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1The British 2016 referendum on Brexit constitutes a particularly striking illustration of the political crisis that affects most Western democracies, particularly perceptible in the rise of nationalism, the rejection of immigration and the increased suspicion towards religious and cultural diversity.

2Paradoxically, the United Kingdom has also been historically perceived as one the most ambitious and proactive Western democracies in combating racism and discrimination and in promoting so-called ‘multiculturalist’ policies (e.g. ‘ethnic’ questions in the census and ethnic monitoring; encouragement of minority political representation; State support of religious pluralism etc.).

3In France, Garbaye, Esteves and Latour have documented both the trends towards the retreat of multiculturalism, the trends towards increasingly restrictionist approaches to immigration policies, and the securitisation of migrant integration - including, and in particular, with respect to Muslims and Islam (Esteves and Garbaye, 2017, Garbaye and Latour, 2016). British scholarship on immigration has documented the impetus to encourage qualified immigration under the New Labour years (Sommerville, 2007), and the increasingly restrictive policy after 2010 (Consterdine, 2018, Hampshire, 2013). Successive Labour and Conservative governments since the turn of the millennium have sought to distance themselves from “multiculturalism” and to promote a discourse emphasising more commonality than difference instead, reflecting and amplifying growing anti-migrant and anti-minority sentiments across British society (Kundnani, 2007). Migrant communities from the EU such as Poles or Romanians have also become the target of discriminatory behaviour (Fox et al, 2015), in a context where they have been construed as undesirable by the “hostile environment” and then “compliant environment” policies of the Conservative-led governments, as abusers of the welfare system or as illegal immigrants encouraged to repatriate voluntarily, as crudely displayed by Theresa May’s infamous so-called Vaken Operation, also known as “Go Home Campaign”. Carried out in London in 2013, it consisted in running vans in various neighbourhoods of the British capital in order to incite illegal immigrants to contact immigration services though a hotline. Likewise employers and landlords were encouraged to report undocumented workers or tenants. The Windrush scandal of 2018, which disproportionally affected people of Caribbean origins who had resided legally in Britain throughout their life, was the most spectacularly disastrous outcome of this policy.

4Yet the resilience of earlier, more liberal patterns, such as a strong legislative framework against racial discrimination and incitement to religious hatred, or multiculturalist patterns of policy-making embedded institutionally and locally have also been noted (Garbaye and Schnapper, 2014). Considered comparatively with other West European countries, Britain can thus still be characterised as an exceptionally racially-conscious state in areas such as anti-discriminatory policy (through its comprehensive approach to discrimination-related issues, the Equality Act of 2010 consolidated decades of progressive anti-discrimination legislation dating back to the first Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968), legislation against discrimination on the grounds of religion or incitement to religious hatred (Bleich, 2003) or the resilience of multiculturalist logics inherited from the 1980s and 1990s and still at work locally, in social services or in the school system (Garbaye and Schnapper, 2014) Most fundamentally, questions on racial and ethnic categories have continued to feature in the national census since 1991, complemented by the introduction of questions on religion in 2011 or the addition of new subcategories in recent years.

5These points suggest that, more than ever, new research is needed to explore the continued, or indeed increasing relevance of the migration-citizenship-group identities nexus in British studies. First, key issues of change and continuity in migration policies, from the rise of restrictionist, anti-immigrant politics during the Blair-Brown era (1997-2010) to the Conservative and coalition governments (from 2010 to present) continue to be of particular relevance for the understanding of post-Brexit British society. In particular, the role of immigration and cultural diversity in the Brexit debate and crisis needs to be assessed in at least three dimensions : the role of the anti-immigrant rhetoric deployed in the Leave campaigns, the rise of hate crimes against migrants and minorities after the vote (as highlighted by e.g. the EHRC annual report in 2016) and, most fundamentally, the long-term historical process of construction of outsiders and minorities as “dangerous others” which has paved the way for the victory of Leave).

6In addition, there is also a need to expand research on the social and cultural history of immigrants in the last decades, documented so far by historians such as Panayi (1994) or Walvin (2002). Britain is one of the societies in Europe where the inputs of migrant and minority communities have had the most visible effects on social and cultural change. British society can be broadly characterised as a religiously pluralistic society, where minority religions are afforded comparatively significant levels of recognition in various arenas and at various levels (financial support for Mosques and Muslim organisations, Hindu temples, Sikh Gurdwaras, references to minority religions in school assemblies) (Modood and Raymond, 2007). Important research on British Muslims documents the development of a self-consciously Muslim community (for instance, Modood, 2010). Changing dynamics of intergenerational cleavages in Muslim communities, among other minority communities, combined with global trends in Islamic faith and practices, have underpinned the rise of new styles of religious identity and citizenship amongst young people of Muslim background. In other areas, Caribbean or African communities have participated in the changing subcultural styles present in British music, fashion and arts from the 1960s to today (Hall and Jefferson, 1975 ; Huq, 2006, Jones, 2016).

