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1. Living together : migration and diversity in the UK

Reconciling British civil society in the wake of the Brexit referendum : what role for a National Conversation on Immigration ?

Catherine Puzzo
p. 35-56

Résumé

In September 2018, the final report of the first ever public consultation on immigration and integration in the UK was published by two think tanks, HOPE not Hate and British Future. The first immediate objective of the consultation was to create an evidence base of public views on immigration and integration. More significantly, it was about restoring dialogue on these divisive issues in communities across the UK. The content of the conversations confirmed earlier studies on the fragmented state of British society and on the role of politicians in that respect. What emerged from the many discussions and debates was an overall, much more significant challenge the government would have to address, that of the deep mistrust Britons had towards the ability of their leaders, their political and institutional organisations to represent citizens and ensure democracy, rule the country and implement the agenda for which they had been elected. Hearing more from those ‘left-behind’ in politics and hearing on different ideas regarding immigration and integration was a central tenet of these conversations. The report on the National Conversation on immigration proposed to explore citizens’ contributions to the debates as well as the conclusions they came to in order to set a new agenda for a reconciled post-Brexit Britain.

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Introduction

  • 1 Goodwin, M., Heath, O., 2016.
  • 2 O’Reilly, J. et al., 2016; Froud, J., Johal, S., Williams, K., 2016.

1When Prime Minister Cameron agreed on the organisation of a referendum on Britain’s status in the EU, he had not foreseen that he would be opening Pandora’s box. In the period that followed and up to the results of the vote, significant and deep divisions at societal, political and economic levels, locally and nationally, were observed between supporters and opponents of Brexit1. Amongst the most divisive issues that split the two camps were those of immigration (notably EU immigration) and social cohesion with the integration of migrants in UK society and economy. The referendum results caused the (re)surfacing of deep pre-existing socio-economic regional divisions, notably between the south-east, dominated by the capital, and the rest of the country. It highlighted tensions and revealed cleavages within British society2. The Brexit shock was also interpreted as a signal that many in society had not had their views heard by the government and the political class in general for quite a long time now. Immigration and integration as highly divisive subjects in public debate and in the private sphere were just the tip of a new iceberg, that of a Britain divided along age, race, class, gender and geographic lines.

2In that unsettled context, two think tanks, HOPE not Hate and British Future, launched the first ever public consultation on immigration and integration across the UK, a National Conversation on immigration (hereafter NC). As British Future argued, Brexit is a reset moment for UK immigration policy but someone does have to press the reset buttonˮ. The publication of their report in September 2018 aimed at providing decision-makers with a detailed picture of public opinion on immigrationˮ3.

3Surprisingly enough the information collected by the organisers of the National Conversation on immigration has been, so far, underexploited by politicians, the media and academics. This paper intends to fill a gap in the literature and explores some of the data, focusing in particular on the views of ordinary citizens on their society in the aftermath of the referendum. Firstly, it addresses the central questions of immigration and integration, looking in particular at the role of the media as gatekeepers shaping attitudes and opinions on immigrants and immigration. Secondly, to widen the perspective, this paper also wishes to examine related issues such as public mistrust in politics and political leaders to listen to the views of citizens and reflect on the value of national conversations to record these views and engage the public in the democratic process. Thirdly, this article analyses some of the main recommendations that were made in the report on the National Conversation to address the societal divisions and propose a new agenda on community integration and social cohesion.

The National Conversation : merits and shortcomings

  • 4 In 2016 a National Conversation on Immigration was launched across the whole Canadian territory to (...)
  • 5 Medical vocabulary and metaphors referring to illnesses have been very common in writings related t (...)

4The National Conversation launched in February 2017 was modelled on the 2016 Canadian National Conversation on immigration4. The organisers of the NC acknowledged that the period after the vote was a unique and singular moment in British history which, in their rather optimistic perspective, called for a new way to engage in politics (both for civil society and government) so as to build a new consensual immigration system. Discussions, debates, face-to-face conversations would heal a country deeply wounded by the results of the referendum5.

  • 6 Wyatt, R.O., Kim, J., Katz, E., 2000; Coleman, S., 2004; Sørensen, M.P., 2016; Renwick et al., 2018 (...)
  • 7 Wright, T., 2009.
  • 8 Coleman, S., 2004, p. 114.
  • 9 HOPE not Hate, originally founded to defeat fascism in 2004 (and the BNP in particular) has since 2 (...)
  • 10 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 4.

5The merits of public consultations, or national conversations as they are often called, have been discussed by academics6. They argue that conversations have an essential role among citizens, but also between citizens and politicians: to restore democracy, to promote deliberative democracy and to turn politics into a civic conversation about how we live together and what we want to achieveˮ7. In that respect Coleman recalls a former National Conversation in the UK initiated by Tony Blair (November 2003), who wanted to create a big conversation between politicians and the people (….) with a view to build a future fair to allˮ8. The 2003 National Conversation was clearly a top-down consultation whose broad objective was to show Labour’s record in government and present general policy areas for discussion. By contrast, the 2018 NC was set up by two non-governmental groups with converging political stances on immigration and integration and who came together for this project9. Their overall aspirations when launching the project were decisively different from the 2003 consultation. First, they intended to create new conditions for discussing immigration and integration with a view to reconciling citizens in the post-Brexit period. Second, the NC aimed at gathering information and creating a specific database of public opinions on these issues. By doing so the organisers wanted to encourage a better engagement of the public in the debate on immigration. To them decent and constructive conversations would contribute towards shaping Britain’s future immigration policy, defined along more consensual lines with a new system that works for employers, is fair to migrants and receiving communities and commands public trust and supportˮ10.

