The strange xenophobic world of Coalition integration policy
March 29, 2012 — Comment
Written by John Grayson
What does the Coalition’s new integration policy signify?
According to Eric Pickles the Communities and Local Government secretary, 21 February, marked the death of multiculturalism in England. We are now entering an era of ‘integration’. The coalition policy statement, ‘Creating the conditions for integration’, was launched after being trailed by stories placed by think-tanks with sympathetic news editors in the press, TV and radio.
Learning English and integration
A theme which keeps recurring in the everyday world of xenophobia is the ‘English language test’. It is a touchstone for ‘integration’ and whether ‘they’ are making an effort. It also costs ‘us’ a great deal of money in translations and interpreters. It is said to hold back children without English as a first language and white children forced to be educated with ‘them’.
Research has long demolished the myths around ghettoes and people living ‘parallel lives’. After a particularly extreme statement on learning English by Communities and Local Government secretary Eric Pickles, David Ward, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, took issue. He said: ‘I’ve heard this one so many times. What people like Eric don’t seem to understand is that the issue is not whether you come from a family that speaks English, it’s the quality of language. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chinese, Urdu or Punjabi.’ In 2011 in the annual league tables for primary schools, Newton Farm School in Harrow, where a majority of pupils do not speak English as their first language, gained the highest average points score in the whole of England in the year’s tests.
But think-tanks and the media keep the xenophobic narrative running. In the crisis debates on the NHS, and public sector job cuts in Yorkshire, the BBC Look North programme editors in Leeds screened on 8 February the results of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for information on wasteful NHS spending – yes the cost of translation and interpreting. The BBC initiative was coordinated with a FOI request from the ‘independent, not-for-profit, grass-roots, health and technology policy think tank’ 2020health which issued a report on 5 February which: ‘Throws a spotlight on the deeper issues in society, including integration and the meaning of citizenship. It questions whether catering to non-native English speakers actually serves them in good stead, or whether it perpetuates a system in which they are ostracized from the majority English-speaking public.’ It quoted the Conservative-leaning Taxpayers Alliance, which said ‘those who live in Britain should make an effort to learn to speak English so that they are not burdening services like the NHS with on-going costs for translation.’
On 17 February, the ever-quoted political think-tanks did their bit to revive and stoke up the debate on learning English and integration, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Neil O’Brien, director of the right-wing Policy Exchange, who also ‘blogs’ for the Telegraph, had done a piece on primary schools and children who did not have English as a first language (as many as 78 per cent in Tower Hamlets apparently). The BBC Today programme obviously thought this was an important news issue for its seven million listeners, and invited Matt Cavanagh of the ‘leftish’ Institute for Public Policy research (IPPR) to join O’Brien in the debate. Cavanagh managed to offer a statistic that proved that when ethnic minorities reached 20 per cent of an area there was potential threat of ghettoes and ‘parallel lives’ being led.
‘The multicultural society is dead’ towards the ‘integrated society’
The Today piece was obviously trailing the government’s forthcoming integration strategy statement by Eric Pickles, which, on 21 February, pledged to ‘end the era of multiculturalism’ and ‘that the English language and Christian faith will be restored to the centre of public life’. The Coalition policy document, which Pickles was launching, Creating the Conditions for Integration, was widely satirised by the media as Pickles’ ‘Big Lunch’ idea. There was little attempt to place the document in the wider context of policies on ‘race and faith’ and assimilation.
In fact the document defines ’integration’ pretty vacuously: ‘Integration means creating the conditions for everyone to play a full part in national and local life’. Learning English is everywhere in the policy document, we now have the whole history of ‘good’ immigration to the UK characterised as: ‘Over the course of centuries peoples from different countries have settled here, learnt English, acquired new skills, and worked hard to provide for their families’.
But the ‘integrated society’ is still ‘securitised’ in the document: ‘An integrated society may be better equipped to reject extremism and marginalise extremists’. Integration is linked seamlessly to the ‘new wider counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST… (and the) Prevent (programme) remains distinct from, but linked to, integration, tackling non-violent extremism where it creates an environment conducive to terrorism and popularises ideas which are espoused by terrorist groups.’
There is an explicit charge, constantly levelled against ‘new migrants’, that they refuse to cooperate, to integrate, or perhaps be assimilated. We are told of migrants ‘unable or unwilling’ to integrate; of ‘many people … choosing to remain outside mainstream society’; of ‘integration reversed, if groups within the local community work and socialise separately’. New migrants are accused of living ‘close to each other, some people live only with others from the same ethnic background. Such segregation can reinforce fear or resentment of other cultures and can lead to trapped, fearful and inward-looking communities.’ None of these statements comes with any references or research evidence to back them up, which leaves them as prejudiced judgemental statements out of place in a major government policy statement. This whole accusatory tone of course mirrors the Labour government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, and the Coalition’s revisions of it.
A policy for a minority of prejudiced voters
The document claims that, since 2001, ‘concern about race relations, immigrants or immigration has been an important issue’. An Ipsos-MORI issues index report in December 2011 is quoted in which 22 per cent of respondents thought immigration an important issue. This is the best the authors of the document can come up with – a snapshot survey to justify their wholesale rejection of multiculturalism. And was that survey result quite that crucial? In fact just before the local elections in April 2011 the same issues index reported: ‘This month, fewer (17%) mention race relations/immigration – the lowest percentage to do so since April 2002’ whereas 52% mention the economy, 24% unemployment and 22% foreign affairs.’
