ONE NATION BRITAIN: AN ASPIRATION NOT A REALITY
Speech by Chuka Umunna MP hosted by The Challenge, 21 March 2016
Thank you Oliver for that kind introduction, and to everyone for being here today.
In his Andrew Marr interview yesterday Iain Duncan Smith spoke of a One Nation Britain.
There will be those who will dismiss it as a sound bite, or worse, an offensive label for the right-wing agenda the former welfare secretary has been pursuing since 2010.
But there is a reason why it is a mantle both Labour and the Conservatives have sough to own and rightly so.
That is because it is how we like to see our country. It is the expression that sums up the national unity we saw at moments such as the Olympics.
However if we’re honest, it’s an aspiration and not a reality in Britain today, which is why I want to talk about why we need a new focus on social integration.
1. The promise of Olympic Britain
That summer brought out the best in Britain.
Through Danny Boyle’s brilliant opening ceremony, we paid tribute to the NHS – an institution which binds us together as a society.
We celebrated the arrival of the Windrush, the ship which in 1948 carried some 500 immigrants from the West Indies to the Tilbury docks – many settled in my borough of Lambeth.
This heralded a new generation of immigrants who would profoundly change the demographic and cultural landscape of the UK.
Throughout the Games our country was united in support of a team which seemed to truly reflect twenty-first century Britain.
The spirit and buzz of the occasion was unforgettable.
On one particularly memorable Saturday – Super Saturday (I was lucky enough to be there) – we cheered on the gold medal-winning performances of a mixed-race woman from Sheffield, a one-time Somalian refugee from London and a red headed guy from Milton Keynes.
For a moment in time, we seemed and felt wholly comfortable in our skin.
We presented ourselves as a country at peace with the mixed, modern nation we had become.
A society which was no longer particularly bothered about a person’s social background or ethnicity.
A diverse, integrated, confident Britain – ready for the challenges of a new century.
Yet, as I reflect on the 2012 Olympics in 2016, I can’t help but feel the unifying spirit which energised communities across the UK that summer reflected our ideals and aspirations as a society.
But not the reality of life in our country.
2. Diverse but divided
The day before the Games began, the Prime Minister said there is no more diverse, more open or more tolerant city in the world than London.
I am not a fan of the notion that we “tolerate” each other; I’d much rather embrace others and their cultures. But I agree with the PM’s sentiment.
However, being open and diverse isn’t the same as knowing and trusting each other.
Take London. New research released by The Challenge today shows that there is a growing gap between the experiences of people from different socio-economic groups in our nation’s Capital, a place thought to be a bastion of integration.
Whilst the majority of poor Londoners say they don’t feel at home in their city and feel excluded from the life of their community, those with wealth report feeling a sense of belonging and safety in their neighbourhoods.
Even in our Olympic city, our society is becoming increasingly divided.
Throughout the lifetime of the baby boomer generation, Britain has become brilliantly diverse and our lives have become less uniform in a number of ways.
We have gone from being an overwhelmingly white nation to one where 14% of the population is made up of ethnic minority Britons. Many of our cities, towns and villages are now home to people of every colour and creed
By 2050, the proportion of British residents who are of an ethnic minority group will double.
Over the last half century, the middle class has exploded in size – creating new opportunities for people to chart their own path in life.
And scientific and social advances mean that more of us are having children later in life and living into old age, fundamentally changing the way in which different generations relate to one another in the UK.
By 2040, the number of people aged 75 and over will rise by 89 per cent, and fewer older people will be living in the same towns as their children and grandchildren.
But last year’s report by the Social Integration Commission shows that levels of integration haven’t kept pace with our growing diversity.
Too often, people from different ethnic, class and age groups are living side-by-side but aren’t actually mixing with one another or leading interconnected lives. And there are worrying signs that the income and lifestyle gap between the rich and poor in our society may continue to widen.
As long as our country is diverse but divided in this way, we can’t honestly claim to be that beacon of unity and successful multiculturalism which seemed to shine so brightly when we were Olympic Britain.
I don’t think this is necessarily conscious or deliberate, but the divisions arise from a range of factors.
The winds of change blowing through our country are picking up speed.
Some of the biggest changes to the ways in which different groups relate to one another in our society may spring from trends which can’t be plotted easily on a chart, and are challenges which we’re only just waking up to.
Conflict abroad and the terrible consequences of climate change may drive more refugees to our shores than ever before.
Increased competition from emerging economies and dramatic technological advances could make work more insecure for more and more British workers.
And the automation of more of the jobs that computers can’t do at the minute may transform our economy and lead us to rethink how we organise ourselves as a society.
3. The Trumpification of British politics
I believe that we are at a crossroads.
If we don’t take action now to bridge the divides in our communities, I fear they will grow into gulfs –
And there is a real risk the British people could respond to the challenges of the twenty-first century not by asking ‘how can we solve this problem together?’ but by asking ‘who can we blame?’