  • 11 For each English region as well as for Scotland and Wales five locations were selected. In Northern (...)
  • 12 The NC also created the project ‘Votes for Schools’ aimed at children. They met pupils from over 20 (...)

6To meet the challenge, the participatory consultation lasted for 15 months, consisted of 60 citizens’ panels (for a total of 572 people) organised across the UK11, in places with very different experiences of migration. The citizens’ panels were not open public meetings to avoid having discussions dominated by those with the strongest views. The recruitment process endeavoured to choose people broadly representative of the local area, mixing age, gender, education and employment background. In each location there were separate consultations with stakeholders (70 of them for a total of 405 persons who were consulted) such as local councils, business groups and civil society organisations. During the consultation period their website also hosted an online inquiry which gathered 9,327 answers. Finally, ICM organised for the NC a poll on a sample of 3,667 people12 in June 2018.

7The data collected across Britain was compiled and analysed by the researchers from the two think tanks as well as academics who had participated in the project, notably Professor Rob Ford from Manchester University. In collaboration with the Home Affairs Select Committee, they published a mid-term report produced some six months before the final version. On that occasion the parliamentary committee urged the government to take the lead in organising a public consultation on these issues. To them this watershed moment required a different way of doing politics as they acknowledged the existence of acute societal dividing lines that cut across the country :

  • 13 Home Affairs Committee, 2018, p. 14.

We sought to conduct a different kind of select committee inquiry, recognising that overcoming division would take a novel approach. Alongside traditional written and oral evidence, we have sought to involve organisations, institutions, businesses, community groups and citizens across the country. (…) Findings from the NC have fed directly into our inquiry to provide us with a clearer picture of public attitudes on immigration and the common ground on which people can agree. (…) Unlike in other policy areas such as the annual Budget, there is no framework for regular debate and analysis of the Government’s approach to managing immigration13.

  • 14 On December 19, 2018, when Sajid Javid, the Minister of State for immigration, made a statement in (...)

8But Theresa May’s government promptly dismissed any chance at exploiting these resources14, showing some disregard for the conclusions of the report which for instance stressed that the government could take the initiative by setting an annual migration review :

The Government agrees that an Annual Migration Report could have benefits in terms of improving understanding of the facts around immigration policy and practice. (…) At the current time, there is already a great deal of information available about migration and the future direction of policy. (…) The Government will give further consideration to the recommendation of an Annual Migration report once the longer term immigration arrangements following the UK’s exit from the European Union have been put in place15.

9In the House of Lords a few references were made to the NC but there were no further developments to exploit the rich evidence gathered in the report16. As in government, the data of the NC has largely been overlooked by opposition parties, stakeholders and academics. As for the media, whose role was discussed in the report, some articles were published in national and local dailies in the weeks that followed the publication of the report, but without any further consideration as to their own contribution in shaping public attitudes on immigration in the UK. To explain such disregard would require further research. It certainly questions the perception of the legitimacy of these results in the eye of the government, other political stakeholders and the media. Did the recommendations in the NC diverge too much with their own perception on the future immigration system? They ranged from the role of the Home Office to the management of local impacts of migration or the way to address resentment and prejudice online and at a local level. It also calls into question the role of the two think tanks: were they considered as not performing their tasks in a balanced and independent way? Clearly the report contained in its 268 pages an articulate and substantiated political agenda on immigration, integration and social cohesion. Hence, even if the short-term impact of this NC on the policy-making process seems to have been very discreet if not void, that does not undermine the value of the data collected at a very particular period in Britons’ lives.

The tip of the iceberg : immigration and integration as divisive lines

  • 17 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 40.

10The salient and divisive issues of immigration and integration which accounted mostly for the differences in the vote to leave or remain in the EU were central to the national enquiry launched by the two think tanks. Organisers sought to understand how people formed their opinions on immigration and integration and what role online, broadcast and print media had on people’s views. With no surprise, it came out that overall UK media coverage about immigration was felt to be negative, biased or sensationalistˮ17 and that one of the most important challenges to reconcile people was to address stereotypes and prejudices arising against migrants and conveyed by the media :

  • 18 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 261.

In all the groups many people had direct experiences of discrimination and prejudice. Many felt that British media was biased and a number of people recounted experiences where they had been targeted in public with verbal and even physical abuse. They felt much of this stemmed from misinformation and fear 18.

