Danny Boyle Olympic ceremony – that newcomers want to become part of.

• David Goodhart is director of the London think-tank Demos and author of The British Dream (Atlantic, £20)