In December 2016, Dame Louise Casey’s year-long review of social integration in the UK was published. It argued that many immigrant communities have failed to integrate and that the government should make a push to improve English-language education and teach “British values” in schools. It’s just the latest example of a long tradition in British politics of casting immigrants as the ‘Other’, a homogeneous mass insistent on turning parts of Britain into virtual colonies for their home countries, refusing to speak English and belligerently rejecting British identity. Muslim immigrants come under particular fire; the Casey Review mentions Muslims 249 times – the comparative figure for Polish immigrants is 14.
Yet this portrayal is a flagrant misrepresentation. The reality is that immigrants to the UK have been remarkably quick to adapt to their new circumstances. Contrary to the idea that immigrants need to be forced to learn English, for example, the 2011 census suggests that only 0.3 per cent of the population don’t speak any English at all – that’s just 134,000 people, a tiny minority of the overall 4.2 million people whose first language is not English. There is even evidence that students who speak English as a second language do better academically than native English speakers.
What about the notion that Muslim immigrants are particularly resistant to integration? That claim doesn’t hold up either. British Muslims are actually remarkably patriotic – some surveys suggest they are even more patriotic than native Britons. A 2011 Demos poll, for example, found that 83 per cent of British Muslims felt proud to be British citizens compared to the national average of 79 per cent. On top of that, the 2011 Census also found that 70 per cent of Muslims identify exclusively as either British or English. The comparative figure for Buddhists was 50 per cent; calls from the Prime Minister to consider deporting Buddhist women who can’t speak English are conspicuously absent.
Keeping these figures in mind, the tendency for politicians to focus on Muslim immigrants in particular as the root of the problem seems hideously biased. And although these politicians are ostensibly trying to improve social cohesion, it is difficult to see how their patronising finger-pointing will do anything but further alienate British Muslims. Imagine you are a recent immigrant from, say, Pakistan: as soon as you arrive, you start hearing politicians saying you should have taken an “oath of allegiance to British values” just to gain entry to the country, or that people of your religion harbour “regressive cultural practices”. All you came here with was the hope of a better life, yet all of a sudden you are being blamed for social ills that you didn’t even know about. How is that going to make you feel?
What this accusatory attitude also ignores is that, fundamentally, improving social cohesion has to be a two-way process. Politicians like to talk about how immigrants need to embrace British values, but they never ask native Britons to understand the cultures, traditions and values of immigrant communities. And that’s important: one part of the aforementioned Casey Review that has been absent from media coverage is the fact that many immigrants feel that a major barrier to integration is discrimination. If native British people made a real effort to welcome and understand immigrants, to check their stereotypes and assumptions and thereby decrease discrimination, it could make a world of difference.
Social cohesion is important, and the problems that appear in its absence are real and need addressing, but our solutions to those problems have to be based in evidence rather than preconceived beliefs about Muslims and other immigrant groups. If politicians want immigrants to integrate, they need to start welcoming them rather than attacking them.