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Home Opinion The three I’s: Immigration, Integration and Islam

The three I’s: Immigration, Integration and Islam

Trevor Phillips - 03 May 2011

The social democratic left’s inability to develop a persuasive account of the role of identity in modern politics or engage its power as a means of understanding a changing world represents a significant intellectual failure. To be successful at combating the rise of populism, social democrats must develop an immigration and integration policy that focuses on equality for all, emphasising the common ground between different ethnic and religious groups and finding fundamental principles that can govern our interactions at community, society and national level – a new agenda for living together

The major challenges of the 21st century can be broken down into two big questions: how can we live sustainably on the planet and how can we live with each other? The business of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission is the latter – how do we find ways of living together graciously? This is something we know to be difficult at the best of times, but which is even harder in a time of rapid change and resource constraints.

Peculiar problems?

To start with it is necessary to outline a few truths, inconvenient or otherwise. The first truth is that this is neither a peculiarly modern nor a particularly European problem. We have been facing these issues, in their various guises, since history began. In the UK, over the course of our history we have attracted individuals from most corners of the globe bringing with them a rich diversity of influences: from Eastern European, Irish and Jewish to Somali, Senegalese, and Spanish.

Neither is this a phenomenon that’s confined the West. One of the underlying themes of the book Anna Karenina, written in the 1870s, was her husband Karenina’s preoccupation with what policy to recommend for Russia’s minorities. Stalin, too, wrote extensively on this issue, and once he took up his position as Commissar of Nationalities he had responsibility for the nearly half of the country’s population that fell into the category of ‘non-Russian’.

More recently, a few years back, my Chinese counterpart came to visit me at the Commission for Racial Equality and asked for my advice on what to do about the 123 million minority individuals in China: including the 11 million Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority with whom ethnic tensions have simmered for years. I dodged the question. It seemed sensible to suggest that the scale of his problems might make the experience we had here look pretty trivial.

The second truth is that Europe needs immigration. Our population stands at approximately 490 million, but the number of people living in the EU is set to decline over the coming decades. By 2050 a third of the population will be over 65 years of age. The need for extra workers in many states, including the UK, is already apparent. This demand will grow as the European workforce declines from well over 200 million to fewer than 180 million by 2050. Without immigration and with an increasingly ageing, deskilled and shrinking population, it is impossible to imagine us competing in a 21st century globalised world. At the macro level the economies of Europe need access to global talent if we are to remain competitive. More personally, who would staff our hospitals, trains and shops if we closed the gates?

The third truth is that the fiscal negatives of immigration are often exaggerated; indeed, they are dwarfed by the benefits of growth, which may be as high as 2% a year according to the UK Treasury. That immigration is now an economic issue was recognised by the shift to a points system – a system which no longer asks the racial question that my parents faced when they came to London, “where do you come from?”; but asks instead, what are you bringing by way of skills, capital and contribution to our economy? I think that’s progress, but the consequences cannot be managed by a points system alone.

So for me, the question is not whether we have immigration, but how we manage its consequences; in particular, its social and cultural impacts.

Today’s challenges

None of this is meant to deny the importance of these risks in the current context. The pace, scale and scope of change today has made some people nervous. There are now 200 million people around the world who live and work outside their country of birth. Nationally, public concern at the scale of immigration into Britain was evident in our last election. Between 1997 and 2009 net immigration totalled more than 2.2 million people. This is not insignificant, and it is well established that rapid change coupled with reduced resources – from water to healthcare, school places to overall austerity – tends to see communities experiencing greater friction. In some cases, this can lead to a fundamental return of what is essentially tribalism: the age-old ‘us’ and ‘them’ of identity politics.

Of course, this discussion isn’t only about numbers; it’s also about culture and identity. Back in 1978, Margaret Thatcher spoke of some British people’s fears that they might be swamped by people of a different culture; and we have to accept that, in many towns and cities, not just in Britain but across Europe, this fear remains prevalent today. Justified or not, it would be wrong not to recognise that the scale of unplanned inward migration has been unsettling for many communities; people are worried about the perceived cultural and social impacts of people entering the continent and politicians need, at the very least, to articulate these anxieties without automatically labelling those who have them as racists and xenophobes. Why? Because failure to address them allows far-right parties to step in. We can see that, across Europe, such parties are increasingly flourishing, and in some countries now make up part of coalition governments. At the same time, an increasing number of European countries have banned or are proposing to ban face veils in public places.

