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British identity – community cohesion and embracing diversity

Phyllis Starkey
p. 31-48


The political context of redefining British identity has changed since 1997. “Cool Britannia” was in part an attempt to rebrand Britain’s image abroad and reposition Britain as a modern, creative and hi tech country not the traditional heritage image of beefeaters and ancient buildings. Internally, major legislative change on human rights and equalities validated societal changes that were already occurring and reinforced a changing identity, accepting of diversity. Demographic change, an increased recognition of inequalities linked to ethnicity, and increased inward migration drawn by Britain’s successful economy created a new political context leading to the emphasis on community cohesion, integration and attempts to define “Britishness” in terms of values and norms.

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1I am a Labour member of Parliament and I was elected first in 1997. I represent the constituency of Milton Keynes which is a new city and has just celebrated its fortieth birthday and I’m one of the two MPs for Milton Keynes and my bit is called “Milton Keynes South-West”. What I want to do is to talk about British identity in the context of community cohesion and embracing diversity and I want to do it entirely from a personal point of view as a practising politician because that is my expertise.

2I want to talk about the debate about “Britishness” and British identity but in my view it has to be seen within context, within its political context. It is not an academic discussion, it’s a political discussion and of course in a context which constantly changes and I just want to start with the “cool Britannia” idea in 1997 which in my view was entirely a rebranding and you have to see it in that context. It was a rebranding exercise, it was a symbol that we were a complete change from what had gone before - the Tories – it was a total change in vision in analysis and strategy from the previous Tory regime. It was directed primarily at a domestic audience to say that “this is the change, we are not the Britain that was, we are now a new Britain, we are ‘cool Britannia’ ”. The sorts of messages that it was trying to get across were: we are forward looking and modern, not backward looking like the Tories harking back to a British Empire and a past. We are young and creative and Tony Blair used to use this dreadful phrase “We are a young country” which is a bit off for people like me who are not young, but there you go, but he was sort of saying we are open to new ideas, we are a place where young people can contribute, be creative and there was a lot of emphasis on artistic and cultural creation. But actually, much more important was the scientific and technological creativity and that ties in to the whole economic idea that the way in which Britain is going to be able to compete in the world is to move towards a high tech economy with high skill, high paid jobs and away from low skilled jobs where we really can’t compete.

3So that’s about diversity; we are not just a white country, we are a diverse country. That is what we are, we celebrate it, and lay an emphasis on human rights and equality. Again, that is looking forward, moving on from Magna Carta and thinking forward. As I said, this was directed primarily at a domestic audience but also internationally so for example the British Council and British embassies were told to completely change the way they sold Britain outside, to ditch all the pictures of beefeaters and Windsor Castle and all that stuff and stress multiculturalism. My experience was that this was really quite difficult for the British Council to sell because most people in the British Council and in British embassies have not been in Britain for about twenty years. I had this really interesting experience when I went to Israel and Palestine and I had to talk to a gathering of the staff at the British Council in Tel Aviv. It was in about 1997 so I did this great thing about multiculturalism and how wonderful it all was and everything and I could just tell that actually they were thinking “no it’s not wonderful. We rather liked it when it was 99% white and it was beefeaters and stuff”. That is the Britain we really like selling but since the Government is new we had better try selling this new stuff.

4So that was what Cool Britannia was really about, but of course a vision is only any good if it actually leads to policies and that sort of vision was underpinned by a variety of policies that I will try to summarise. So the creative bit, the investment in education and training, science and innovation, to get a globally competitive economy. Reengagement with the European Union: those of you who know Britain well will know that we are not tremendously engaged with the European Union but we are a lot more engaged than we used to be and this was a very explicit part of it. The ethical foreign policy had a bit of a knock but actually there was an explicit attempt to argue - including humanitarian intervention in Kosovo for example - that this was motivated by an ethical view, not simply by national self interest. Certainly the symbolic thing of rejoining UNESCO which the Tories had left, and vastly increasing development aid and giving international development a hugely greater emphasis including obviously the “Drop the Debt” campaign which was enormous in Britain and involved huge numbers of people and the churches etc…. culminating in huge demonstrations in Birmingham outside G8 and which was effectively orchestrated by the government. It was a really interesting example of how the British government got the British public on its side to pressurise all the other governments in the G8 to try and get a better policy internationally on aid. The Human Rights Act which is an incredibly important change within the British system, and which incidentally the Tories are committed to abolishing. Equalities legislation, equalising the age of consent, outlawing religious and racist discrimination and instituting ethnic monitoring in order to “police” – so to speak – the commitment to stopping indirect discrimination all of which arose out of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. I will be using a lot of the data that comes out of the ethnic monitoring and everything which we collect all the time in order to try and check how well we are actually dealing with discrimination - or not. And then finally devolution. The political change in structure with devolution to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly and of course the London assembly. People often forget that but the London mayor and the London assembly have made London constitutionally completely different from any other part of England. We were attempting to get English regions to follow suit but unfortunately people in the North-East decided against that so that bit of it has got derailed and it has not happened.

