Sunder Katwala: Immigration. Our latest polling suggests that control and integration matter more than numbers.

14 Sep

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

Immigration was central to the Brexit referendum debate of 2016. Without the loss of public confidence in the handling of migration from Europe over the previous decade, there would have been less pressure on David Cameron to hold a referendum – and it would have been less likely that the knife-edge campaign would result in a narrow victory for the Leave campaign.

The opposing sides saw the issue of EU free movement differently, yet the lessons of the result for immigration were contested within as well as across the rival campaigns.

Many on the losing side saw the result as evidence of an irrational upsurge of nativist sentiment, while Leave advocates took different views. For some, the referendum was a mandate to cut immigration sharply, to demonstrate that the message had been heard. Others saw the referendum outcome as a rational assertion of control that might come to rebuild public confidence in the contribution that immigration can make to Britain.

Five years on, there have been significant shifts in attitudes to migration. The latest 2021 wave of an in-depth tracker project from Ipsos MORI, published by British Future today, shows that a long-term softening of public attitudes has continued during the pandemic.

This detailed evidence of how public views changed supports the argument of those who argued that control was not simply a question of how low the immigration numbers could go. The public are more likely to see the contribution of immigration as positive (46 per cent) than negative (28 per cent), overall. This is a direct reversal of the position in 2015-16.

Asked to prioritise, control (44 per cent) is chosen over reducing numbers (24 per cent), with another fifth of respondents choosing neither of these as a priority. The proportion of the public wanting to see immigration reduced overall is now at 45 per cent, its lowest level in this series, or in British Social Attitudes surveys over a much longer period.

A similar proportion is content for numbers to remain at current levels (29 per cent) or increase (17 per cent). That 46 per cent of people would like to reduce migration shows that numbers will continue to be part of the debate. Conservative voters are more likely to prefer overall reductions. But many reducers are selective balancers: 17 per cent would like to reduce immigration “a little” while 28 per cent would hope to see larger reductions.

Because these are not ‘one size fits all’ views, there are much broader public majorities for choices that would increase migration, with two-thirds support for the government’s offer of a new visa route for people from Hong Kong. Having ended free movement, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has tended to make liberal choices on student and post-study visas, and on non-EU migration for work.

The attitudes evidence does not tell ministers what the right policy mix is to deal with labour and skills shortages – whether of lorry drivers, construction workers or fruit-pickers – in the short, medium and longer-term. What it does seem to suggest is that a government which chose to blend domestic training with flexibility in the points system where there are key gaps would be able to secure pragmatic permission from the British public.

So the immigration policy debate is not primarily about numbers, but about the choices that Britain makes, and what we do to make them work. If the post-Brexit debate has primarily been about who gets a visa to work in Britain, policy needs to focus more on what happens next. The Government has taken more proactive initial steps on Hong Kong than any previous wave of migration, which could be foundation for a more positive approach to citizenship and integration more broadly.

But if shifting attitudes create an opportunity for more light and less heat when we talk about immigration, significant challenges remain. There is still low trust in government on immigration – a perspective shared by broad majorities of those with liberal, restrictionist and balancer views, almost certainly for a range of contrasting reasons.

The two major parties both need to engage the balancer middle, but will often strike those balances differently, reflecting distinct electoral coalitions. Attitudes towards asylum are more polarised, though again the balance of attitudes has shifted. By a small margin there is public sympathy, rather than no sympathy, for those crossing the Channel in small boats – though nobody on any side of the debate would see the images of dangerous crossings as exemplifying a well-managed migration or asylum system.

The findings suggest that a debate about “control” versus “compassion” will produce a deadlocked stand-off, with a quarter to a third of the public on each side of a polarised argument. The key to securing the balancer majority on refugee issues is not to increase the temperature of the debate, especially if headlines over-promise and under-deliver – but to marry control, compassion and competence.

