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Multiculturalism is working

Fifty years on from Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, anxiety around immigration and integration continue to concern a lot of British people, driven in great part by what they see in the media and online. Just as Powell’s racist rant sparked action in opposition to his vision, so too must this anniversary spur us all to redouble our efforts.

Powell’s dark and vicious predictions have failed to materialise, but there is a widespread perception that integration is failing and, more worryingly, people are also pessimistic about what the future holds. That’s the findings of an extensive poll carried out by YouGov for HOPE not hate.
On the surface, the results appear quite depressing. While 43% of our poll feel that Britain is a successful multicultural society where people from different backgrounds generally get along well together, 41% believe that Britain’s multicultural society isn’t working and different communities generally live separate lives. Three times as many people think that relationships between different communities within the UK will get worse over the next few years, with just 14% of people believing things will get better.

An astonishing 40% of people felt that Enoch Powell’s dire predictions of social breakdown and violence in his Rivers of Blood speech proved accurate, with just 41% of people believing that he was wrong. Clearly Powell’s dire predictions of societal breakdown have not materialised, nor has his claim that “the black man” would have the “whip hand” over indigenous Britons. In fact, the opposite has continued to happen, with the Government’s own Race Disparity Audit finding last year non-whites continuing to be discriminated against in the work place while unemployment is higher in non-white communities.

Race relations have advanced considerably since Powell’s speech. Britain is, despite its obvious problems, a more successful multicultural society than most other countries in Europe. Racial discrimination is outlawed and less acceptable than it once was. Attitudes towards immigration have improved dramatically in the last few years and Britain has culturally, economically and politically absorbed new cultures. There is still a lot more to do, but Britain is in a much better place than in was in 1968.

If race relations in Britain has improved since Powell’s days, then why the pessimism in our poll? There is clearly a large distinction between how people view the community around them and how they view society at large. Data from the community life survey shows that 81% of people feel well integrated into their community. And while most people’s community is made up of people who are like them, our poll shows most people have close friends from different ethnic background to themselves and almost a third of people say that they or a family member has been in a relationship with someone of a different ethnicity to themselves.

It is also clear that people’s views about society at large is heavily shaped by what they see and read on the television, in the newspapers and on the internet. The narrative around immigration and cohesion generally, and Muslims and Islam more specifically, is overwhelmingly negative and so it is hardly surprising that the view on integration in Britain is so poor. That is not to say that there are not many real issues facing us today. Our poll shows how the suspicion and fear of British Muslims and Islam more generally has replaced immigration as the key issue of concern for many Britons. 37% of all respondents see Islam as a threat to the British way of life compared to 33% who see the Muslim faith and the British way of life as compatible and last year’s terrorist attacks greatly increased suspicion towards British Muslims. Last July 42% of people said that their opinion of Muslims in Britain had worsened because of the attacks. Asked the same question in this poll, a fifth of respondents still hold this view.

A link between Islamic extremism and the failure of integration in Britain is drawn by a high proportion of the British public.

While Britain is a more integrated society than many of us initially think, there is no disguising the fact that a significant problems exist and must be tackled, especially those rooted in economic problems and cultural anxieties. As our report says, multiculturalism has been an uneven success, leaving some areas of Britain more integrated than others.

Unfortunately much of the debate about integration is polarised in Britain today, between those on the Right who believe that multiculturalism has failed and Islam is incompatible with the West and some on the Left who dismiss any criticism of multiculturalism and anxieties over cultural differences.

Building stronger, more integrated communities is one of the big challenges of our times. Most people do want Britain’s communities to live together peacefully and cohesively but prejudice and discrimination still exists, there is still not enough interaction between communities and the on-going activities of Islamist and far right extremism will continue to test our resilience in the years to come. Likewise, we must not be afraid to deal more robustly and consistently with difficult communal issues when they arise, because failing to address these only plays into the hands of the Right. With Britain’s rapidly changing demographics (with predictions that Britain’s BAME communities will make up 36% of the population by 2050), building stronger and more integrated communities must be a priority for us all.

Understanding where we are now is an essential to improving integration in the future. Just as Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech galvanised people into action, so let us hope that the 50th anniversary of his speech does the same.