Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496