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20 April 2022

Why we must create community cohesion in an era of diversity and polarisation

It is not too late to change the status quo – after Brexit and Covid, we have a greater opportunity than ever to build a better-connected society.

By Brendan Cox

Democracy is facing one of its biggest tests – and it’s not the one you might think. Although Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is the most visible current assault on liberal democratic values, it may yet have the unintended consequence of rallying support for them. The lower-profile but longer-term challenge is how to build successful multi-ethnic democracies in countries where diversity is growing.

We can see the fault-lines and fractures in developed democracies around the world. We see it in France, where the hard right is closer to power than ever, and in the US, where even the storming of the Capitol and lying about an election loss have not barred Donald Trump from being a threat again in 2024. In these countries, and so many others, racism and racial resentment is a key recruiting sergeant for the far right.

Racism is not new, of course. But in increasingly diverse countries, its toxic power not only affects individuals but also threatens democracy itself. That’s because democratic institutions rely on a collective sense of identity, and without mutual recognition of connection you simply don’t have the basis for democracy. This mutual recognition is challenged by growing gaps in wealth, by religious differences and by regional disparities across the UK. But racial differences are the ones most often weaponised.

That’s why I have spent the past two years trying to understand why building better connected and more integrated communities in the UK has never been consistently prioritised. For a new report with the think tank Policy Exchange, Whatever Happened to Integration?, I interviewed former prime ministers, home secretaries, academics and faith leaders. I asked them the same questions: how fundamental are the threats to our cohesion? Why haven’t better-connected communities been prioritised? And what would it take to change that?

One of the most important conclusions was that the nature of the challenge of building more integrated communities has changed. The traditional focus on how to integrate communities from minority backgrounds has been replaced by a wider discussion of how to build better-connected communities for everyone.

[See also: Why the “war on woke” is imploding]

That doesn’t mean that the traditional challenges of integration don’t remain. Policy Exchange’s latest demographic analysis of the UK found that while the exit of white people from inner-city Britain seems to have stopped in the past ten years, there has been no overall improvement in the levels of mixing in neighbourhoods and schools between the white British majority and ethnic minorities. But what has changed is that our social connections have degraded across society as a whole.

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We are now faced with a dual challenge. First, how do we build community connections across society? And second, how do we make sure these connections reflect the make-up of our society and contribute to a comfortable civic – rather than ethnic – identity?

One of the most worrying conclusions from the research was the gap between problem identification and political focus. Almost all of the 100-plus interviewees said that reduced community connection was one of the most fundamental challenges facing modern society. One former prime minister even said that towards the end of their term they had concluded that “nothing was more important”. Yet the interviewees also agreed that the issue suffered from chronic neglect.

The neglect was partly structural: long timelines for results; a lack of consensus over what success looked like; limited capacity. But it was also political: the lack of any strong lobby for change; the presence of strong forces against connecting communities; Labour anxieties about how its voters from minority backgrounds would respond; Conservative anxieties about looking racist.

The danger is that without a change to the status quo, these issues will fester and re-emerge, but at a crisis point. By then, the forces that will have built up will be hard to contain. Polarisation, lack of contact and loss of community institutions all contribute to a cycle of separation. As one cohesion expert said: “We have to make progress now; in 15 years it’ll be too late.” But it isn’t too late yet.

In fact, not only is it not too late, but we also have the biggest opportunity since the Second World War to build a better-connected society. In their aftermaths, both Brexit and Covid have created moments of national introspection about the type of country we want to be and the communities we want to build. The war in Ukraine has heightened this.

There are also hints of progress since 2016 that lend encouragement, especially at a local level. Post-Brexit changes to immigration policy and the subsequent decline in hostility to immigration point towards the ability to make progress on even the most contentious of policy issues. And the schemes responding to refugees from Syria, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and now Ukraine promise better integration outcomes. Finally, the levelling-up debate has opened up discussions about social capital and social connection, and about the link between integration, place, education and class.

To seize the wider opportunity, we first need to accept that integration, community cohesion and a healthy democracy are inseparable. This needs to be framed as an “everyone” issue, not a question of them and us. Second, it will require sustained political prioritisation at the highest levels. Given the nature of the barriers that have to be overcome, if this isn’t a prime-ministerial priority, it isn’t a priority at all.

This is an edited extract from Policy Exchange’s new report, “Whatever Happened to Integration?”

[See also: Should we stop talking about “generations”?]

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder