Integrated Britain?

Almost every scholar, commentator and politician has their own definition of integration. My own approach is, first, to distinguish integration from assimilation. Assimilation I take to mean a process whereby migrants, and their descendants, increasingly come to be the same as other members of the society in their language, culture and attitudes, identities, and social relationships. This may take several generations to occur, but in the USA, for example, most scholars would agree that the descendants of the migrants from Italy, Poland, Ireland who migrated to America in the early years of the twentieth century have almost completely assimilated and are virtually indistinguishable from the descendants of the earlier British colonisers.

Second, however, I would also distinguish integration from separation. Separation is a situation where two communities lead parallel lives, attend separate schools and places of worship, go to different sports and social clubs, and work for different firms. Northern Ireland before the troubles came fairly close to separation with parallel Protestant and Catholic communities, as does Bosnia today with its parallel ethno-religious groups. Between these opposites of assimilation and separation, there is a lot of scope for variation. There is no single form which integration can or should take. But I would see most forms of integration as being compatible with the maintenance (or evolution) of a group’s cultural or religious practices – things which the classic British philosopher John Stuart Mill would have regarded as private matters of individual liberty, where individuals should be free to choose what they do or believe providing they do not harm others. And on the other hand I would see integration as requiring participation in a common public life, for example in work and in politics. Integration also involves speaking a common language, which is a pre-requisite for participation in a common public life.

So how well integrated are ethnoreligious minorities in Britain? The first point to make is that – just as with my American example – integration is likely to improve across generations. People who have only recently arrived from a non-English speaking origin are hardly likely to be able to participate fully in British public life if they are not fluent in English. However, by the second generation (the British-born children of migrants) virtually all the members of all the main minorities (those with Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black African, Black Caribbean or Chinese heritage) are fluent in English. So on this first criterion of integration, British minorities are almost 100% successful by the second generation.

A second aspect of integration is employment. This is a rather complex area, again with major differences between the migrants and their second generation children. Broadly speaking migrants, from all ethnic backgrounds alike, tend to have higher unemployment rates, higher rates of inactivity, and to have lower-level jobs for which they are over-qualified, and lower pay than their white British peers. This varies somewhat between the different minorities, and some of the gaps between minorities and the majority can be explained by lack of fluent English. But, just as with fluency in English, the second generation is more integrated than their parents were. The major exception is with respect to unemployment. We still find significant ‘ethnic penalties’ in the second-generation – the children of migrants have significantly higher rates of unemployment than their white British peers of the same age and educational level, though this is less true of the Indian and Chinese communities (see Figure 1). On the other hand, among those who actually manage to get a job, second –generation occupational levels are quite similar to white British ones.

Figure 1: Treatment of job applicants from different ethnic groups, Source: Wood et al., (2009)

Figure 1: Treatment of job applicants from different ethnic groups, Source: Wood et al., (2009)

So employment is a much more mixed picture than language was. There is a great deal of generational change, but we cannot say that it is a picture of 100% success. The high unemployment rates – double those of the white British – suffered by black and Muslims youngsters, especially the boys – is a major weakness in Britain’s integration record.

Moving on to the political sphere, we once again find evidence of major change across the generations. The first generation are less likely to be registered to vote than are the white British, and many of course will not even be eligible to register. Among the second generation, eligibility is somewhat higher, and registration rates are slightly improved, but there is still a big gap between minorities and the majority in rates of registration. Interestingly, among people who are registered to vote, actual rates of turnout are not especially different between minorities and the majority (Figure 2). Registration is the barrier when it comes to political life, just as unemployment was the barrier in work life. So, as with work, Britain’s record is well short of 100% success, although it has some bright spots too.

Figure 2: Validated turnout in the 2010 general election Source: BES 2010 and EMBES 2010

Figure 2: Validated turnout in the 2010 general election, Source: BES 2010 and EMBES 2010

How does Britain’s record compare with other countries? In 2015 the OECD produced a report Indicators of Immigrant Integration. The report covers a wide variety of outcomes, but let me just summarise a few central ones, focussing on the performance of young people in the second generation:

  • Literacy (a good measure of fluency in the destination –country language): Britain is one of the best performers, well above the OECD and EU averages.
  • Unemployment: Britain has one of the bigger gaps between minority and majority unemployment rates for young people (15-34 years old). It is below both the OECD and EU averages, roughly as bad as France and Germany and well below Australia, Canada and the USA.
  • Election turnout (self–reported): Britain is one of the best performers, with the second generation reporting even higher turnout than their white British peers. In contrast, minority turnout in Germany is 20 points below that of their German peers.

So once again it is a mixed picture. Britain’s record is far from the worst, and Britain has some notable successes in literacy and political life. But high minority unemployment is Britain’s Achilles heel. Unemployment may also be particularly pernicious, as it may foster a sense of grievance and resentment. This, in my view, is the most urgent challenge facing Britain’s integration policy.


This article was written by Professor Anthony Heath for Bright Blue and featured in their recent magazine The Great Migration.