That is precisely what is happening in the United States right now. Populist parties which typify this are already in national and/or regional governments across Europe, like the Front National in France. Some say it wouldn’t fly in modern Britain.
That people here could never stomach a Prime Minister in the mould of Donald Trump.
A major party leader who would slander and stigmatise a whole faith group and advocate building a wall to keep immigrants out of our country –
Who would say anything to get elected and bully and shout down anyone who spoke up against them.
But we are already on that slippery slope.
Last year’s General Election, and the European elections the year before, should have been a wake-up call to the growing and pernicious divides in our national politics.
Nearly four million of our fellow citizens voted for a party whose leader got stuck in a traffic jam and blamed the traffic on immigrants.
A leader who brought up the idea of stopping immigrants with life-threatening illnesses from entering the country during the first leaders’ TV debate.
It was an election which more than ever before seemed to be fought on a region-by-region and group-by-group basis –
Where the political and cultural divides between the North and South of England as well as Scotland and England became yet more stark –
Where the class divides which have always been a part of Britain’s history, gained renewed and far greater prominence –
And where the difference between the urban and the rural seemed bigger than ever before.
If we continue down this path, we could face nothing less than the Trumpification of British democracy.
In the run up to the General Election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that here – just like in the States – people are losing faith in the idea that politics can make a difference to their lives.
It’s exactly that sort of despondency that drives people to turn to the populist politics – of the left and the right – of blame, division and recrimination.
In towns and cities from Brighton to Sunderland, I met people who are afraid and people who are angry.
Afraid because the world is changing in ways which they feel are beyond their control.
Angry because what it means to be British – or, more specifically, English – seems to have shifted around them. Their sense of identity and belonging seem under threat.
And look – in an era of globalisation and a rapidly changing world, there are some things that we just can’t stop but we can help people to come together as communities and to collectively take steps to shape the future.
To achieve this we cannot duck having an open and honest conversation about why we’ve stopped trusting each other as citizens and neighbours.
There is no point simply complaining about this: it is beholden on all of us to better understand what is going on so we can build those bonds of trust and the strong social ties our communities will need to flourish in the future.
4. Trust matters
I had the pleasure of meeting the Harvard-based sociologist Robert Putnam at the end of last year. Through his research, he has shown that, where people from different ethnicities live side-by-side but don’t mix in meaningful ways, trust is eroded.
In their ground-breaking book, The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have proven that areas with high levels of class inequality also suffer from low levels of trust.
And we know that a lack of contact between the old and young increases fear of crime amongst older people, and creates a situation where too many are automatically and unfairly labelled as troublemakers for committing the crime of being young.
So our diverse but socially segregated state is sapping our communities of trust, It’s undermining our ability to count on one another. And trust matters.
You see, in an uncertain and changing world, it’s all too easy to imagine that our problems are the fault of those who are different from us.
As we’ve become less familiar with one another, it’s become harder for us to understand where people who come from a different background are coming from on the big issues.
And the disharmony of our political debate has stopped us from taking action together to address the discord which exists in our communities.
We need to get a grip of the fact that, as we’ve changed as a country, we’ve come to know and understand one another less and less.
5. Detoxifying immigration
Take the issue of immigration.
Throughout the last forty years, the debate on immigration has become increasingly polarised to the point that it’s now dominated by two hopelessly opposed views.
By one group of voices claiming that Britain is full and that it’s time to shut our borders.
And another insisting that there’s no problem – who say that immigrants and the vast majority of Britons rub along together alright and it’s only a fundamentally backwards and prejudiced minority who have an issue.
Let me be clear. I am the son of an immigrant. I only have to visit Streatham High Road in my own constituency to see first-hand the vibrancy and dynamism which immigration has infused into our communities, and what a fantastic force it’s been for the cultural life of our country.
And, when I have witnessed a stream of prejudice uttered by elected politicians and candidates for elected office – including in my own party – I have been unafraid of calling them out.
But those of us who champion the benefits of immigration and diversity also need to recognise that rapid demographic change can put enormous pressure on local public services and threaten people’s sense of security and belonging –
My own party has too often shut its ears to these concerns.
Labour has rightly argued that immigration has brought real economic benefits, but this is an accountant’s answer to a question which goes to the heart of how people feel about modern Britain.
Our failure to confront head on the fact that our country hasn’t lived up to the Olympic ideal has, at times, caused us to unfairly dismiss reasonable concerns about the impact of immigration on our communities.
Of course we need to be wary of the threat posed by petty nationalism.
We won’t solve the challenges through resorting to the sort of scapegoating which the UK has such a proud history of fighting against.
And, yes, I do worry that some of the interventions we’ve heard in the EU referendum debate have been purposefully designed to stoke prejudice.
Some of the rhetoric which we’ve heard about people from Poland and Romania frankly isn’t so dissimilar to that which was deployed against black and Asian people in decades past.
But we must not lump all those who voice concerns about the consequences of immigration into the same basket.
It’s not racist to want to be able to speak the same language as your next door neighbour or the other parents at the school gate.