There is also a cultural effect of immigration. Most scholars would argue that modern states – particularly those in Europe – were built on notions of shared identity and values, constructed or otherwise. Immigration is seen as a threat to these established identities and values because immigrants bring with them seemingly different values and ways of life. Muslim culture has been seen as being particularly difficult to reconcile with existing identities. 

Why Islam?

As already noted, in the past few decades the continent has seen rapid demographic, social and cultural change. In the UK, Muslims are a central part of that shift – they make up about 4% of the population. As this process has taken place, Muslims have emerged at the heart of countless critical conversations: on security and cohesion, participation and integration. In my view, Islam does present a particular kind of challenge. This is firstly because, unlike other Abrahamic religions, which tend not to mix the state with religion, many followers of Islam would probably say that the dictats of the Koran should come before the rule of man-made law and, unlike those of other faiths who say the same, they really mean it.  Secondly, it is because it is apparent that aspects of globalisation, by which I mean, instant communication and the internet, have made the possibility of the Umma much more concrete. Global events, from Lebanon to Palestine, are beamed directly into our living rooms and this new found access to information is matched in equal measure by the fluidity and ease with which people can now jump on a plane and make their way to radical training camps in Pakistan or Somalia. The outcome is that some of those radicalised by images of perceived injustices are able to attempt swift retributive action. 

The real issue?

Taking a step back from the pros and cons of a globalised world brings me onto what I think of as the real issue. Clearly, we need to weigh the balance between economic benefits and social and cultural implications of immigration. Key questions are: how do we mitigate the pressure on schools, health services and, above all, housing? And how do we do so at a time when most of us are facing budget constraints? We need to support areas that are changing rapidly; we need to help migrants to learn the language and the rules of the communities they are joining. We need to prevent discrimination, but we also need to tackle illegal immigration and trafficking.

Even more fundamentally, how do we maintain a strong sense of ‘British’ or any other European identity when so much around us is shifting? And how do we negotiate the everyday frictions between different world views? Especially if, as I suggested above, we may now be entering a period in which these frictions become more common and more abrasive, we will need to find a new way of managing these tensions: what might be called an agenda for living together.

All this presents some serious challenges for the social democratic left in Europe. But they are part of a wider pattern of intellectual failure on the left, of which the matters we are discussing are only one aspect. I want to highlight some these themes before returning to my more general conclusion.

First, there has been a failure of theory.  We have been scandalously poor at understanding the kind of work done by economists like George Akerlof which applies psychology and culture to understand the apparently irrational choices made by disadvantaged groups (for example, why it is that despite the evident advantage of having a university degree African American community norms specifically discount the extra earning potential associated with a college education; I imagine we could show similar self-defeating behaviour herein Europe). It is manifest that, as several writers point out, the social democratic left has spent much of the past two decades hiding from the truth, failing to develop a persuasive account of the role of identity in modern politics. Our conservatism has therefore led us to undervalue the role of identity in inequality. We under value autonomy and choice – we haven’t developed an effective political response to the work on capabilities pioneered by Amartya Sen, for example.

What do I mean by autonomy and choice as separate from class? Here’s an example: if you happen to be a billionaire wheelchair user who wants to go to a particular restaurant, it doesn’t matter if you could buy it ten times over. If there’s no ramp or no one can be bothered to find it, it doesn’t matter how rich you are – the thing that determines your life-chances at that moment is your disability and, at that moment, you’re just a bloke in a chair, stuck on the pavement in the rain.

Here’s another: you fancy going out for a pizza with your mates. You head for your favourite chain. They find you a table, take your order, and then politely tell you that because of their recent experiences with people ordering, eating and then running off without paying, they’d like you to pay in advance. The trouble is they haven’t asked the four white guys on the next table to pay in advance. It doesn’t matter that they’re all unemployed, and you’re a ten-grand-a-week professional football player – the thing that determines you life-chances at that moment is that you’re a black man.  

Second, we have failed to do what the right does as though it’s a part of its DNA, which is to engage the power of identity as fundamental to our account of the way in which the world is changing. What might a left analysis that engages the power of identity look like? And how would it answer Michael Kenny’s call for a politics of recognition? It could go like this: the left’s quest is for greater freedom of the individual to be fully themselves; what separates us from the libertarian right is that we believe that we can never be truly free as atomised individuals. This isn’t just the old-fashioned class based analysis – the left still believes that class can determine access to life’s better opportunities, but we now know that this isn’t a complete analysis. We also believe that we are each a unique configuration of several shared identities, or identity categories – our race, our religion, our gender, etc. – each aspect of which is shared with others. If we can keep any of the individual aspects from controlling our life chances then we can consider ourselves relatively free; but, sometimes, our treatment by others means that one aspect limits all our options. For example, we can find ourselves in what you might call an identity well – racism, sexism or Islamophobia might trap us inside our race, gender or faith in such a way that no matter what else we are that one characteristic determines our life-chances.