5 So that was 1997. Moving on then to the political context now, I think that people in Britain actually genuinely do now accept that we are multicultural, we are multi-ethnic, we are multi-faith and we are multinational. Actually it’s the last one they have trouble with. I constantly have my constituents in England writing to me and saying: “How come we have got to pay fees for university students but people in Scotland don’t” and I say “Well it’s because of devolution actually, that’s what devolution means”. So the multinational bit, people in England haven’t actually really come to grips with what that really means – people in Scotland and Wales have, obviously. But it is really important to make the point that although it is largely accepted, people’s personal experience of diversity in particular is very different depending on where they live in the country. If you live in London, London is a huge multicultural, multi-diverse city. A quarter of all the BME (black minority ethnic) people in Britain live in London, so it is completely different to the rest of the country and experience of London is that it is such a diverse city. Conversely, the English countryside is extremely un-diverse. It is amazingly homogenous, incredibly white. But, then if you go to the Northern cities where the race riots were - for example Oldham – they are what I would call – I don’t think that they are multicultural – “bi-cultural”. There is a white population and there is a minority ethnic population which is mostly one ethnicity. In Oldham, it is white or Pakistani, there’s not much else. And then if you go to the east of England, which is where they are getting lots of tensions now, you have a diversity which is of quite recent origins, and is largely ‘other European’. So people’s personal experience is different depending where they live in Britain and it is really important to take that into account. The increased economic migration is a huge factor in the current political debate and certainly in the debate that is in the papers and which is not at all flattering I have to say to our fellow European citizens! There are loads of stories about how Polish workers are getting an addition to their diet by killing our swans and things like that.

6Then the final point is signs of social exclusion of which the 7/7 and 21/7 bombings were the most obvious and dramatic. The shocking thing for people was that Britons were prepared to blow up other Britons. That was really shocking to everybody including the majority of the British Muslim community who were utterly shocked that it was part of their community that had been prepared to do this. But there is a distressingly wide support within the whole British Muslim community for ideas which are shared with jihadist groups and in particular a virulent anti-Americanism - absolutely virulent - which of course is also shared by the hard left and which also gives support to the notion that the British government is against Muslims just because they are Muslims. The notion that foreign policy is intrinsically anti-Muslim also underlies a jihadist claim that within Britain you cannot be both British and Muslim. So that is an extremely strong discourse within certain sections of the British Muslim community even though relatively few are actually supportive of bombings or violent action against Britain or elsewhere. The other major signs of social exclusion are inequalities and some of those inequalities are indeed linked to ethnicity but again it’s very varied. So for example if you look at all new migrants, the employment rate is 62%, in other words the unemployment rate is 38%, but if you look at Somalis, the employment rate is only 12%. So you have got huge variation. Again if you look at education and attainment, the gap between the majority population and British children of Pakistani origin will not be closed until 2017 at the current rate but for black Africans, which includes Somalis, it won’t be closed until 2053.

  • 1  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe.

7Riots, gun and knife crime, we talked about the riots in Oldham, actually the issue there is that Oldham is a town in severe economic decline. Unemployment is high in the population both white and Asian, and you’ve got housing segregation because of the appalling past policies of Oldham council. So that you have got segregated communities which in the words of the Cantle report lead “segregated and parallel lives”, which then means that neither side understands the other. And you’ve got, if I can go down to the last one,1 a huge competition between ethnic minority communities and poor white communities for scarce social goods of which the most obvious is access to social housing where there is just not enough social housing and you have got really strong competition but also health. When I get feedback from my constituents - and I am in a very marginal seat so I get lots of feedback from my constituents. I am constantly writing to them and soliciting their feedback on how they feel things are going - over and over again you get their complaints about health services or education and then they say “if it weren’t for the immigrants it would be better”. So that’s why immigration is such a huge political issue because it is perceived by those who are not getting what they want out of the current system as being the immigrants’ fault that they are not getting it rather than anything else. Gun and knife crime, which is often associated with urban gangs many of which are black but by no means all. So again you have a race issue but you also have other issues as well.

