One of the more striking statistics in yesterday’s Policy Exchange report on multi-ethnic Britain is the revelation that only 25 per cent of white Britons identify as British. This low figure may reflect people not wishing to fill out two boxes (that’s what Alex Massie says, anyway), but it certainly follows a noticeable trend of recent years – the decline of British identity in England. In contrast 64 per cent of white Britons in this report called themselves ‘English only’.
With the arrival of post-war migrants a great deal of effort was made to make the British identity less racial, more welcoming, and rightly so. But one of the unintended, although not very surprising, consequences of this is that white Britons have sought out an identity for themselves (understandably, as ‘white’ isn’t a particularly nice way of describing oneself, loaded as it is with baggage, and anyway I’m more the colour of a sunburned pig). Once you turn a national identity from something defined by ancestry (even if it was an understated familial category into which people could be adopted) into a proposition nation, then that identity is going to weaken somewhat. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing for people’s everyday lives, if identity isn’t important to them; but if only a quarter of the country’s largest ethnic group identify with that country, then that country’s got a problem.
Identifying as English rather than British is probably a good indicator of hostility or scepticism to multiculturalism, so that nowadays Britishness is largely confined to minorities and wealthy London liberals (I wouldn’t be surprised if, despite their name, a large number of Ukip supporters favour English independence).
And as well as watering down the sense of Britishness among the majority south of the border, multiculturalism has also weakened the Union because England and Scotland have had very, very different post-war experiences. Ukip is a response to multiculturalism, and is relatively tiny in the northern kingdom, but would it be so if Scotland had received the same number of post-war immigrants as the post-industrial North and Midlands? It seems unlikely, as demography tends to be destiny in these matters.
Scotland has sustained sectarianism because the proportion of Irish Catholic immigrants, at up to 15 per cent, was far higher than in England, where it never topped 5 per cent. Being of mixed Catholic/Protestant heritage myself, I’m glad it never got larger down here. England now has a sort of very mild form of nativism, and perhaps to Scots this is as incomprehensible as the politics of the Old Firm derby are to us.
Yet yesterday’s report was largely hailed by the commentariat as proof that people rub along in England. But what did they expect? If 100 Africans move into my area, do they think I’m going to organise a pogrom or burn a cross on their lawn? Diversity causes conflict only in extreme forms; in most cases it leads to apathy and alienation, not just towards one’s neighbours but to the political system and the nation itself.
And if so few people south of the border regard themselves as British, is it any wonder they’re so unconcerned about a very successful 300-year-old union slipping away?
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.