There is a converse phenomenon which gives rise to a kind of self-limiting behaviour which one might call the identity spike, where one aspect of our identity becomes so important and defining to us that it overshadows all the others. We see this in racial and religious extremism. Poor whites, for example, can in certain circumstances come to believe that their poverty isn’t the result of where they live or their parental background or their lack of skills, but is because of their colour. It’s not surprising that they then begin to interpret all politics through a racial prism.

Third, we need to abandon the multiculturalist delusion. By this I do not mean rejecting the fact of multiethnic and multicultural societies; I mean that mindless assertion that such a society is inherently more vibrant and productive, unless recalcitrant or reactionary forces in some way contrive to undermine its natural harmony, typically an anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim intervention. It may be that this proposition is true if certain conditions are true; but the opposite may also be the case. In the UK, for example, there is substantial evidence that foreign-born entrepreneurs have the energy, contacts and creativity to boost the growth of the whole society. The social and cultural isolation of some communities, however, both reduces their life-chances and raises the likelihood of friction with others. In fact, as I’ve pointed out, it is the laissez faire multiculturalism of the past twenty years that allowed the problems of infrastructure pressure and apparent unfairness to grow unchecked. Isn’t it bizarre that it is the left which resists the idea that the community might seek to establish the common standards – equality and human rights standards, for example – that would bring some order to the cultural sphere?

Fourth, the left’s aversion to stigmatising groups has led us to excuse the role of culture in creating disadvantage – and also to ignore its potential for rescuing people from inequality. We don’t even interrogate the question of why some groups succeed and others do not. Why aren’t we asking why poor Chinese children do better at school than well-off whites, while there is a class gap among the almost equally successful Indians? What’s the left’s explanation for the observation that being black and male is a better correlation for low numeracy skills than having a learning disability? What do we have to say about the fact that infant mortality among black and Pakistani communities is twice that among white and Bangladeshi communities, suggesting that neither age nor class can account for this particular difference?

Fifth, because we have no script for identity politics, we constantly attempt to force every issue into either an unrealistically economic model or fall back on a rigid essentialism that places everyone in categories to which they may not belong. This is most comical in the attempts to prove that women as a group are poorer than men as a group, though most women share a household with a man; it is true that a quarter of households are single-parent households, with mostly women in that role – but many of these are supported by men who are no wealthier on their own. This crude categorisation can produce unhelpful policy outcomes. For example, the UK government’s proposal to cap rent subsidies, known as housing benefit,  are said by Labour to attack black and minority ethnic households. In actual fact, while it is true that some ethnic minority families have benefited from a conspiracy between the state and landlords to drive up rents on the back of local authority payments for poor and unemployed minority families, and this would be undermined by a cap on housing benefits, the policy may benefit working minority families if it drives down rents overall, since those minority families are far more likely to be in rented accommodation and there are far more in this group than in the non-working group.

The political outcomes

The political problem is that people can see these contradictions in their real lives, and they can see our determination not to recognise them. No wonder, then, that they assume the following:

(a) that we have little idea about what’s going on in their communities and by implication don’t care very much about anything or anyone who does not fit our preferred narrative;
(b) that we apply double standards, with one rule for the settled Christian and white groups and different rules for other groups;
(c) that we are ready to trade their interests and their right to a flourishing identity in order to benefit employers who receive cheap, compliant labour, and to middle-class professionals who can outsource the drudgery of their domestic and professional lives, thereby making more money and spending more time with their families. 

How can we remedy this? First, we must recognise and start to develop the theory that leads to the “ethical cleavages” at the heart of identity politics.

Second, we must recognise that social category groups are overlapping and sometimes apparently contradictory – the disadvantages in society may be visited on different groups at different times and, in this time of change, people may be both victim and victimiser. An Asian man may be racially abused at work in the morningam, but could equally be a wife-beater in the evening.

Third, we can behave differently in politics. We need to be more diverse as political forces.

Fourth, we need to assert the principles of fairness and reciprocity and observe that basic golden rule of reciprocity in England: do as you would be done by.
Fifth, we need to make the case for fairness as part of our response to austerity – everyone shares the burden of fiscal restraint; everyone shares the benefit of recovery.

