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26 November 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 12:07pm

Britain is not as divided as we might think

A major study has found British attitudes towards diversity are mostly positive, but there are reservations about the pace of change.

By Julian Hargreaves

How divided is Britain? According to media reports, Brexit has left us more fractured and polarised than ever. We are told that debates on race, religion and immigration cleave us in two. But when it comes to our attitudes towards diversity and experiences of it, how far does this vision of the UK hold up?

The Woolf Institute conducted a two-year study of ethnic, national and religious diversity – the UK’s largest – and recently published its report, How We Get Along. The report presents data collected by Survation in an online poll of 11,701 adults across England and Wales. We asked respondents about their attitudes towards diversity in British society and within their local communities. We asked questions about the pace of change. To bring these issues closer to home, we surveyed attitudes towards a close relative marrying someone from a different background – a reliable proxy measure for wider prejudices. We explored the lived experiences of diversity, both at work and among friendship groups. Is diversity common to all? Or is it something other people do?

Our analysis revealed a national consensus that diversity is good for British society. When it comes to ethnicity and nationality, we get along. Looking only at interpersonal (rather than institutional) prejudices, most people in England and Wales (53 per cent) agree that ethnic diversity is good for British society. Those who agree outnumber those who disagree by more than three to one (a further 30 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed).

Just under half of respondents (46 per cent) agreed that migrants are good for British society, and those who agreed on this question outnumbered those who actively disagreed by more than two to one.

This applied more strongly still within respondents’ families: 74 per cent of non-black people are comfortable with a close relative marrying a black person, and 70 per cent of non-Asian people are comfortable with a close relative marrying an Asian person. We found a majority of people enjoying diverse friendships and a majority of employees working in diverse settings.

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However, attitudes towards religious diversity, and Muslims in particular, are less positive. Our data suggests that religion is a bigger driver of prejudice than ethnicity or nationality. Is religious prejudice one of the last prejudices people are comfortable expressing openly?

Attitudes towards a Muslim marrying a close relative are the least positive, with 44 per cent of non-Muslim respondents saying they would be comfortable. Attitudes towards and between faith groups are less positive than those based on ethnicity.

And while most people affirmed that they had a positive attitude towards diversity, many said they were uncomfortable with the pace of national and local change. Almost two-thirds (60 per cent) in England and Wales said the number of migrants in Britain has increased too quickly over the last ten years. Exactly 50 per cent agreed ethnic diversity in Britain has increased too quickly in the last ten years, outnumbering those who disagreed by more than two to one.

This was true of those living in diverse communities, where 54 per cent agreed that the number of migrants has increased too quickly. The data paints a picture of a nation at ease with diversity, but far less so with the pace of change.

[see also: Britain’s diversity is much more complex than it seems]

Attitudes varied a lot from region to region. Compared with London – which we took as the benchmark for a diverse region – people in the north east and north west are more than twice as likely to disagree that migrants are good for British society. People in the north east are 68 per cent more likely to disagree that ethnic diversity is good for their local communities, while those in Yorkshire and the Humber are 81 per cent more likely to disagree that migrants bring local benefit.

Respondents in the north east are also more likely to agree that ethnic diversity in British society has increased too quickly – the only region to return less positive attitudes than London. People in the north west, regardless of ethnicity, are the least likely to have friends outside their own ethnic group, while workers in the north east and north west are around 70 per cent more likely to work only with British colleagues. Regional differences are not explained by local levels of diversity alone – the study accounted for these, and still found discrepancies.

These differences suggest regional responses will be most effective in bringing communities together. Local authorities are used to managing many of their own integration and cohesion programmes, but further regional devolvement and more leadership from metro mayors and combined authorities could be helpful.

The data also suggests that when it comes to reducing prejudices, friendships work. Policymakers need not be squeamish about encouraging friendships across ethnic and religious divides. Meanwhile workers are a “safe bet” for integration and cohesion policies, and policymakers should more often consider workplaces as promising opportunities for improved social mixing.

For those interested in rebuilding the “Red Wall” – or holding those seats – at the next election, our findings can perhaps be boiled down to a short conclusion: a majority think diversity is a good thing, but a third of that majority think the pace of change has been too quick. Campaigners and activists should consider this third. Equating small-C conservatism with hostility and bigotry is unlikely to heal the nation’s divides any time soon.

When we spoke to Antony Mullen from Sunderland City Council, he likened the sentiment in his area to the fear induced by syringes and injections: an anticipated pain that is most worrisome to those with the least experience of it. But while people in more diverse communities know the drawbacks are insignificant, others elsewhere still fear the approaching needle.

Julian Hargreaves is senior research fellow at the Woolf Institute.

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