8So the document which I am going to largely talk about is a document produced by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion: “Our Shared Future”. This commission was set up about eighteen months to two years ago to do an ad hoc investigation - so it is a time limited group - and to report back to government on ways in which we could improve both integration and cohesion. This commission travelled around the country, met with lots of local groups and looked at local group practice. It was chaired by Darra Singh, who was the chief executive of Ealing, which is a London borough council and who is himself obviously a British Pakistani and a Sikh. What I have put up here is a bit of that vision statement which I have abbreviated and they are my highlights to try and show you the approach that they took to this. The report says:

So imagine the open communities of 2020, this is what we want to get to. They should be thriving and prosperous places where people from all different backgrounds are equal and where everyone matters. They are local places where all groups feel that they are treated fairly. They have a responsibility to others that transcends the differences between them, and you imagine places where people are confident about change and the benefits it brings are not threatened by others. Where people recognise that while there will always be difference, it need not always be divisive.

9So that is the kind of approach that they took and which they were consulting on. They looked at people’s perceptions of cohesion, that is to say the sense of belonging to each other and all of us belonging to the same thing. Obviously people’s perceptions of cohesion relate to their own personal and local experience and one of the strong things that comes out from the whole discourse within this commission is that when you are talking about things, they are very much related to place, so although we can talk about cohesion at a national level, actually whether people feel there is that cohesion or not is much more related to their personal experience, where they themselves live. If they feel a sense of cohesion within their own locality, they are actually likely to feel a cohesion nationally. But if they do not feel it locally, they are unlikely to feel it nationally.

10Now they measure a thing called the cohesion index, which is to do with whether you feel comfortable where you are, whether you feel that there is a sense of belonging where you are, and that everybody belongs too where you are and what they find is that overall, 80% of people agree that people of different backgrounds get on well in their local areas. They feel there is strong cohesion but there are a few areas where cohesion rates are much lower. Sometimes it is associated with deprivation, but it is not an absolute association so there will be deprived areas where nevertheless, people think that everybody gets on well. They are all deprived, but they all get on well. And there will be other places which are not at all deprived but where people do not feel that people get on well. So there is some association between a low cohesion rate and deprivation but it is not absolute. There is however a strong association between a low cohesion rate and a perception that there is an unfair allocation of public services and that people are not behaving in a way that is consistent with fairness. In particular, where diversity is linked to poor cohesion, it is in areas with rapid demographic change and those are three different sorts: urban areas in the South-East, where there has been fast migration from other parts of the United Kingdom, but from other parts of the UK that are much more ethnically diverse. So this means increased diversity but not from people coming from outside the UK but from inside the UK. Rural areas, with migration from the EU accession countries, largely to do all the work in our agricultural industry that British people will not do. Thirdly, some diversity in the city areas again with migration from non Commonwealth countries. So areas that are already diverse but with a new type of diversity coming in.

  • 2  Voir la diaporama Powerpoint en annexe
  • 3  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe.
  • 4  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe.

11This is to give you an example of what this means on the ground.2 This is data from my constituency, Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes is a hugely dynamic economy. We have a vast excess of jobs over homes and we are pulling in people from elsewhere in the UK and from outside at en enormously fast rate. We are building 2000 to 2500 new houses every year and we will be doing that for the next ten years. The city is going to go from 250 000 - which is what it is now - to 310 000 and it will be the tenth largest city in the UK. So what this data shows, it’s the data from the 1991 and 2001 census and then the estimate for 2004, and then the two on the right - 2004 and 2007 – are the “school population census”, so just school age people. The first thing to note is that the percentage “white British” has gone down from 92% in 1991 to 85% in 2004 and it is 72% in the 2007 school-age population. So what we have got here are all the not white British. And of course the scale only goes up to 6% so one does need to get it into some sense of perspective. The point that I’m trying to make here is firstly that there has been a very rapid growth in diversity. It is still only in the school age population that 25%-28% are not white British, but it has gone up very quickly and that is everybody’s experience living in Milton Keynes. You can see that it has gone up, you can see that the nature of the population has changed, you experience it3. It is extremely rapid change and rapid change is always difficult for people to adjust to. It also shows that the BME populations are much younger than the majority populations so if you compare the 2004 census estimate with the 2004 school age population, you see that the percentage of mixed ethnicity is much higher in the school population than in adults. The proportion of Bangladeshi is certainly bigger – and the African one is much bigger in the young population than in the population as a whole. When you move over to the 2001 school census the big tall one, the one that is 5%, is black Africans. So 5% of the children in 2007 are black African which obviously will feed through as they get to adulthood - given that they are likely to have children - so that the population change will be even faster without any more inward migration4. In contrast if you look at the “other white” which is largely non-British European, there is a much higher proportion of adults than in the child population because it is largely single people coming over to work and not actually bringing their families with them. So that’s just an example of rapid change. That is relatively common in these new towns round the South-East but you will get different patterns elsewhere.

