The tenth anniversary this summer of the milltown disturbances of 2001 is a timely moment to reflect on the politics of integration and cohesion in the UK. The riots of that year – in May in Oldham, in June in Burnley and Leeds, and in July in Bradford – profoundly changed the way ethnicity, race, migration and community relations figure in policy and media discourse in Britain.
In Oldham, a year of tense relations on the streets, inflamed by the intervention of the British National Party, and a series of local incidents on a Saturday night led to a weekend of violence involving youth and police. In Harehills, Leeds, a few days later, rumours and gossip about alleged police harassment of an Asian man escalated into heavy fighting. In Burnley later in the month, similar scenes unfolded. And in July, British National Party and National Front provocations fed into two days of disturbances.
The aftermath of the riots saw a series of official and semi-official reports, which portrayed the areas in terms of communities living parallel lives in de facto segregated towns. Multicultural policies were declared to be partly to blame. Government ministers claimed a refusal to learn English was part of the problem, stopping parents from participating in “wider modern culture” and causing a dangerous schizophrenia in the younger generation. There was a call for stronger British values to bind communities together.
Asian Muslims and the white working class at the centre
Two political subjects were placed at the centre of Britain’s public conversations on these issues. The first of these was British Asian Muslims. News images of the disturbances focused on angry young Asian men, a spectacle the media would recycle frequently over the next decade.
In the aftermath, as in the aftermath of later terrorist atrocities, politicians and the media turned to older “community leaders” to show they were law-abiding and loyal to Britain. Paradoxically, while state multiculturalism and the communalism it fostered was alleged to be part of the problem, this kind of communalism was fed by the way in which Asian communities were constructed as homogenous entities and by the way their “leaders” were expected to speak for them as a whole. As Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters has written, when communities are imaged like this and the state and media boosts their patriarchal elders as representative leaders, “Gender, class, and caste differences are obscured… homogenising constructions of minority communities are born out of the state’s endorsements of community leaders. These leaders are un-elected, usually religious and often conservative males, with little if any interest in social justice and equality. Yet they claim to be the ‘authentic’ spokespersons for the community and are the main power-brokers, regularly consulted (often informally) by the police and other state institutions.”
The second political subject to take centre stage in the aftermath was the white working class. While earlier Conservative and New Labour politicians had proclaimed the death of class as a policy topic, the image of parallel communities in the northern towns brought the spotlight onto working class people. White working class people were increasingly invoked to bash multiculturalism, of which they were now framed as beleaguered victims.
Again, though, while the white working class were used to justify a backlash against multiculturalism, the way the media and politicians represented the white working class was much as they did their Asian neighbours: as a distinct and homogeneous ethnic group.
Integration has been a narrow debate
These two political subjects hover around the edges of current debates on integration. In April, when David Cameron made his major speech on migration, I found myself heading to Brick Lane to be interviewed by Newsnight, to talk about integration. Although my segment was lost in the cut, taking the time out made me reflect on some of the issues I’ve been writing about here.
I was struck by the narrowness of the debate and the way its parameters have been set by those events in 2001. In contrast, the academic literature, as well as the European Union policy debate, sees integration as a complex process, which takes place in a number of different spheres of life: migrants’ participation in the labour market, social interaction and civic involvement, for example, as well as cultural integration, shared values or a sense of belonging. In Britain, though, it is only these last aspects which tend to make it into the debate.
Thus, the prime minister was right to point to the ways in which charities, financial services, fashion, food and music have been shaped by migrants, but it is important to be clear that these are examples of integration too, and not something separate.
Who are migrants?
Second, the debate in Britain has become tightly focused on particular communities, those that entered the spotlight in 2001. In fact, migrants are an incredibly diverse population. When politicians cite large headline figures and then mention issues like forced marriages or refusal to learn English, this can feed the misconceptions the public has about who migrants are. In the decade since the milltown disturbances, politicians and journalists have used these sorts of images when talking about particular groups – often Muslims from South Asian backgrounds; and so the public tends to hear a reference to these groups when such images are invoked, whether that is the intention or not. The net migration figures Cameron quoted include everybody from the highly paid employees of transnational companies brought here through intra-company transfers to the most destitute asylum seekers, from the cosmopolitan youngsters coming here as international students to the aging dependents of long-settled migrants being re-united with their children. Around one in ten non-nationals in the UK identify their ethnicity as white British. In fact, South Asian Muslims make up a fairly small percentage of migrants arriving. Around one in ten of those granted long-term settlement, and, according to the Annual Population Survey, just over 6% of the migrant population that arrived since 2004 are from Bangladesh or Pakistan.
There is also little evidence for these migrants being “unwilling” to integrate. Looking at ESOL (English as a Second Language) classes in somewhere like Tower Hamlets, where there is a large Bangladeshi population, and the picture is of far more demand than can be met by current provision. Evidence on all aspects of integration is in fact patchy, as the UK tends to collect statistics by ethnicity rather than by country of origin or nationality. It is often hard to separate migrants out when looking at indicators of integration like health equalities, housing outcomes or community cohesion. And this means the debate often blurs ethnicity and migration. That in turn fosters distorted images of who migrants are, and creates the environment for an exaggerated focus on particular groups of migrants.
What evidence there is in fact suggests, for example, that it is white British people who are increasingly self-segregating, while British Asians are becoming less segregated over time. But there is less evidence of what the prime minister spoke of as “a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods”. The image of the beleaguered native is at least in part a figment of the political class’ imagination, and the situations in real communities are more complex.
Who’s responsibility is integration?
Another question is that of whose responsibility integration should be. Since 2001, the political debate in Britain has tended to blame migrants for the failure to integrate, but less attention has been given to what can be done to facilitate the process. Here, however, politicians will need to make hard choices about trade-offs, especially in a context of fiscal austerity. Hence the paradox of urging migrants to learn English in a context when investment in ESOL has been cut by over a third, and when eligibility for subsidised provision is being reduced. Reductions in provision have hit women, part-time workers and low-paid workers – some of the migrant groups most in need of this support – especially hard.
Similarly, there are is a thriving web of community organisations in the migrant population, embodying many of the Big Society values the prime minister champions. But these organisations also face threats in terms of funding cuts in the third sector. These trade-offs point to the need for a more strategic view of how migrants’ participation across the difference sphere of life in Britain can be supported.
The prime minister is right to describe integration as a natural process that unfolds over time at a local level, in real neighbourhoods. This emphasis makes a welcome change from the top-down compulsion to sign up to “British values” that dominated both sides of the debate in the last decade.
But we urgently need to a broader understanding of the process, which focuses not just on British values and fitting in, but also on making a contribution to civic life and achieving equal life chances. We need a broader understanding of who migrants are, in the context of our changing demographic landscape, rather than focusing on certain groups of migrants. Finally, we need clarity on what we mean by integration, and some kind of strategic sense of how we might achieve it – together as a society rather than simply through blaming migrants for their perceived failures.