It’s not unreasonable or prejudiced to worry about your community changing around you.
Our inability to have a grown-up conversation about the way immigration is changing our country, and the fact that we can’t seem to get our heads around one another’s points of view, has led to extreme views developing on both sides of the argument –
We argue endlessly about who we should let into our country and why, but we haven’t spent nearly enough time thinking and talking about what happens when immigrants enter our country and settle in, say, Middlesbrough, Newham, Glasgow or wherever it may be.
In order to detoxify this debate, we need to own up the fact that immigration can undermine community cohesion but that it doesn’t have to, and recognise that there’s a middle way between shutting our borders and shutting our ears to people’s concerns.
We need a concerted drive to break down barriers to integration and provide much better support to help immigrants not only learn English and understand British values, but also meet and mix and build relationships with Britons from all backgrounds – integration, afterall, is a two way street.
Because we know that it’s when people with different experiences of life get to know one another and lead interconnected lives that trust grows.
6. Rising class segregation
We need to offer our communities much more support to build bonds of trust in the face of change, and to better manage difference in all forms – which brings me to class differences.
Rising inequality is one of the most pressing problems facing our nation, and is compounded by the growing segregation of different class groups.
It’s no wonder we’ve wound up with TV programmes like Benefits Street – produced by well paid people who are not on benefits – which treat people who claim unemployment benefit like a different species.
It’s no wonder that so many more newspaper column inches are devoted to those who stand accused of cheating the benefits system than middle class bankers who dishonestly rig entire financial systems at everyone else’s expense to line their own pockets on a grand scale.
It’s no wonder we have an utterly toxic political debate on social security, which too often ignores the impact of low-paid work and the cost of living, and ducks the challenge of addressing the real barriers which people face in getting back to work – zeroing in instead on the criminal minority who set out to scam the system.
Iain Duncan Smith, the man who has presided over the biggest programme of misery for the disabled, the poor and those in need for a generation, only now tells us the policies he was implementing were arbitrary and unfair. The greatest sadness is not that he left it so long but that, in spite of this, the polls tell us the harsh policy agenda he has pursued commands some considerable public support.
Research by the Social Integration Commission provides an insight into why this might be the case. They show that middle class and working class people in this country are leading very separate lives, and that far too few people who are in work know anyone who is on benefits at all.
7. Building a more integrated Britain
So it’s clear that we, as a country, face many challenges but, looking around this room, at the brilliant social entrepreneurs and innovators who have pioneered initiatives to build bridges between different groups in society –
And the young people who have gotten stuck into their local communities and participated in horizon-expanding programmes such as the National Citizen Service –
I truly believe that we have it in us to rise to this test and fulfil the promise of Olympic Britain.
I’m proud to announce today that we are launching a new cross-party group – the All Party Parliamentary Group for Social Integration – to explore how we can build a more integrated Britain.
I know that our first step must be to learn the lessons of the past.
Recent governments of both parties have argued that the best way to encourage integration is to promote and enforce a shared set of British values –
That as long as we all understand what it means to be British citizens, then it doesn’t really matter if we spend time together as people or not.
While ministers and officials in those governments were right to affirm our freedom to be different from one another, I don’t think the values which define what it means to be British can be unilaterally imposed from above.
If our idea of Britishness is to have any meaning in 2016, then it must be crowdsourced rather than imposed.
So, rather than telling people what unites them, our Group will to look at how we can help people from all walks of life to meet and mix and work it out for themselves.
That’s why we will focus on ideas to create the shared experiences which enable people to develop shared identities.
These experiences must be woven into the fabric of everyday life in our country.
We are looking forward to engaging with the government’s review into integration and opportunity, which Louise Casey is leading – she will be one of the first witnesses we call on to give evidence at our public hearings.
The group includes politicians from all sides of both Houses of Parliament. I am chairing it and our Vice Chairs in the Commons are my Home Affairs Select Committee colleagues James Berry and Naz Shah.
It is crucial this project involves politicians from across the political spectrum.
I have warned we are on the verge of the Trumpification of British politics, and I believe that it’s incumbent on politicians to work together and show leadership in the face of this challenge.
8. A politics of unity
You see, by building a more integrated Britain, we can grow trust in our communities and restore our sense of the common British life.
We can choose a politics of unity and co-operation over a politics of division and blame.
Don’t get me wrong – politics in diverse societies invariably involves challenging conversations and sometimes painful compromise between different groups and interests.
It’s a muddled, messy activity in which people usually have to settle for less than the perfect realisation of their ideals.
But it’s only through coming together as a democracy that we can move forward into the future as one country.
And, at its best, politics is itself a way of getting to know one another better, of glimpsing the world through one another’s eyes and of growing through the experience.
If we as a country are going to take the challenges of the twenty-first century head on –
If we’re going to weather the changes before us and flourish in the face of an uncertain future –
If we’re going to live the Olympic ideal, for real this time –
And figure out what, together, we can become –
This is the sort of big, compassionate, joined-up politics we need.
Thank you very much.