7Crucially, recently established communities have also gained much visibility in politics and society. Communities of migrants from EU countries, for example, have become a permanent feature of both British and Irish societies, and patterns of racism, multiculturalism must also be examined in relation to their presence. In the same time period, more anciently established diasporic communities such as Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, that continue to expand due to sustained migration flows, have continued to shape British society by enmeshing it ever more deeply into wider social, cultural and economic transnational networks. Despite the sometimes contradictory forces at work (stigmatisation of British Muslims for example in David Cameron’s 2011 Munich speech), the UK has evolved since the 1990s towards a pluralistic model of relations between the State and minority religions. The ability of Muslim organisations and/or community spokespersons to act as intermediaries between their constituents and the authorities has not been fundamentally questioned, although the representativeness of traditional organisations created in the wake of the Rushdie Affair have been questioned by young or ‘secular’ Muslims. The same may be said of Sikh organisations: in recent years, new community organisations have sought to mobilise more along ethnic than strictly religious lines and to encourage their constituents to engage more in politics, both locally and nationally (Latour and Afiouni, 2013). The relations between faith, generational cleavages among migrant communities, and citizenship, remains a key question in the United Kingdom and Ireland (for example, Daniel DeHanas’ study young Caribbeans and young Bangladeshis in London, (DeHanas, 2016)

8Over the same period, the British political system has remained remarkably open to the political participation of ethnic minorities, as spectacularly illustrated by Sadiq Khan’s election as London Mayor in May 2016, merely a few weeks before the Brexit referendum. Khan, a Labour politician born in London to Pakistani parents, thus became the first Muslim mayor of a global Western metropolis. Other mainstream political parties have fostered the rise of ethnic minority politicians, both locally and nationally. In the more recent period, this has been illustrated by the emergence of ‘BAME’ Conservative political figures such as Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, James Cleverley, or Kwazi Karteng.

9These issues have been the focus of lively and important debates in a variety of academic disciplines, from political science debates on the determinants of migration policy, the social history of migration and migrant communities, sociological approaches to racism and antiracism, “cultural studies” on class, race and popular culture, or the sociology of transnational and diasporic communities.

10Yet the constantly evolving patterns of migration, ethno-racial diversity and migration policy drive the need for renewed attention to these issues from new angles. In particular, comparative perspectives on Britain, for instance with France, are more than ever needed. This issue of the Observatoire de la Société Britannique aims to contribute to this goal. It is based on a one-day conference held in April 2022 at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris by MIDIB (Migration and Diversity in the British and Irish Isles). It essentially features articles by PhD candidates who participate actively in the MIDIB network. They focus in particular on two aspects of these debates: the place of migration and diversity in the debates on Brexit, and the documentation of the increasingly diverse diasporic communities that shape contemporary British society and that also feature distinctive patterns of political participation.

11In his comparative contribution, Samuel Malby underlines that despite vastly different historical and geographical experiences with immigration, political parties in the UK and the US have expressed similar anti-immigrant political rhetoric and have implemented or attempted to implement comparable policy responses to immigration in recent decades and years. The focus is on the post-World War II era up to the 1980s on the basis of a variety of sources (e.g. political party manifestos and party platforms, speeches, interviews or press conferences). With the historical perspective offered by this paper, the claims that the borders are out of control, as well as recent criticisms of immigration by political parties and leaders in both the United Kingdom and the United States seem to be a continuation of decades of anti-immigrant hostility, with periods of openness and restrictionism in both countries.

Romain Garbaye and Vincent Latour draw a record of the trajectory of BAME groups towards political representation (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups from the 1960s to the 1980s. Their chapter lays particular emphasis on the crucial role played by the Labour party in that evolution. Since the 1960s, Labour has acted as a powerful catalyst for promoting antiracism, multiculturalism and the representation of BAME people, both locally and nationally. The key contention of their article is that the solid ties between Labour and BAME individuals and groups have contributed to making today’s British Parliament and government one of the most multicultural in Europe, the paradox being that current ethnic minority Conservative figures, though staunchly anti-multiculturalist, have indirectly benefited from the ideas and initiatives promoted by Labour over the past fifty years.