  • 19 Berry, Garcia-Blanko and Moore 2015 quoted by Anderson, B., 2017, p. 12; Blinder, S., Allen, W.L., (...)
  • 20 Bleich, E., Bloemraad, I., De Graaw, E., 2015; Smith, D., Deacon, D., 2018.

11The report makes clear that people’s attitudes to immigration are defined by local and national media discourses, even if some factors mitigate people’s radical opinions such as community interactions and family or peer group relations with migrants. Such finding echoes other studies on the role of the media and the press in shaping a particular narrative on immigration. In her analysis of the UK media coverage of the 2015 refugee crisis, Anderson explores the multidimensional aspects of the crisis in the wake of the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers on the European continent. She argues that the media narrative on the coverage of migration, particularly that of tabloids, was determined by the extensive use of metaphors and imagery depicting migrants as invasive insects, thereby fuelling prejudices and xenophobic attitudes. Other scholars demonstrated that the UK’s press coverage is the most polarized, aggressive and negative towards those seeking asylum in the EU19. All agree that the media (and especially online news but also social networks) have a responsibility to bear. The framing effect of the news, that is, how an issue is presented or labelled, contributes to shape public opinion20. It certainly creates doubts and uncertainties in people’s minds influenced by the negative agenda-setting power of the media. This point is acknowledged in the report of the NC in several instances :

  • 21 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 45 (Citizens’ panel participant, Gloucester).

I live in a very small town, I don’t have any visibility of immigration whatsoever, so it’s purely based on what you hear in the media really, which is, you know, is biased one way or the other, so it’s very difficult to make up a valid opinion based on that21.

  • 22 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 40 (Citizens’ panel participant, Bradford).

I think the media dictates your opinion of it [migration], because sometimes they show you the sob stories, then they show the guys that are breaking into the lorries to get into the country. I get quite torn about it sometimes22.

  • 23 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 106 (Citizens’ panel participant, Durham).

It’s not a big issue locally. In other parts of the country you see it more, but not in this part of the country. It’s not a big issue, although newspapers and social media try and make a problem, for instance saying you can’t get schools or housing. 23

  • 24 See for example a quote from a participant in a citizens’ panel in Newport: National Conversation, (...)
  • 25 See in particular the research projects produced by the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (CO (...)

12A related matter briefly mentioned in the report of the NC is the role successive governments played in producing an immigration narrative which fails to recognise the socio-economic benefits of migrant communities24. Commentators have denounced the entrenched positions of British governments whose rhetoric has been underpinned by numerical targets (the so-called number game) rather than by the economic, fiscal and cultural contributions recent migrants have brought to the UK. In particular, they have failed to properly acknowledge that some key economic sectors are entirely dependent upon a supply of foreign staff25 :

  • 26 Giestel-Basten, S., 2016, p. 677.

The immigration narrative from successive governments and opposition parties meant that it was almost impossible to deliver a positive message on the subject. Many studies have identified the positive net economic contribution of migration to the UK in recent years. Yet, recognition of immigrants’ contribution – and of the effects of their potential departure was absent26.

  • 27 See The Migration Observatory, UK Public opinion toward immigration: overall attitudes and level of (...)

13In turn, that explains the very often ambivalent declarations and views on migration recorded across the country. Attitudes varied a lot concerning the socio-economic impact new migrants have had locally. In a table summarising local issues raised in the citizens’ panels across the country, significant variations were recorded by the organisers. While on the one hand the inhabitants of cities like Basildon, Grimsby, March, Merthyr Tydfil or Northampton felt that the negative impacts of migration outweighed the benefits, and had concerns about criminality, integration and the impacts of immigration on the labour market, on the other hand in Scotland, but also in Northern Ireland, immigration was not perceived as a big issue and most participants believed that the benefits of migration were preponderant over disadvantages. Clearly the issue was a point of cleavage between the participants, evidence recently confirmed by a study from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford27 :

  • 28 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 51 (Citizens’ panel participant, Shrewsbury).

I think if they come here, they want to work. Great. They come here, they want to scrounge, sod off – they can do it somewhere else. You come here, you’re looking for work, you attempt to work, support your family28.

  • 29 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 50 (Citizens’ panel participant, North Tyneside).

I’m a bit so-so about immigration. If you think about the NHS, all the consultants, a lot of the staff are foreign, that’s a positive. But the negatives are that you get immigrants living on benefits29.

14The polarisation of views is correlated with the lack of trust in the government’s handling of immigration policy, and particularly in the Home Office’s capabilities to meet policy objectives and reach performance targets. It fed perceptions that immigration is out of control (NC 139) and that UK citizens’ concerns over demographic changes or the allocation of resources in a context of austerity cuts were not heard :

  • 30 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 112 (Citizens’ panel participant, Throwbridge).

We want to know the resources are in place. Can the Government prove there are enough doctors, enough housing? Can they prove everything is in place?30.

  • 31 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 114 (Citizens’ panel participant, Exeter).

I think there are far too many one-sided conversations between the Government, not just the current one but generally the way that politicians and the Government talks down to people and doesn’t listen and hear and respond 31.