That means investing in an effective asylum system at home, cooperating with France over Channel crossings, and forging a multilateral response to those fleeing Afghanistan. Civic society critics of this government face a parallel challenge – to engage both liberals and balancers to unlock broad public support for a managed system of asylum that is effective, fair and humane. That could involve entrenching the majority support for Britain’s contribution to Afghan resettlement, and making the argument that all asylum seekers should have a fair hearing for their case, however they arrived in the UK.

How far these long-term shifts in immigration attitudes are now reflected in a new political and policy debate will depend on how the public debate is led. But politicians may need to steer a course that runs with the current of public opinion now, in 2021 – not that of a decade before.

Enver Solomon and Sunder Katwala: Refugees mark 70 years of UK sanctuary

28 Jul

Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council and Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.

Seventy years ago today, after the horrors of World War Two, the UK signed the Refugee Convention. We gave our commitment to protect people fleeing war and persecution.

For the refugees from those seven decades who gathered in London this week to mark the anniversary, that history was very personal. This Treaty was the reason that they had been able to rebuild their lives in our country.

Having arrived across each of the last seven decades the refugees had many different stories of why they had made the journey to Britain – fleeing Hungary in the 1950s, apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, being expelled from Uganda in the 1970s.

Whether escaping Vietnam on a fishing boat, finding sanctuary from the collapse of Yugoslavia or the Syrian civil war, their experiences captured the story of the last century. Each had their experiences of arriving in a new country, and of learning how to settle. What the refugees shared was gratitude for the opportunity to rebuild their lives in Britain – and a desire to mark the anniversary by speaking up for why this should now be considered an important national tradition to protect in the future too.

So, what lessons might we take from hearing of the human meaning of this 70th anniversary?

The anniversary should remind us of the importance of protecting an asylum system that is humane, fair and effective so Britain can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it. For Gillian Slovo, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s on her 12th birthday, after her parents were persecuted over their leading role in opposing apartheid, “The best thing about starting a new life in Britain was that I didn’t have to worry when there was a knock at the door. In South Africa, there had been the constant fear that my parents could disappear at any time”.

That feeling of personal safety was felt as powerfully across the decades later by Aloysius Ssali, who had studied in Britain before being imprisoned and tortured back in Uganda because of his sexuality. He recalled the help and solidarity he had from LGBT people in the UK when securing his refugee status in 2010: “They told me ‘you can stay here. It is safe. Nobody can scare you anymore.’ That was so important.”

That we have had seven decades of refugee protection in the UK shows that this international treaty commitment has been upheld by governments across party lines. Adopted at the UN in the final months of the Attlee post-war Labour government, the Convention went on to be ratified in the UK during Winston Churchill’s final term as premier. Conservative and Labour governments were responsible for giving sanctuary to those fleeing the Soviet crackdowns in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s, refugees fleeing the wars arising from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in this century.

Across those decades, refugee protection has often been contested and controversial. Ted Heath’s courageous decision to give sanctuary to the Ugandan Asians in 1972 came at the height of the fierce arguments about immigration in the wake of the Powellite ‘Rivers of Blood’ argument.

Mukund Nathwani, who had been a 23-year-old teacher in Uganda when Idi Amin expelled the Asian population, is certain that decision saved his life. Arriving at Stansted airport, he says “What we thought was ‘we’ve got a new life’. People were welcoming to us – and we thought, well, we’ve come to the right place”.

Today, as in the 1970s and the 1990s, political arguments rage over asylum and refugee protection, with government proposals for asylum reform that rewrite and resile from some of the key obligations for convention signatories.

So, it is worth recalling that there have been many occasions when there has been public pressure on governments for Britain to do more – as with the Vietnamese boat people, or the Syrian resettlement scheme which arose from public dismay at the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015.

Yet the principle of refugee protection does command broad public consent – new polling from ICM for the anniversary shows that six out of 10 people believe Britain’s tradition of refugee protection is something to be proud of.