Sixth, we should be clear about the meaning of integration – not a universal love and loss of separate identities but a society in which when we measure life-chances by category; in which there is steady convergence between different identity groups; in which we devise remedies for avoiding conflict between categories; in which we focus on making public encounters more integrative; and in which we emphasise shared values – schools and workplaces can have uniforms which mean the burkha may not be worn but both should have dress codes that are sharia compliant, so the rules can be the same for everyone. We use the same principles for every building development – don’t treat mosques as special even if Muslims want you to.

The Highway Code – an agenda for living together

I believe that British and European cultures will respond dynamically to these challenges. We’ve responded to much greater ones in the past. In Britain, we are lucky enough to have no successful far-right anti-immigrant party. Right from the very first Elizabeth, when we faced all sorts of issues about Catholics entering the country, the British approach has been pragmatic. Elizabeth said, ‘I will not make a window into the hearts and souls of men”; meaning that, essentially, as long as you play by the rules then everybody’s welcome here and everybody can contribute. That’s been the way in which Britain has always dealt with these challenges. The Commission’s recent review, How Fair is Britain?, confirms that our tolerance of difference is still remarkably resilient.

One of our strengths is that being British is not an ethnic identity, it is a civil one – an identity that you can adopt if you sign up to certain values and behaviours. Despite the failure of the European Constitution, Europe too could be an important source of civic identity: helping us to define our rights and responsibilities to one another. In Britain, a strong part of that identity is based on the concept of fairness, which is a constant theme for us. If you ask people what activity most typifies being British the most likely response is ‘a queue’. A queue typifies our obsession with fairness. 

Extremists aren’t going to take over the pitch but we need to keep a keen eye out to make sure they don’t move the goalposts. We can’t be complacent. Answering some of the questions I set out above might be a start.  But as I have said, more broadly, for us in Britain, our preoccupation with fairness provides a foundation for dealing with difference, whether those are ethnic or religious, based on gender or sexual orientation.

To make this clear, let me use a metaphor. There are millions of cars on our roads. The vast range of vehicles reflects the wealth of human diversity and what we choose to do with them reflects the myriad different choices we make as individuals – evidenced by the everyday tasks we perform on the narrow streets that we all share. We all want to drive to our own destination in our own car. Most of us want to get where we are going in the shortest possible time.

Given this, it’s remarkable how smoothly things run. Why is it that we’re not all crashing all the time? That’s because we have rules, encompassed in our Highway Code. The code is not a rigid set of laws but a common sense understanding about what to do when we face potential conflict. We all learn the Highway Code, but most of us can’t remember ever reading it; we just instinctively know what is demanded of us when we interact with other road users – at junctions, roundabouts and traffic lights.

In the old days, when cars were few and pretty much identical, this code wouldn’t have mattered so much. But increased numbers and greater diversity bring special challenges. They demand ways of managing our interactions. We stop at lights, we give way at junctions, we drive on one side of the road. You could say that this is just good manners and in some ways it is, but it goes a bit deeper than that. The code is based on a set of values, the idea that all road users have the same rights that must be respected, irrespective of shape or size – Massey Ferguson, Rolls Royce or Skoda.  We take this for granted on our roads today, but we had to create the rules. This thing we take for granted isn’t just the natural order. 

The Commission and its sister organisations across Europe cannot address these issues alone. We do not ‘own’ the principles for the Highway Codes. Part of this journey is the responsibility of government, but it will take the efforts of the whole of society to work out these principles: people, communities and businesses. Organisations like ours can promote, facilitate and monitor that change. We can identify inequality and discrimination; point governments in the direction of remedies; and, where possible, help organisations and individuals take the steps that will promote sustainable change. Or, to continue the transport metaphor: we are helping society to Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre.


To conclude, this isn’t some local problem, it’s a huge issue of historical forces – to which we don’t have any concrete answers. We know that living together graciously makes our lives richer, more secure and happier.  Conversely, inequality and discrimination makes life harder, meaner and more brutish. We need to find some new way of pursuing ‘gentle integration’ but of doing so at speed and in a time of greater economic restriction. 

To do so we will need some constants. A simple, set of principles that should run through our behaviour; which embraces us all; and which guides our actions in times of uncertainty. Those principles endure long after all of us, these discussions and our organisations have been forgotten.

Trevor Phillips is chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

This essay is featured in the Policy Network publication "Exploring the cultural challenges to social democracy"

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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