  • 32 Coleman, S., 2004; Wright, T., 2009; Mould 2016, O’Reilly, J., et al. 2016; Citizen’s Convention 20 (...)
  • 33 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 4.

15The lack of trust in politics and the democratic challenge that it represents for the UK has been explored by political scientists32. In their study on the renewal of British democracy, Renwick and Palese focused on the low participation of some parts of the population (such as the so-called “digital natives”) in the electoral process and their poor interest in traditional politics. Godwin and Milazzo, for their part, proposed with the “left-behind trope” (that of the socio-economic marginalisation of white men) a series of explanations on the results of the Leave vote. They argued that this vote was a vibrant signal of growing levels of dissatisfaction over immigration and economic competition with the free movement of EU workers, but also indicated resentment against austerity policies and cuts in public services. Moreover, these results confirmed that some parts of the British population felt alienated by what politicians said and that they struggled to find trustworthy, balanced information on key political questions. Hence one of the major objectives of the NC was to engage those with less voice in policy decisions: for example, young people and those who live outside big citiesˮ33.

  • 34 See the report for the way participants were selected, pp. 4 and 24-26.
  • 35 Renwick, A., Palese, M., 2019, p. 15.

16In practice, organisers sought to involve as many different people in society as possible and made a careful selection of a cross-section of the UK population all over the national territory34. The conversations were meant to be a unique opportunity to create a separate sphere of face-to-face discussions to revive the democratic debate for those who feel cut off from the current British political system. In a chapter entitled Control and trustˮ, the report concluded that the overall trust in the government and in politicians is very low among our citizens’ panel participants and in the research conducted by ICM. This lack of trust in politicians to manage migration [and related issues] adds to a broader mistrust of politicians and politicsˮ. Such a finding concurs with Corbett’s study but also with Renwick and Palese’s, which acknowledges that there has been a challenge of democratic discourseˮ35 in the UK, a point made by one participant in a citizens’ panel in Edinburgh :

  • 36 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 33 (Citizens’ panel participant, Edinburgh).

I’d like the Government just to be honest, and if they say they are going to do something, actually do it. Rather than saying they are going to do it and it just phases out and you never hear about it again. People don’t trust the Government36.

17This point of view resonates with the study by Renwick and Palese (2019) on how best to strengthen democracy :

  • 37 Ibid.

Dissatisfaction with how democracy is functioning at present is widespread. Voters feel alienated by overblown and often misleading rhetoric. They struggle to find information they can trust, and many feel excluded from meaningful participation and influence. Politicians, meanwhile, are frustrated that they must weigh up what will play well in the media, rather than just what would best advance the public interest37.

18To conclude on this point and to address the challenge of a highly polarised country, to remedy the dominance of louder voices that have determined the tone and the contents of the debate on immigration and other related issues, the authors of the report on the NC contend that :

  • 38 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 170.

Britain’s media debate on immigration is polarised and divisive, particularly on social media. It is dominated by those with the strongest-held opinions and the loudest voices. Nuance and moderation has been crowded out of the public debate. The voices and opinions of the ‘balancers’, who make up most the public, do not get heard. It is time they were38.

19Hence, they hope that :

  • 39 Ibid.

the Government will take forward our key recommendation of sustained and ongoing public engagement on this issue in the form of an official National Conversation on Immigration – one which ensures that all voices are heard. We strongly believe that such a commitment would play a significant role in rebuilding public trust and confidence in our immigration system39.

  • 40 Renwick, A., et al., 2018.
  • 41 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 134.

20Two remarks can be made concerning the last recommendation. Firstly, they argue that giving a voice to public opinion with quality discussions enriched with trustworthy information and reflection will help the process of policy-making in that very sensitive area of public policy. The media have an essential role to play in confronting misinformation in particular, but also in holding governments to account. Secondly, beyond the topical issues of immigration and integration, their approach fits with current thinking in democratic theory, nowadays dominated by deliberative approaches40. From that perspective, the National Conversation on immigration was meant to be a steppingstone to renew the democratic process. The promotion of quality conversations amongst British citizens, their publication (in the literal sense of making them public) would allow for a diversity of views to be explored. Reaching and exploiting middle-of-the ground positions on divisive political issues would be the best way to advance and renew the policy-making process. ‘Balancers’, that is, those who see the pressures and gains of immigration, are the key to unlock the situation41. The citizens’ contributions to the debates and their deliberations would have to be used to set a new agenda for post-Brexit Britain.

Shaping British Society 2.0

21The report offered a rather comprehensive and timely picture of public opinion’s views on UK politics, society and economic issues two years after the Brexit vote. It also contained a series of recommendations on how to overcome divisions and reinforce social cohesion. The contours of what would constitute a more united British society were delineated by the remarks, suggestions but also criticisms voiced by the participants in the National Conversation. The central question of the report revolved around a new immigration system that would command the support of the majority. From there, it was hoped, the salience of other deep societal divides would gradually lessen.

  • 42 Dryzek, J.S., Niemeyer, S., 2006, p. 638.