Arguments about asylum can often see the ideas of control and compassion presented as polar opposites in political and media debates. But that is not how the public see it. The idea that we need an asylum system that is effective, fair and humane, so the UK can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it, secures an overwhelmingly broad public consensus – with 70% in support and just 11% opposed.

The refugees who gathered this week told the story not only of their contributions to British society, and also of the importance of the relationships between the welcomers and the welcomed, between those coming to Britain and the people who helped them to make a new life as they settled here.

Hong Dam, a child when her family fled Vietnam for Hong Kong in an overcrowded fishing boat, is grateful to be among 10,000 Vietnamese boat people resettled in in Britain. It later transpired that there had been a considerable argument inside government over whether Britain would accept its UN resettlement quota.

Now living in Brighton, her abiding memory is of how much her teachers helped her. “I came to England knowing no more than a few words in English – just ‘apple’, ‘pear’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were very patient and there was no judgment. My teachers really shaped me into who I am today.”

This personal testimony reminds us of the lives that could be rebuilt even as the political arguments over immigration and asylum have raged.

Saad Maida, a 37-year-old doctor from Syria, now living in Leamington Spa and working for the NHS, secured his refugee status in 2014. “I’ve felt pride in being able to serve the public by working for the NHS. That has been accentuated by the pandemic – being able to be on the frontline. By being able to work and pay back to society, I feel I can complete my cycle of integration”.

George Szirtes, given sanctuary from Hungary as an eight-year-old after Soviet tanks rolled in to quash the 1956 revolution, makes a clear case: “Refugees are people without a home who need help. If you have the ability to help, I do think it’s a moral obligation to do so,” he says. Seven decades of refugee protection is something that we should take pride in. To do so, it is a principle we must uphold in the future too.

Race and disparities. A report so commonsensical but consensus-challenging that we’re surprised it was allowed to happen.

31 Mar

“The Conservatives, ethnic minority voters, and the election. Next to no progress”: such was the headline we wrote for Sunder Katwala’s post-poll piece on this site in 2019. The sum of his article was that Tory hopes of a breakthrough among Indian and Chinese-origin voters had not been realised.

The party had made “only modest progress” with them, mirrored by “a modest decline” elsewere – from 24 per cent of the ethnic minority whole to 20 per cent. His piece opened with a stark sentence: “not being white remains the number one demographic predictor of not voting Conservative.”

Henry Hill’s study of the new Tory intake in the Commons painted a similar picture: “at under five per cent of the new intake, the share or black or minority MPs in the Class of 2019 is lower than 2017 or 2015, and the share elected for safe seats is a third of what it was two years ago”.

One response to that last figure might be: don’t look at the share, look at the number – which shows that 22 such MPs were elected in 2019 compared to 19 in 2017.  That figure could be a starting-point for how the Conservatives might do better come the next election than “next to no progress”.

In short words, aim for evolutionary rather than radical change.  Dig in at local level, deploying pavement politics to win council seats in areas with high concentrations of ethnic minority voters.  Find new candidates from among them.  Make progress in Mayoral contests. Build up to challenging for the local Commons seat.

Take up and campaign on causes that matter to such voters: sickle cell disease, among people of an African or Caribbean origin; religious burial among those with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background. Stress values: family, work and education.

Above all, take the Party’s approach to climate change as a model: just as it doesn’t dispute the challenge of global warming (far from it), don’t quarrel with that of institutional racism: the doctrine that institutions can be judged guilty of it even if individuals within them may not be – especially given the new context of Black Lives Matter.

And alhough while no individual within an institution may be racist, his actions can be recorded as such if they are “perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.  That’s the legacy of William Macpherson’s culture-shaping report in the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Whatever may be said for or against such a softly-softly approach, some of the new generation of Conservative ethnic minority MPs strain against it – most notably Kemi Badenoch, whose Commons speech against critical race theory last year made waves.