So, over the decade when the Coalition claims a growing public call for action on immigration and its effects, there was actually, over the whole period, a fall in the numbers seeing it as an important issue. Even choosing their best figures, the coalition has to admit that 78 per cent of those polled did not regard immigration as an important issue.
(It may well be the case that xenophobic policies on integration and assimilation are driven by the electoral fears that politicians have about this 22 per cent and its possible support for far-right parties. This has driven the triangulation strategies of Labour and Conservative parties since at least 2004 when Essex University’s Democratic Audit suggested 18-25 per cent of the population would consider voting for the BNP.)
The document has, interestingly, a great deal to say as to how British society works effectively as a multicultural society – 96 per cent of us want to treat others with fairness and respect and 93 per cent want to treat all races equally, 88 per cent of UK born people feel part of British society and 83 per cent of those born abroad feel the same. Over ten years after 9/11 and seven years after the London bombings, and through a period of permanent wars; over half of us still think that Muslims are badly treated in the UK. So what is the problem?
The only evidence for the need for the new integration/assimilation policy is eventually quoted on page 23 of the report, and based on a 2010 survey from the Populus polling company (at that time headed by Andrew Cooper, now policy adviser to David Cameron), and published by Searchlight as the Fear and HOPE report in March 2011. This poll, though hopelessly biased and poorly constructed, has become influential amongst politicians of all parties. It is a very poor basis for an integration policy.
Mobilising ‘Christianity and faith in general’
Many of the actual recommendations of Creating the conditions for integration are bland and unexceptionable, for instance, ‘People come together through day-to-day activities, not “integration projects”’. A community music day is proposed and of course the Big Lunch.
There are strange passages where: ‘The Government has taken steps to protect the freedom to pray’ … ’Recognising that Christianity and faith in general – plays an important part in the heritage and culture of our nation’. Big Society initiatives like the National Citizens Service are mentioned. But when the details are examined, a socially conservative, almost archaic, middle-class Christianity emerges – almost a state endorsed definition of conservative Christianity, one that very many Christians would reject.
A £10m grant over two years aims ‘to increase the reach of youth organisations such as the Scouts Association, Girlguiding UK, Army Cadets, Volunteer Police Cadets and St John Ambulance’ to learn about ’responsibility and self discipline’. There will be ‘a year of service’ with each month a day of volunteering for a particular religious festival; and support for the Faith-based Regeneration Network, and the Inter Faith Network and Inter-Faith Week. As the document says: ‘Faith communities are involved in a huge range of activities and projects to improve communities and we are looking at ways to encourage them to join up effectively’. But so also are secular ‘communities of interest’. The National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) found in 2007 that ‘the proportion of people who volunteered and had a religious affiliation is similar to the proportion of people who had no religious affiliation, and this is true of both informal and formal volunteering’. Perhaps the obvious question is then why this emphasis on faith organisations? The UK is one of the lowest church-attending countries in Europe. In 2010 only 8 per cent of those identifying with the Church of England attended regularly, and overall attendance at Christian churches is predicted to fall to 5 per cent of the population by 2015. In 2010 in a twenty-three country poll, 71 per cent of British people polled thought religion had a negative effect on society.
Could the faith offensive for integration reflect a domestic battle against multicultural weakness in the face of a perceived threatening Islamism? As Michael Gove articulated in 2006: ‘the response to that challenge from many in the West is all too confused, temporising, and compromised’. ‘More broadly, we also need to rediscover and re-proclaim faith in our common values. We need an ideological effort to move away from moral relativism and towards moral clarity, as well as a commitment to build a truly inclusive model of British citizenship in which divisive separatist identities are challenged, and rejected.’ Gove’s ‘new teachers’ standards’ which must ‘not undermine fundamental British values’ also appear in this document. There is of course no consideration in the document of the impact of racism on a capacity to integrate. There is no analysis of state racism in the asylum system, or insitutionalised racism in police and state and public services. The summer riots it claims ‘were not about racism … [but about] criminality and lack of social responsibility’.
The integration strategy and some political realities
By 8 March, Eric Pickles was developing his notion of integration further. Now immigrants needed not only English language skills, but ‘good’ skills, otherwise they would condemn themselves to unemployment and a ghetto existence. Unfortunately for Mr Pickles, on the same day the Guardian published figures on young black men and unemployment. Here was a whole cohort of young men who no doubt spoke perfect (if a little accented) English, almost over half of whom could not get a job, although their white peers were much more likely to. Diane Abbott MP certainly thought the problem was systemic racism not a reluctance to integrate. Using statistics researched for her by the Guardian she pointed out that 44 per cent of young black people were unemployed. ‘What is clear is that this recession is hitting ethnic minorities disproportionately hard. And the figures can only get worse … But the more unequal a society, the more unstable it is. And inequality with a racial dimension risks creating a time bomb.’
Although the policy document cites a case study of help given to Rushmoor Borough Council for resettling Gurkha ex-servicemen, the Today programme on 20 March demonstrated just how such policies could unravel in the climate of xenophobia at a time of austerity. The piece claimed that Gurkhas were now 10 per cent of Aldershot’s population, and quoted the fears of a local anti-Gurkha campaign group ‘Lumley’s Legacy’ of non-English speaking children in schools, and competion for jobs with the threat of 25,000 more Gurkhas eligible for immediate settlement in England.
This perhaps suggests that ‘integration’, Coalition-style, is still part of the problem, rather than part of the solution to a politics infected with xenophobia and common sense racism.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.