22The main recommendation was to reach a consensus about future developments in migration policies. The policy options commanding agreement would consist in a new immigration system which should be “fair and balanced”, meeting all the needs at once, that of employers’ as well as those of the labour market, those of current migrants, and finally of new migrants who would be offered the chance to work in the UK. Such a perspective fits with Dryzek and Niemeyer’s typology of consensus, the “preference consensus” which pertains to the degree of agreement about what should be doneˮ42. In such a stance, immigration rules could become technical and depoliticised issues beyond parties’ positions. In the authors’ views, the new consensual policy would contribute to counter populist arguments and possibly defeat extremism :

  • 43 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 23.

Engaging people in seeking consensus can help restore trust in the immigration system. It can reduce tensions in a noisy and polarised immigration debate by highlighting what we have in common, and offers an avenue for concerns to be heard, so they are not driven underground and fears are not exploited43.

23The second divisive issue, integration, emerged as a key driver of social cohesion in the many discussions across the country :

  • 44 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 120.

Integration has been a major part of the citizens’ panel discussions. Reviewing what we have learned from our 60 visits, we have been struck by the impact of integration on public perceptions of immigration. (…) This means that getting integration right is crucial to securing consensus around immigration44.

  • 45 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 131 (Citizens’ panel participant, Ipswich).

24Perceptions, however, differed on the nature of integration, between those who focused more on the assimilative view advocating the adoption of British traditions and those who had a more universalist view of the concept implying a respect for “British” rules. Most agreed that acting decisively on integration was to be done at local level, expecting local authorities and local stakeholders to play a crucial role in that respect: there should be little task forces on integration in each borough, each area, to make sure things are going okayˮ45.

  • 46 See National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 124.

25If integration was often perceived as a local issue working more or less well according to the territories46, the discussions also reflected what was expected from central institutions to improve community relations. Integration problems were correlated to the degree of trust citizens had in their governmental institutions to effectively implement their agenda :

  • 47 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 225 (Citizens’ panel participant, Shrewsbury).

I think there’s a difference here between immigrants and immigration. And I think it’s the immigration policy that is broken. I have no issue with immigrants, but I do have an issue with the way that it’s managed. And I think that, for me, is markedly different and we don’t really seem to have control over the borders47.

  • 48 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 159.

26Participants resented the antagonism between on the one hand the fast-changing and socially liberal core cities”48 and on the other, the rest of the country, the smaller conurbations which had struggled for the past decades after the loss of their traditional industries :

  • 49 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 114.

Politicians need to show they are listening to people who live outside the core cities. They need to hear about the priorities of those who live in villages and smaller conurbations, and how together we can shape a future that works for us all49.

  • 50 Coleman, D., 2004; Corbett, S., 2016; Citizens’ Convention, 2019, Renwick, A., et al., 2018; Renwic (...)
  • 51 Corbett, S., 2016.
  • 52 Jennings, W., Lodge, M., 2019, p. 6.

27Public disaffection with politics is not new50. Political scientists who have analysed the causes of the rise of populism have pointed out that the political, economic and cultural elites who have to a large extent ignored the grievances and opinions of citizens have contributed to the development of populism. Populist movements have capitalized on the disillusionment with traditional parties51. Although in 2015 the Conservatives in their manifesto had pledged to remedy it promising that it was time for the British people, not politicians, to have their sayˮ52, the communication gap between the elites and British citizens has continued to widen. Restoring trust in the public discourse, promoting transparency and accountability of public action were urgent tasks in view of the remarks below :

  • 53 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 224 (Citizens’ panel participant, group A Sheffield).

I don’t think there’s been a government in the past thirty, forty years that you can trust. (..) You can’t trust governments; they’re all out for themselves. They’re not here to make the country a better place. They’re here to fill their own pockets and just get that big pension at the end of the day53.

  • 54 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 33 (Citizens’ panel participant, Edinburgh).

I’d like the Government just to be honest, and if they say they are going to do something, actually do it. Rather than saying they are going to do it and it just phases out and you never hear about it again. People don’t trust the Government54.

  • 55 Coleman, S., 2004, p. 118.

28In the authors’ views, that justified the merits of the National Conversation, a truly authentic space for mass public polylogueˮ as Coleman puts it55 :

  • 56 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 16.

If politicians do not engage with the public on ‘difficult’ issues such as immigration, their anxieties can be pushed underground and their fears can be amplified or exploited by those seeking to divide. The National Conversation has shown how to open up conversations with the public about immigration and about their concerns, so they can be discussed and addressed in a way that doesn’t damage communities, and doesn’t allow the debate to be dominated by extremes56.

29To bring about reconciliation, governments would have to respond to territorial discontent by taking into account local differences :

  • 57 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 32.

Addressing local pressure points is key to gaining public consent on the immigration that the UK needs. And if these local pressures – such as those on housing or school places – are not seen to be managed, economic arguments about migrants’ fiscal or broader economic contribution will not resonate57.

  • 58 The locations where such concerns were voiced are many: Bedford, Gloucester, Hull, Ipswich, Sutton, (...)

