The truth about London’s “white flight”

A fall in London’s “white British” population does not mean the city is now “majority-migrant”.

London remains a majority-white and majority-British-born city. That was what the 2011 census found. But you may be surprised to hear it, since London now being "45 per cent white British" was one of the most prominent headlines of the 2011 census. Loose discussion of the finding has created a misleading meme. The 45 per cent figure has been received by many ears as suggesting that the capital is either “majority-minority” or “majority-migrant”. Neither is true.

The census facts are clear: our increasingly diverse capital is 60 per cent white and 63 per cent of Londoners are British-born. 

Overall, three-quarters of Londoners are British citizens, and under a quarter are foreign nationals.

But a discussion which conflates ethnicity and nationality risks misleading people about both dimensions. The official census media briefings prominently flagged up the 45 per cent figure on its own as a "key finding", without ensuring what it does and doesn't mean about how white or British London is was understood. By separating them out, we can better understand what the 2011 census data actually tells us about London and how it is changing:

63 per cent of Londoners were born in Britain

The census shows that the population of London is 63 per cent British-born, with over one in three born abroad. This 63 per cent British-born; 37 per cent foreign-born" finding is a more accurate way to capture the scale of migration in London. This also shows the increased pace of migration more accurately: the London population was 27 per cent born-abroad in 2001, and it is now 37 per cent.

Making the "45 per cent white British" statistic the headline claim is to see the salient contrast as between "white Britons" and "ethnic minorities, immigrants and foreigners (as immigrants include both British citizens and foreign nationals). That would seem to depend on the outdated premise that non-white Britons, including those born here, are not viewed as being as authentically British as their white fellow citizens.

Fortunately, the idea that British identity depends on white ethnicity is regarded as a very un-British idea by very broad majorities white and non-white Britons alike. You will find very few people who think Jessica Ennis or Ian Wright are less British than they are, because they are mixed race or black rather than "white British".

The inference that a city which is less "white British" must be less British flies in the face of the well-established evidence that non-white Britons have, on average, a somewhat stronger sense of British identity and allegiance than white Britons. Major studies have repeatedly found this; and the media have repeatedly reported it as a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. 

The population of London is 60 per cent white

"White British" Londoners are now a plurality, rather than a majority. If anybody is interested in ethnicity, the "whiteness" of the capital city , then the census demonstrates that 60 per cent of those resident in London are white. There is a white majority in London once the ethnicity of the Irish and the Americans, the French and the Poles who live and work in the city is taken into account. None of Graham Norton or Terry Wogan, Rolf Harris or Kylie Minogue, Arsene Wenger or Ulrika Johnson are likely to have made any contribution to the white British census score.

Three-quarters of Londoners are British citizens

Of the third of Londoners born abroad, many have become British too. The "foreign-born" 33 per cent will also include some Londoners like Boris Johnson, who were British from birth, though born abroad, in New York in his case. (So the Mayor is included in the "white British" 45 per cent but not in the British-born 67 per cent. The children of soldiers posted abroad helped boost the German-born category to fifth non-British country of birth, for example). 

Others were not born British but chose to become British. Again, the British tradition is that all citizens count as fully and equally British, including those like Prince Phillip and Mo Farah who were born abroad. Across England and Wales as a whole, around a third of those born abroad have been here more than twenty years,arriving across the decades between 1950 and 1990. 

This census release reported that 24 per cent of Londoners hold non-British passports. However, this will also include some who are dual nationals, and who are British too. There is a promise to include in "subsequent releases from 2011 census ... a more complete indicator of migration status since, for example, British citizens can be born abroad and other people living in the UK who were born abroad can acquire British citizenship".

The census data published so far does not reveal the precise proportion of Londoners who are British citizens. It shows that over 70 per cent of Londoners hold a British passport, but the 8 per cent of Londoners who do not hold a passport will include many British citizens too. (This gives London the lowest proportion of non-passport holders in the UK, compared to 22 per cent in Wales). However, in the meantime, data does exist elsewhere. The findings from the 2011 Labour Force Survey data show that foreign citizens made up 19 per cent of the population of outer London, and 27 per cent of those in inner London. The University of Oxford Migration Observatory calculates that, overall, that would translate into 22 per cent of London residents being foreign nationals.

The census snapshot captures much temporary as well as permanent migration

The headline census figure that 7.5 million people resident in England and Wales were born abroad and that half arrived in the last decade. That reflects the historic rise in migration over the last decade, as every report has stressed. What has been seldom explained is how and why those raw figures will also tend to exaggerate the increase. 

The census is a "snapshot". It tells us about the usual residents of England and Wales on one night in March 2001. That snapshot approach means that it cannot easily convey one of the biggest changes in immigration patterns over the last decade: a sharp shift towards temporary rather than permanent migration.

We tend to think of the "Ellis Island model" of immigration: you arrive, with your suitcase, and settle for good. But the changes in travel and communications that have made migration easier have made it easier to go back too. 72 per cent of migrants to the UK now come for less than five years, as the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has reported. A majority of those classed as "long-term" migrants (here for more than 12 months) say they intend to stay for one or two years.

The census "snapshot" captures the scale of migration, but not this challenging new dynamic of increased churn.

While half of the foreign born-residents currently in England and Wales have arrived in the last ten years, most of them will not stay, while a proportion will settle and become British. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of those recorded in the census almost two years ago will already have gone; others have arrived, and again most will later leave, while a significant minority will settle, become British and see their children become "us" too.

Londoners shopping on Oxford Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.