And just as there is a new generation of ethnic minority MPs, so there is a new one of ethnic minority intellectuals, academics, writers, educationalists and police – in terms of approach if not always of age.  One of them is Munira Mirza, Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.

Others include some of the commissioners of the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic disparities, such as Tony Sewell, its chair.  Or, elsewhere, business people, like Trevor Phillips, who has contributed to this site.  Or doctors such as Raghib Ali, another contributor, and an adviser to the Government on Covid and disparities.

Raghib’s thinking foreshadows that of this latest report, published yesterday.  “Racism still blights too many lives today,” he wrote for ConservativeHome last year, and the Commission takes up where he left off.  The first of its 24 recommendations is: “challenge racist and discriminatory actions”.

Others include “teaching an inclusive curriculum”; “investigate what causes existing ethnic pay disparities”; “create police workforces that represent the communities they serve” and “increase legitimacy and accountability of stop and search through body-worn video”.

So far, so conventional – and none the worse for it.  But just as Raghib went further, acknowedging ethnic disparities but dismissing systemic racism, so this report goes further, too, as it comes to similar conclusions.  The picture it presents is one of a slow, attritional but persistent advance.

Above all, it dismisses the view of ethnic minorities as always disadvantaged compared to the white majority – to be bundled together under the acronym BAME: a homogeneous lump in which the African-origin and Chinese-origin experience, say, are treated as much the same.

Here is an extract from the report which gives the flavour: “education is the single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience. The Commission notes that the average GCSE Attainment 8 score for Indian, Bangladeshi and Black African pupils were above the White British average”.

No wonder, in the context of its findings as a whole, that the Commission joins the list of those who find that BAME label conceals more than it reveals: British Future, of which Sunder is the Director, says that “it is better to use words, rather than acronyms”.  The Centre for Social Justice wants the term dropped.

But it goes almost without saying that opposing racism, and suggesting ways of combatting it, won’t be enough for those whose commissions, jobs, sincures and votes are founded on the doctrine of social regress, rather than social progress; on victimhood rather than agency; and on institutional racism rather than persistent racism.

There is a Victimhood Blob just as there is an Education Blob, and it fears that where new thinking goes today, the electorate will go tomorrow.  No wonder the attack on the commissioners is already turning, in some quarters, personal and unscrupulous.  The stakes are too high for it to be otherwise.

We wonder whether their assessment is correct.  It may be that this report marks a historic turning-point in race relations in Britain, with the Tory-voting white plurality is especially receptive.  Or it may be that the structural racism narrative is too well entrenched, too dug in after 25 years, to be shifted by a single Government.

Without the commitment of Mirza herself (already a target of Far Left unreason), we doubt if the report would have been commissioned.  Boris Johnson’s technique is to wait for Woke to over-reach, as in the case of the Churchill statue assault, before committing himself, rather than strike questingly into its intellectual territory.

Perhaps the best way of looking at the report is to shake oneself free of these political, tactical considerations, and simply ask: is the Commission right – for example, in saying that unconscious bias training should be scrapped?  In its view that all ethnic minorities don’t move forward at the same pace?

In essence, the report argues that the three biggest determinants of life chances are family, education and work.  This seems to us to be so unrebuttable as, ultimately, to be certain to win through.  Which doesn’t mean that the report is perfect: we are not sure that it has got to the heart of the problems for black people in relation to crime and justice.

Nor does it follow that because a report has analysed a problem accurately, the Government will act appropriately.  British governments are notorious for being among the most indiiferent to families in Europe, with the noxious consequences that Miriam Cates described on ConservativeHome earlier this week.

Perhaps the “review to…take action to address the underlying issues facing families” recommended in the report will turn the tide.  At the level of words, perhaps with deeds to come, this is the most consensus-challenging, bold and implication-rich Government initiative to date.  We can’t help being surprised that it was allowed to happen at all.

Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

4 Aug

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did not live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.