30Hence in many areas, residential segregation was felt to hinder integration and social cohesion. Whether it concerned long-term settled communities like Pakistanis in some northern cities or more recent ones in other parts of the UK, overcoming segregation was regarded as a daunting task58 :

  • 59 National Conversation.,Final Report, 2018, p. 126 (Citizens’ panel participant, Lincoln).

I think the government should work harder on integration, because you start to see the polarisation of communities. If you go to the South, the St Andrews street area, you see a lot of Eastern European people (…); there has to be a bigger effort to integrate people59.

  • 60 The report of the NC quoted a project from the British Red Cross, running in the north west of Engl (...)

31A key element in the strategy to promote diversity would be to give the next generation a role to play, notably by ending school segregation and using sports and arts to bridge divides60 :

  • 61 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 124 (Citizens’ panel participant, Preston).

I think to tackle this problem [integration], probably the easiest way would be with kids, because then that’s a long-term solution isn’t it? Like you say, you’ve got a class of white kids, going to meet a class of Muslim kids, that to me is insane. These school classes should have a healthy mix, they shouldn’t have to go on a school trip to meet these people61.

  • 62 Stakeholder meetings took place parallel to the citizens’ panels; they involved the local council, (...)

32But at a local level, participants’ concerns with neighbourhood decline or poor job prospects contrasted sharply with stakeholders’ views on the benefits of immigration for the economy62 :

  • 63 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, pp. 80-81.

We heard of the difficulties that some sectors of the economy are experiencing in recruiting sufficient staff. (..) Employers’ representatives often said in stakeholder panels that they understood that a majority had voted for more control, and that this needed to be addressed, but hoped that new controls could be as ‘light touch’ and as flexible as possible, given economic needs and impacts63.

33In England’s post-industrial areas affected by high unemployment rates, low-wages and poverty, such worries were exacerbated by the toll austerity programmes had taken on the delivery of essential public services. Years of budgetary cuts had caused heavy strains on social services unable to meet the demand, especially in areas with new migrant populations. Many had the feeling that despite contributing hard and paying taxes, foreign newcomers for their part could benefit from these public services without having had to pay for it :

  • 64 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 110 (Citizens’ panel participant, Lerwick). This echo (...)

Our resources at the moment, our sundries, the National Health Service, our housing. Everything is bursting at the seams in Shetland (…). The negative I would say in Shetland is the housing can’t cope up here with the influx64.

  • 65 Giestel-Basten, S., 2016.

34Such a perception was not new as it had been a major argument in the campaign of the two main groups campaigning for Leave65. At a time of scarce public resources, the feeling that some had preferential access to public services reinforced the deepest anxieties over the role and place of foreigners in society. The suggestions made in the conversations were mostly underpinned by socio-economic arguments stressing how migrants could contribute through taxes, skills and jobs. Local pressures and resentment against migrant communities would not be alleviated unless proper and very concrete solutions were offered to receiving communities: housing and school places, accountability of local businesses when hiring new foreign employees; better standards in the private rental sector to reverse neighbourhood decline, to name but a few of the suggestions made by participants.

  • 66 See in particular the following paragraphs which detail the recommendations on ‟Managing the local (...)

35It would take considerable effort to reconcile economic imperatives with public worries on EU migration and to challenge misconceptions about immigration rules, the place, role and economic contribution of EU and non-EU workers in the British labour market. In a paragraph entitled “Managing the local impacts of migration”, the authors of the NC made a series of suggestions in that respect with a view to promote fairness, unity and equal opportunities in British society. It was suggested to the government to make more infrastructural investment in forgotten areas, notably rural areas, to make sure that all parts of the UK could thrive and to have a more transparent allocation of the benefits, particularly in terms of housing services, health and educational support66.

  • 67 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 49 (Citizens’ panel participant, March).

36Contribution was mostly understood in economic terms whereas the social and cultural contribution of newcomers was not regarded as a key issue in the discussions, even if a minority did recognise its importance for Britain’s social fabric: I think it [migration] brings diversity…why do we all want to be clones of your quintessential English person ?ˮ67. Locally, some praised various types of initiatives that could foster a sense of belonging and unity :

  • 68 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 108 (Local authority stakeholder, Wolverhampton).

I think there was an effort to bring people together – because of the legacy from the time of Enoch. There was a sense that it was not what we wanted Wolverhampton to be known for68.

37Finally, some insisted on creating a celebratory migration narrative, a more inclusive one which would acknowledge a common multicultural past, unite people and mark a shared history :

  • 69 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 167.

Remembrance Day offers the opportunity to bridge social divides and address some of the anti-Muslim prejudice that is widespread in places where people have little social contact with Muslim communities. (..) Remembrance Day is a national event and offers the opportunity to bring people from different backgrounds together to mark this shared history, and to make more people aware of the Muslim contribution to the UK’s armed forces69.

Concluding remarks

  • 70 O’Reilly, J., et al., 2016; Ryder, A., 2019.

