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Home Opinion A cosmopolitan future is not a foregone conclusion
Britain's cosmopolitan future

A cosmopolitan future is not a foregone conclusion

Sunder Katwala - 30 July 2015

The EU referendum will lead to both Britain’s populist Eurosceptics and utopian cosmopolitans having to seek majority consent for the futures they imagine

In the long run, Britain is likely to be a more liberal and more open country. But there are three reasons to be cautious about Jeremy Cliffe’s prophecy of a cosmopolitan future.

First, demographics is never political destiny, because parties and movements to get to choose how to respond.

Second, when profound social shifts take place, the political distribution of their dividends and challenges can be unpredictable and counterintuitive.

Third, the future can be a long time coming. How far Jeremy Cliffe’s prediction of Britain’s cosmopolitan future proves to be right, in the end, may particularly depend on whether Britain’s current cosmopolitan minority demonstrate a practical interest in securing the majority consent on which protecting and unlocking that cosmopolitan future depends.

Politics always matters

Political choices always matter, even if leaders and parties do not get to make those choices in the social circumstances of their own choosing. It is possible for a party to stubbornly wither and die by sticking steadfastly to a declining demographic treadline, as George Marchais’ French Communists did during the Mitterrand era.

The Labour party disproved, in both the 1960s and the 1990s, the "must Labour lose?" sociological cottage industry describing its demise as the inevitable product of social shifts. If the obituaries were premature, predictions of an inexorable rise will be similarly suspect. The centre left should be wary of attempts to console itself that it is now just a bit ahead of the sociological game – that its strong appeal to the young, more diverse and more highly educated that are growing in number, currently insufficient to win currently outside the capital, large cities and university towns, will bring into life a majority coalition in a couple of decades time.

It would be dangerous to wait for the future to turn up – because a lot will happen in the meantime.

The unpredictable rise of non-white Britain

Sharply rising ethnic diversity plays a central role in Cliffe's account. It may, however, be experienced less dramatically than the report suggests.

If Britain were one-third non-white, or even ‘minority-majority’ in half a century’s time, who can predict what ‘race’ might mean then – a moment as distant from us today as the 2012 Olympics was from the arrival of the Windrush. Already, those of mixed ethnicity are becoming the largest of the ‘minority’ groups, though even the doubling in one decade of the mixed-race population understates this development – because about half of those of mixed-ethnic parentage tick other boxes, including both ‘black’ and ‘white’. That three-quarters of mixed-race Britons have a white partner – the opposite pattern to the US – makes this particular driver of integration and, sometimes, long-term assimilation rather stronger than across the Atlantic.

Britain’s ethnic and faith minorities are distinctly young – most British Muslims are aged 25 or under – and also, unsurprisingly, considerably less likely to be existentially concerned by the pace of demographic and cultural change in Britain. But they are not straightforwardly more liberal: non-white Britons are moderately more pro-migration, while being more religiously observant, somewhat more socially conservative. But no crystal ball is available to predict what the social views of ethnic minority Britons will be in a generation’s time: the interplay of faith and family, age and education will be complex. Generation is, generally, a stronger predictor of cultural views even than social class, yet generation shifts within minority communities remain much under-studied.

In recent British politics, ethnicity has been a stronger predictor of voting behaviour than social class. As partisan allegiances weakened significantly, ethnic minority voters remained unusually partisan. Yet those strong levels of Labour identification and partisanship now appear to be eroding fast. That could well be a positive outcome of long-term social integration – even if it would disrupt any political strategy which takes a lead among ethnic minorities for granted.

In a highly diverse society, it is rarely healthy for ethnicity to be sustained as a major political cleavage, or the primary predictor of voting behaviour. Cliffe does direct his analysis at both left and right. There are several reasons, both historic and contemporary, to suggest that Britain’s centre-right could prove better placed to respond to both the opportunities and challenges of this gradually emerging cosmopolitanism than the liberal left. The late nineteenth century conservative right, under Lord Salisbury, was highly pessimistic about what democracy would mean. Its defining project was to avoid or delay the advance of what Salisbury called this ‘dangerous and irrational creed by which two day labourers shall outvote Baron Rothschild’. Yet, rather to their own surprise, once the electorate was tripled, the Conservatives instead became the dominant party of the era of mass democracy, and were for most of the post-war period the beneficiaries of women’s votes too. Ethnic diversity might follow this pattern too. If the US Republicans are a warning of what can happen to a dominant party which falls out of step with demographic change, the rather happier Canadian Conservative experience is much studied by the UK centre right as offering an alternative route.

Where sociological shifts run particularly deep – such as secularisation, or big intergenerational shifts on gender, race and gay rights – they will often be entrenched in a way which sees them diminish as politically contested cleavages. The speed of change on gay rights has been especially rapid. It would be surprising to find it still being contested by major parties in 2020 or beyond.

How can the cosmopolitan minority secure majority consent?

Finally, the long run can be a long time coming. Cliffe’s cosmopolitans are confident about the future and more depressed by the present.

Yet it would make more sense, paradoxically, to understand Ukip as the product of liberal, rather than regressive, shifts in British society. As Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford have set out, "left behind" groups of voters whose views were dominant in their society within living memory feel culturally as well as economically marginalised precisely because of the speed of social change, which has seen the major parties focus their attentions elsewhere.

Occasional calls for a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ party absolutely miss the central challenge for the liberal metropolitan cause. How the cosmopolitan minority conducts itself and makes its arguments during an anxious and long period of transition will do much to determine whether it can secure the type of social and political consent which Cliffe’s cosmopolitan future requires.

‘Why don’t more people agree with me when I’m so obviously right' is rarely a persuasive form of politics, whether from the populist minority or their cosmopolitan foes. So a more liberal future will be damaged, not unlocked, by a politics of noisy liberal polarisation from a minority position.

Arguments for the benefits of 'open' versus 'closed', if preached by a distinctly narrow group of the economically and culturally confident will often simply generate the response 'I know it’s working out for people like you – and all you're doing is convincing me that the winners don’t care about the rest of us’.

Cliffe recognises the need to build bridges – and to extend economic opportunity in particular. But too much emphasis may be placed on faster broadband as the way for the cosmopolitan future to connect with the ‘left behind’ – and perhaps too little on the importance of identity and cultural recognition too.

The British have a limited appetite for the politics of cultural polarisation. Perhaps, here, the EU referendum is an important opportunity. It challenges both tribes in Britain’s identity argument – the populist Eurosceptics and the cosmopolitan utopians – to realise that neither speaks to a majority in Britain today. Both will have to seek majority consent for the futures they imagine – and want the rest of us to want to.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future

This article is a response to Jeremy Cliffe's Policy Network paper Britain's cosmopolitan future. You can read further responses and a new supplement to the paper here. You can listen to the debate that took place at the paper's launch event here

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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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