12What were the key principles that they have drawn out of what the commission found? Firstly that what we need to be doing is that we need to be prioritising our shared future rather than our divided legacy. It’s an issue of balance, it is not an “either-or”, it is a balance between the two. The debate tends to be about bonding capital versus bridging capital. Bonding capital is where you get together with people who are like you, whoever they are. You get together with your church group or your mosque, you get together with your Bangladeshi cultural association. Bonding capital is very important because people need to be with people like themselves, they need to feel secure in their own identities. Bridging capital means a school parent-teacher organisation where there will be parents of different religions, different ethnicities, working together because they are parents of children at that school and they are raising money for that school. Bridging capital is also incredibly important particularly in a multicultural society because that is where we meet people who are not like us, and we don’t fear the people who are not like us and we do things together. We have something in common which is different from our ethnicities or our religion or our past history. So it is the balance that needs to be shifted towards bridging capital rather than bonding capital and that will feed through into public policies.

13The discourse which you have heard a lot about already about “rights and responsibilities”, ‘yes’ citizenship but also obligation and this is much wider than just the debate about multiculturalism. What I mean is that we are having a lot of difficulties in Britain with what is called “anti-social behaviour”. Much of that is groups of white, disaffected youths in working class areas who do not feel that they have any stake in society nor do they feel any responsibility and they just go around causing mayhem essentially. So the rights and responsibilities discourse is also about them. You say: “actually you are part of society. You do have rights but you also have obligations. You have obligations to consider other people”. The whole “rights and responsibilities” discourse feeds in to the whole discourse about the nature of society and about our responsibilities one to another and the way in which we have to moderate our behaviour in order to consider the effects on other people.

14Mutual respect and civility. This is about appreciating and valuing diversity and people’s other experiences and is the key difference really between integration and assimilation: assimilation is saying “this is the way we do things here, this is the way we have always done things here, if you want to live here, you do it the same. So you come to Britain, you behave the way white British people used to behave fifty years ago”. That is assimilation. Integration is saying: “you want to belong, you want to wear a hijab, absolutely fine but if you wear it in school, it has got to be the same colour as the school uniform. We respect the fact that you feel you need to wear a hijab, not everybody does. You respect the fact that the school has a uniform, the school’s uniform is green so your hijab has got to be green”. That is just a facile example but that is essentially what integration is about, a sense of belonging while respecting difference, but a difference within boundaries so no female genital mutilation, that was definitely outside the boundaries whether you think it’s a cultural practice or not. But wearing a hijab is fine as long as you don’t do it in places where it might catch in moving machinery and put you in danger.

15Visible social justice. That is the bit, the visible bit that is really important. That everybody should have equal access to the benefits of society whether that means educational opportunity, employment or whatever, there must not only be no discrimination, people must see there is no discrimination and there is no unfair priority. So no notion that certain groups jump the queue for social housing, or for jobs or whatever. Really what I think this leads to is a view of Britishness which is essentially a sense of belonging and belonging is an incredibly useful word because it means all sorts of different things. It means “I belong here, I have a right to be here” but also “this place is mine as well as yours, I care about this place, I am part of this place and I contribute to what this place is”. And that is what belonging means: by being here, my being here, my contributing to it helps to change what it is. So being British and a sense of Britishness is a changing thing. And it is a changing thing that derives from the contributions of everybody who is British and who is in Britain and it is different now from what it was, and it is different now from what it will be. It is partly why I think that concerning the whole debate about Britishness, it is incredibly important that we don’t make it too specific. We have to keep it vague because that is actually the nature of Britishness: the nature of Britishness is a constructive ambiguity. Each of us has a different understanding of what it is to be British and that is fine as long as all of our different understandings come together at the highest sense of us feeling committed one to another and a part of the whole.