38The National Conversation sought to record the polyphony of Britons’ voices on immigration and integration in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. What emerged was a rich and very detailed set of testimonies on these two topical questions but also on many other issues, which confirmed the extent of the crisis at a local level and corroborated studies on the reasons and consequences of the Brexit vote70. Fifteen years after the 2005 White Paper Integration Matters: a National Strategy for Refugee Integration, which identified key challenges for migrant integration (refugees in particular, but not only) and offered a comprehensive action plan in areas such as housing, employment, education and community relations, Britons expressed their disappointment in relation to these issues. Governmental results have not lived up to their expectations and social cohesion has faded away.

39More worryingly, some in the political class, whether in office or in the opposition, have relentlessly exploited concerns over the fragility of infrastructure and public services, worries about economic competition from foreign workers and fears over uncontrolled immigration. This has backlashed. The deep mistrust Britons have in the ability of their leaders, political and institutional organisations to adequately represent citizens, rule the country democratically and implement the agenda for which they have been elected, has been given credence in the many discussions and debates held during the National Conversation. In the authors’ view the time has come to challenge the status quo on the prevailing political and media narrative on immigration and integration. Such a narrative dominated by stereotyped political rhetoric, influenced by extremes, exploited by sensationalist media and pervaded by online unqualified contents underpinned the polarisation and divisiveness they observed across the country.

  • 71 Jennings, W., Lodge, M., 2019, p. 2.

40However, it would be misleading to believe that immigration and a faulty integration system are the only causes of the current crisis resulting from the road to Brexit, what Jennings and Lodge called “the distinct pathologies of the British state and politics”71. Instead, what clearly emerged from the NC is that they have served as a beacon to alert the government and political leaders in general, to the crisis in social and economic cohesion. The indicators of the cohesion deficit are many, some of which have long been visible. They pertain to the neo-liberal consensus in force since the end of the 1970s, challenged during the 2008 crisis but pursued with the stringent austerity programmes under the Coalition and Conservative governments. Pressures on essential public services in a context of drastic cuts has meant declining state support for the weakest and rising inequality in society. They have resulted in the gradual but consistent marginalisation of certain groups. Finally, the gap between the political institutions and the citizens has widened, fuelled by an overall resentment and grievance against the governmental elite.

41The National Conversation on immigration opened a public space for discussing divisive issues and debating over them in a decent and constructive manner. It aimed at restoring trust in the institutions because of the dismissive view the British public have had on immigration policy in particular, but also on other related public policies. The final conclusion of the NC was about the necessity to keep an ongoing conversation on issues of public salience to repair Britain’s fragmented lines.

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Notes

1 Goodwin, M., Heath, O., 2016.

2 O’Reilly, J. et al., 2016; Froud, J., Johal, S., Williams, K., 2016.

3 http://nationalconversation.uk/about-the-national-conversation-on-immigration/

4 In 2016 a National Conversation on Immigration was launched across the whole Canadian territory to ask citizens about their views on immigration and future immigration rates for the nation. The Conversation involved online enquiries, public polls, but also discussions with stakeholders and round tables with the public. https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/news/2016/07/national-conversation-on-immigration-launched.html (last accessed April 2019).

5 Medical vocabulary and metaphors referring to illnesses have been very common in writings related to the Brexit campaign, the results and consequences of the vote, see for example: Jennings, W., Lodge, M., 2019 and National Conversation on Immigration. Final Report, 2018, pp. 159-160.

6 Wyatt, R.O., Kim, J., Katz, E., 2000; Coleman, S., 2004; Sørensen, M.P., 2016; Renwick et al., 2018; Renwick, A., Palese, M., 2019.

7 Wright, T., 2009.

8 Coleman, S., 2004, p. 114.

9 HOPE not Hate, originally founded to defeat fascism in 2004 (and the BNP in particular) has since 2010 focused on community politics, whereas British Future (created in 2014) presents itself as ‟an independent, non partisan think-tank engaging people’s hopes and fears about integration and migration, opportunity and identityˮ. See https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/about-us/ See https://www.britishfuture.org/about-us/

10 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 4.

11 For each English region as well as for Scotland and Wales five locations were selected. In Northern Ireland, which has a smaller population, only three locations were chosen. See National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, pp. 24-25.

12 The NC also created the project ‘Votes for Schools’ aimed at children. They met pupils from over 200 schools across the UK in the week article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered. See National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 262.

13 Home Affairs Committee, 2018, p. 14.

14 On December 19, 2018, when Sajid Javid, the Minister of State for immigration, made a statement in the House of Commons to announce the publication of their White Paper on immigration for the post-Brexit era, there was no mention at all of the report on the National Conversation. Instead, the Minister was keen to stress that their new Immigration White Paper would be ‟the starting point for a national conversation on the future immigration systemˮ. Despite the announcement, no consultation was organised in the months that followed. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-12-19/debates/B22E0359-D505-4818-B29D-6461D53501B2/FutureImmigration?highlight=national%20conversation%20immigration#contribution-D584B6CB-96DF-4FDA-921A-C8C37F5E13E6 (last accessed October 2020).

15 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/961/96102.htm (last accessed December 2020).

