March 16, 2022 - 10:45am

Does anyone care about how much the white majority and ethnic minorities are mixing in the UK? The issue of integration and segregation bubbles to the surface when home-grown Islamist terrorism strikes or when immigration hits the headlines. The rest of the time it sits beneath the surface of daily life, something that many people are acutely aware of but is seldom a subject for public discussion and even lacks a commonly used vocabulary.

Yet a poll for British Future in 2021 found the ethnic divide the third biggest division people worried about after the divide between rich and poor and the Brexit divide.

A new analysis for Policy Exchange confirms that neighbourhood segregation has been slowly declining for most ethnic minority groups as they spread out from inner city heartlands into the suburbs. But because they are moving to neighbourhoods full of other minorities, the level of mixing between ethnic minorities taken as a whole and the White British majority is barely changing. It is a similar story in schools with most minority pupils going to majority-minority schools, where over 40% of ethnic minority pupils attend a school that is less than 25% White British.

But what is most revealing about the report is the reason for why the issue remains a political orphan. Brendan Cox, the widower of Jo Cox the MP murdered by a white identity extremist and now a campaigner for more cohesive communities, says there is no consistent lobby for it and neither of the main political parties has an incentive to pursue it.

Cox’s analysis is based on anonymised conversations with politicians of all parties including former prime ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair, five former Home Secretaries (Amber Rudd, Charles Clarke, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Jacqui Smith) and other experts and leaders of ethnic minority organisations. One of the former PMs (sounding remarkably like Tony Blair) is quoted as saying:

Later in my term I started to feel this was one of the most important issues, that there was nothing more important
 The tough questions are schools, housing, and immigration. You start with wild enthusiasm then look at the policies that stem from it and say ‘oh Christ do I really need to do that.’
- Former Prime Minister

And a former Home Secretary is quoted as saying:

It feels like a poisoned chalice. Long timelines, multi-departmental approach and lack of definition about what we mean and controversial policy areas, are all real brakes on strategic action. It’s seen as unclear, potentially messy and with indeterminate benefits.
- Former Home Secretary

Both main parties have reason to the duck the issue. For the Conservatives, argues Cox, “when it comes to integration and minority communities it’s not simply about fears of being seen as a nasty party but a racist one. Conservative politicians interviewed for this study freely admitted the challenge”. They also tend to represent places with small minority populations where it is less of an issue, around 80% of UK wards are still 90% White British.

For Labour, says Cox, “the political challenge comes from a political reliance on minority voters in particular areas of the country.” He says in theory this might incentivise engagement in integration given high levels of support from minority voters but many community leaders are either ambivalent about integration or see it purely through a discrimination and anti-racism lens. One Labour politician admitted, “We don’t want to offend the communities by challenging the lack of integration.”

Cox, however, argues that there are some grounds for optimism. This is partly because the issue has ceased to be an “us and them” issue and has evolved into an “everyone” issue. According to a YouGov poll for More in Common in 2021, 38% of British people agree (strongly or somewhat) with the proposition that: “Sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own country”. And more than a fifth of British people say they are always or sometimes lonely.

He also argues that the way the country came together during the pandemic provides some grounds for optimism about social cohesion in the future. “The aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the Covid pandemic both create moments of national introspection about the type of country we want to be and the communities we want to build. These are generational moments that could change dynamics and create an opportunity to change direction.”

David Goodhart is the author of Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. He is head of the Demography unit at the think tank Policy Exchange.