16This is what the Commission actually recommended. I have gone through quite a lot of it but there are specific examples of what they suggest. So on prioritising the shared future and divided legacies they are saying you have to encourage interaction where it occurs, in schools, workplaces, shared public places and you have to create those spaces to allow that to happen. Councils have a positive duty to monitor cohesion in their area and act to pre-empt separation or conflict. Every council has a duty in law to promote equality, not just to not discriminate but to positively promote equality in all its aspects and that of course goes much wider than race and ethnicity. In funding groups they should try and fund shared activities not always fund separate activities. Rights and responsibilities, obligations you have got, there’s the Ajegbo report on citizenship but I’m not going to talk about that since it is coming later. You have got a new organisation which is specifically to be charged with the integration of new migrants, so positively helping new migrants to integrate. There is also the English language requirement for citizenship which is in part about helping those new citizens to be integrated because if you can’t speak English, you will always do badly in employment. Nothing that anybody can do will help you to be employed at the same sort of level as other people if you can’t speak English and its part of the reason why some communities have got a poor record in employment.

17Mutual respect and civilities. One of the ideas is school twinning. This thing about faith schools is actually really a red herring. There are very few faith schools other than Anglican schools in Britain and there have long been Anglican schools and Catholic schools in Britain. This is not just about faith schools because many faith schools are not actually mono-cultural. My local Catholic school, for example, has a huge range of ethnicities within it and it is arguably one of the more mixed schools paradoxically in my constituency. There is an idea that where you have schools that are relatively mono-cultural, and that for example would be in many cities where you tend to get schools in the middle which have a high proportion of BME children, and then they will be surrounded by the suburbs where there are schools with virtually no BME children simply because of where people live. You will encourage those schools to twin with each other so even if the pupils do not have an experience within their own schools of mixing with children not like them, they will be twinned and work with another school which is very different so they will get a different experience. There should be an engagement with faith organisations and encouragement of worker interfacing.

18One of the big contrasts between many of the new communities that have come into Great Britain and the existing community is that the new communities are religious: they are Muslim or they are Christian. Black Christians in Britain are much more religious than the indigenous Christians if I can put it that way. The East European minorities are Catholic and their religious identity is very important to them whereas religious identity is actually not very important to most people in Britain. So that we do not have the spaces that allow those faith communities to engage, there is a reaching out to those faith communities and the public authorities should be into myth busting and I’ll give you an example of that in a second. Visible social justice is, as I say, about transparent policies on housing allocation so people cannot say that all the houses are going to immigrants and that is why our children are not getting houses. Investment in up-skilling the existing workforce for example in Slough, which has experienced issues where there are lots of high-tech jobs available. They have a Pakistani community which has not got brilliant skill levels and those jobs are being filled by east European migrants coming in. That is causing huge tension between those European migrants and the indigenous Pakistani population whose level of unemployment is going up. So the idea is that you have got to then do something about it, you have to up-skill those existing communities so that they are able to take the jobs instead of east-European migrants coming in.

19Finally the Commission on Equalities and Human Rights. This is a new body which will subsume the Equal Opportunities Commission which was charged with gender equality, the Commission on Racial Equality, the Disability Discrimination Commission and will also deal with age discrimination and sexuality. The suggestion is that it needs to have a regional network so that it can combat discrimination.

  • 5  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe

20Now this is an example of what I mean by myth busting.5 This is an advert produced by the government by the Department for Communities and Local government, which was trying to combat the myth that all these foreigners come over here and use our wonderful NHS and that is why you cannot get treatment. And this is just making a point: Do you know that migrants benefit the health service in the following ways? So this is a positive government attempt to combat prejudice in the population out there to remind them of the positive benefits of migration and the huge benefit to all of us of the 44 000 overseas nurses working in the NHS last year. 23% of doctors in London and 47% of nurses working in the NHS are foreign born. They all benefit us. That is a huge benefit to us and to society.

21In the end I think what Britishness comes down to in this whole debate is that we all know that we live and want to live in a democracy and what that means is that everybody should know that they are equally able to enjoy the opportunities and wealth of the country and will be expected to contribute and that is good for our shared future and is entirely consistent with British values.

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1  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe.

2  Voir la diaporama Powerpoint en annexe

3  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe.

4  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe.

5  Voir le diaporama Powerpoint en annexe

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Phyllis Starkey, « British identity – community cohesion and embracing diversity »Observatoire de la société britannique, 5 | 2008, 31-48.

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Phyllis Starkey, « British identity – community cohesion and embracing diversity »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 5 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Phyllis Starkey

Députée travailliste (circonscription de Milton Keynes South West)

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