16 See for example House of Lords, 14 Feb. 2019. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-02-14/debates/5B2E1218-8EBF-4C81-AB17-5ABB0A2174EC/ImmigrationProcedures?highlight=national%20conversation%20immigration#contribution-E451BEB3-186A-4DFB-AA24-218B44350B75 (last accessed October 2020).

17 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 40.

18 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 261.

19 Berry, Garcia-Blanko and Moore 2015 quoted by Anderson, B., 2017, p. 12; Blinder, S., Allen, W.L., 2015.

20 Bleich, E., Bloemraad, I., De Graaw, E., 2015; Smith, D., Deacon, D., 2018.

21 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 45 (Citizens’ panel participant, Gloucester).

22 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 40 (Citizens’ panel participant, Bradford).

23 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 106 (Citizens’ panel participant, Durham).

24 See for example a quote from a participant in a citizens’ panel in Newport: National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 214.

25 See in particular the research projects produced by the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford. https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/publications/

26 Giestel-Basten, S., 2016, p. 677.

27 See The Migration Observatory, UK Public opinion toward immigration: overall attitudes and level of concern, 20 January 2020. https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/uk-public-opinion-toward-immigration-overall-attitudes-and-level-of-concern/ (last accessed April 2020).

28 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 51 (Citizens’ panel participant, Shrewsbury).

29 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 50 (Citizens’ panel participant, North Tyneside).

30 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 112 (Citizens’ panel participant, Throwbridge).

31 National Conversation. Final Report, 2018, p. 114 (Citizens’ panel participant, Exeter).

32 Coleman, S., 2004; Wright, T., 2009; Mould 2016, O’Reilly, J., et al. 2016; Citizen’s Convention 2018; Renwick, A., Palese, M., 2019.

33 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 4.

34 See the report for the way participants were selected, pp. 4 and 24-26.

35 Renwick, A., Palese, M., 2019, p. 15.

36 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 33 (Citizens’ panel participant, Edinburgh).

37 Ibid.

38 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 170.

39 Ibid.

40 Renwick, A., et al., 2018.

41 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 134.

42 Dryzek, J.S., Niemeyer, S., 2006, p. 638.

43 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 23.

44 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 120.

45 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 131 (Citizens’ panel participant, Ipswich).

46 See National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 124.

47 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 225 (Citizens’ panel participant, Shrewsbury).

48 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 159.

49 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 114.

50 Coleman, D., 2004; Corbett, S., 2016; Citizens’ Convention, 2019, Renwick, A., et al., 2018; Renwick, A., Palese, M., 2019.

51 Corbett, S., 2016.

52 Jennings, W., Lodge, M., 2019, p. 6.

53 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 224 (Citizens’ panel participant, group A Sheffield).

54 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 33 (Citizens’ panel participant, Edinburgh).

55 Coleman, S., 2004, p. 118.

56 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 16.

57 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 32.

58 The locations where such concerns were voiced are many: Bedford, Gloucester, Hull, Ipswich, Sutton, Basildon (East London), Bradford, Leeds, Liverpool, Lincolnshire, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Newport, Preston, Telford, Wolverhampton, Southampton, Wrexham, to name some of the most quoted towns in the report.

59 National Conversation.,Final Report, 2018, p. 126 (Citizens’ panel participant, Lincoln).

60 The report of the NC quoted a project from the British Red Cross, running in the north west of England, which brings refugees and local residents together through shared interests and activities: football and other sports, parent and baby groups, gardening, cookery, arts and crafts. National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 103.

61 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 124 (Citizens’ panel participant, Preston).

62 Stakeholder meetings took place parallel to the citizens’ panels; they involved the local council, the office of the local MP, other public sector bodies, but also organisations working with migration, community organisations and business leaders.

63 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, pp. 80-81.

64 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 110 (Citizens’ panel participant, Lerwick). This echoes Theresa May’s words in 2015, when she defended stricter migration rates in the name of social cohesion: ‟When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society. It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to copeˮ (quoted by Giestel-Basten, S., 2016, p. 677).

65 Giestel-Basten, S., 2016.

66 See in particular the following paragraphs which detail the recommendations on ‟Managing the local impacts of ‘migration’ and ‘Integration’ ˮ. National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, pp. 12-13.

67 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 49 (Citizens’ panel participant, March).

68 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 108 (Local authority stakeholder, Wolverhampton).

69 National Conversation, Final Report, 2018, p. 167.

70 O’Reilly, J., et al., 2016; Ryder, A., 2019.

71 Jennings, W., Lodge, M., 2019, p. 2.

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Référence papier

Catherine Puzzo, « Reconciling British civil society in the wake of the Brexit referendum : what role for a National Conversation on Immigration ?  », Observatoire de la société britannique, 26 | 2021, 35-56.

Référence électronique

Catherine Puzzo, « Reconciling British civil society in the wake of the Brexit referendum : what role for a National Conversation on Immigration ?  », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 26 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 17 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5017 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5017

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Catherine Puzzo

Maîtresse de Conférences en civilisation britannique à l'Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès

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