Emilie de Witte’s paper deals with the notion of “white working class” in British political discourse, from New Labour to Brexit. Brexit has been considered as the vote of a “white working class “ by a significant part of the media, politicians, and academics. Her article reflects upon this new rhetorical category, different from the traditional notion of “working class”. In addition, de Witte underlines that Brexit is also largely presented as the expression of strong Eurosceptic and anti-immigration opinions which are supposedly prevalent in the « white working class ». Her article aims at understanding how these assumptions about the “white working class” and its claims developed in British political discourse to the point of becoming a crucial topic during the debates on Brexit. She develops a discursive analysis of traditional British parties, in the context of what has been called a “white backlash”, supposedly triggered by multiculturalism. Her paper seeks to underline the convergence of both parties around the rejection of multiculturalism and the defence of a newly constructed section of the population, the “ white working class”, which has led to the shift of British political discourse towards the right, with the promotion of the British identity as essentially “white”.

12Anti-immigration discourse is also the focal point of Hélène Grinan-Moutinho’s article, which provides an analysis of such discourse during the official 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. Her paper seeks to highlight the discursive strategies of the prominent campaigners participating in the referendum debate. Analysing the hostile immigration stance through Critical Discourse Analysis, Grinan-Moutinho examines how the Leavers’ anti-immigration discourse mobilised Welfare nationalistic values and beliefs in order to legitimise the referendum’s outcome.

13Brexit is also central to Marie Aouanes Perrière’s paper, which investigates the involvement of BAME activists in the Brexit resistance. Focusing on the Ethnic Minority for a People’s Vote campaign and on interviews with pro-EU local grassroots groups and activists, Aouanes Perrère ponders to what extent the Remain campaign has mirrored the diversity of British society. On the basis of interviews carried out notably in Liverpool, her article presents an account of how anti-Brexit groups have been reflecting on the issue, some admitting that they “missed a trick”.

14Through a variety of angles, Sonia Awan’s, Andrew Milne’s and Claire Ngwete-Freymann’s contributions deal with diasporas and diasporic networks, Awan’s and Milne’s chapters sharing a Franco-British comparative dimension.

15Sonia Awan’s article seeks to probe the political inclusion of the Pakistani diasporas in France and in the UK. Over recent years, diminishing voter turnouts in both countries have drawn renewed attention to the political participation and representation of minorities in mainstream political institutions, thus fuelling debates around the position occupied by women and other minorities in these institutions. The Franco-British comparison serves to draw these debates into perspective, and the study of Pakistanis on both sides of the Channel reveals that British Pakistanis are well represented in the British political arena, notably at the local level, however their Pakistani counterparts in France are much less visible in French politics, even at the local level, regardless of demographic considerations, no matter how instrumental they may be. Backed by fieldwork data, Awan’s article seeks to demonstrate that some inherently discriminatory processes and exclusionary practices enable local political institutions, notably in France, to decelerate and hinder the political inclusion of minority candidates at the local level, blocking their path in a way that they can be kept off these local bodies.

16Andrew Milne’s survey of Sikhs in the UK is based on material drawn from a number of interviews carried out with Sikhs both in the UK and France. Milne’s article tries to establish to what extent Sikhs form a visible and yet invisible community. The complexity of “visible invisibility” means that they are recognised immediately as being different, but at the same time, they are unknown. In the UK, even if they benefit from a better perception by the rest of society because of their particular place in colonial history and because of their demographic weight, they are still frequently confused with other groups, and do receive their share of violence and hate crime. In France, they are less known, due to lesser colonial ties, and to their more-recent presence on the territory. However, despite these differences, there has been a desire for Sikhs in both nations to obtain recognition, deemed to be a vital human need, rather than just ‘a curtesy’ (Taylor, 1994).

17Finally, Claire Ngwete-Freymann’s article deals with the increasingly relevant topic of return migrations by offering an analysis of two biographic interviews carried out in 2021 with second-generation Caribbean-Britons with a project of return to Barbados. These two interviews suggest that generations of migrants have reinvented the project of ‘return’ to the ancestral homeland, which has been passed down to them by their elders. They have used transnational living, and projects of returning to the Caribbean in particular as a way of getting ahead in their lives and of making the most of their dual heritage, while adapting to external macro-constraints. Ngwete-Freymann’s article first provides a description of the socio-political and legal macro-context in which these personal projects of return emerged, before offering a comparative and context-based analysis of these interviews.

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Romain Garbaye et Vincent Latour, « Introduction »Observatoire de la société britannique, 29 | 2022, 7-14.

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Romain Garbaye et Vincent Latour, « Introduction »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 29 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2023, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5771 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5771

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Auteurs

Romain Garbaye

Professeur des universités à la Sorbonne Nouvelle, spécialiste des questions de migration et de diversité au Royaume-Uni, co-directeur du GIS MIDIB (Migration et Diversité dans les Iles Britanniques et Irlandaises)

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Vincent Latour

Professeur des universités à Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, spécialiste des questions de migration et de diversité au Royaume-Uni, co-directeur du GIS MIDIB (Migration et Diversité dans les Iles Britanniques et Irlandaises)

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