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What's the leftwing answer to the integration problem? Nation-building

Building a shared community should be the left's response, says John Denham.

Few people who are honest about their own lives will have been surprised by the most recent confirmation that our communities are becoming more ethnically divided. The ethnically fragmented geography of cities like Bradford may be particularly stark, but even in places that pride themselves on their comfortable diversity, the reality can be less than the myth. As Trevor Phillips said in Winchester a few weeks ago “even in cosmopolitan London, where we have the widest range of social groupings, most of us tend not to mix socially with people of other ethnicities”. It seems that larger cities give us the space to rub along separately, rather than together.

It’s not just that members of different communities live physically separate lives; increasingly they watch different news channels, and different television drama and entertainment. The large factories that once brought migrants and indigenous communities together in some common interest and experience have largely closed. Public policy has failed to stop some employers choosing mono-ethnic workforces and schools policy has favoured faith and separation.

It’s not all bad everywhere, of course.  Simplistic notions of “white flight” and “no go areas” have long been discredited. But in a society in which the politics of identity is increasingly taking the place of the politics of class (and where inequality and lack of opportunity are often seen through an identity lens) we should be worried. Ted Cantle, the author of this week’s report, knows a bit about the subject. As a Home Office minister I asked him to lead the enquiry into the northern English riots of 2001.His report thrust the term ‘community cohesion’ briefly into the public debate. His observation of young people from different communities “living separate lives” and having little in the way of shared identities was stark, yet largely ignored in a political response that was overshadowed by 9/11.

Some of the most egregious mistakes of public policy - like investing in distinct deprived districts oblivious to the resentment that might be stoked in the almost equally poor but ethnically different streets on the other side of the main road - were reined back. But against a background of panic about radicalisation that led government to focus crudely and clumsily on the Muslim community alone, there was little time for the patient work to build a shared national identity that Cantle included in his recommendations.

One response to the data on ethnic geography will be to call for action to reverse the separation we see around us. If we start to admit what is happening we can begin to focus public policy, civil society and the private sector on our workplaces, schools and cultural life. But this will be a long haul. A focus on where we live is unlikely to bring about much change in how we live. A real coming together can only be built on a much deeper sense of shared values and share identity.

The 15 years since Cantle’s report have largely been wasted and in some ways have gone backwards.  When David Cameron announced the end of ‘state sponsored multiculturalism’ in 2010, he left the country with no public policy on integration or cohesion for the first time since the 1960s. In its place has come a ragbag of disparate measures, including the enforced teaching (in English schools only) of ‘British values’ that come devoid of history or shared stories.

Yet nation-building is exactly what needs to replace the old multiculturalism with its over-emphasis on respect for difference,  and silence on what we share together. Today, of course, a shared nation will be as much and probably more important England than our ideas of Britain. Nation-building demands that we bring together the shared stories of who we are, how we came to be here and what we share in common. It has to be embedded in our community, political and economic life and it needs the engagement of groups right across the nation. It won’t just happen, but is anyone prepared to recognise its urgency and important?

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear