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?