Political Context for Change
"Immigration, the elephant in the room? Not any more. Now it’s parading down the high street, garlanded in ribbons, leading a three-ring circus. This detonation over migration has shaken both left and right."6
During the course of the early 2000s, two debates came to dominate the public discourse around ‘identity’.
The first and most significant took place as numbers of net inward migrants swelled in the early part of the century; exacerbated by further inward migration following the Accession Eight countries’ entry to the EU in 2004.
The second debate took place around cultural integration and cohesion, and followed domestic and global terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists. When placed alongside economic decline and/or perceptions of social change in specific locations – e.g. former mining, mill or manufacturing towns – the politics of race and immigration provided fertile ground for the BNP.
However, these forces have now broadened and the debate has shifted. Immigration has become an aspect of a broader cultural division over notions of identity. Groups such as the EDL have been able to craft a politics of nation: non-ethnic exclusivity mixed with scapegoating of particular groups (i.e. Muslims), and nostalgia that moves beyond the supremacist politics of the BNP. It is also a violent street militia, so in some respects will have severe limitations given the widespread distain for political violence highlighted in the survey.
That said, their political message resonates with those who feel economically, socially, and culturally dispossessed and disoriented by negative change.
It is important not to overstate the influence of the EDL in this shift from the politics of immigration and race to a broader politics of identity. It is more a symptom than a cause. And there will be other symptoms of this shift. The current far right will morph and intermingle with other extremist and fascist groups. These new associations may be increasingly difficult to identify and respond to in the way that the Hope not Hate campaign was able to prevent the BNP from winning a single new local or parliamentary seat in the 2010 elections. The challenge is to limit any expansion of the ground on which such groups thrive. Part of that process is a deeper understanding of the drivers and dynamics of the new politics of culture, identity and nation.
From Immigration to Identity
It is a commonplace for politicians and voters to say that ‘it’s about time we started to talk about immigration.’ Well, as a nation we have. It is an issue that, after the economy, has become the most significant issue in politics. What’s more, it has driven political choices.
- When Labour came into office in May 1997, around five per cent saw immigration as a ‘main or other issue facing Britain today.’
- By 2006 that figure had pierced the 40% mark.7 Of course, many individuals in communities that experienced abrupt change would have felt wage competition and that would be one driver – immigration did rapidly expand in the New Labour years.
- However, the change was as much perceived as real. Eighteen per cent (18%) of Britons see immigration as a big problem in their own area but 76% see it as a national problem, too.8
- Immigration has become a driver of voting patterns. Fifty-two per cent (52%) of the voters Labour lost since 2005-2009 see immigration as one of the three or four most important issues facing the country today, compared with 34% of those Labour kept (there is no significant difference in the demographics of the two groups).
- Forty-five per cent (45%) of lost Labour voters consider that the Labour party most wants to help ‘immigrants and non-white Britons.’
- Only 15% of the voters that Labour has kept feel the same way.9
While immigration remains the most prominent and controversial of the ‘identity’ issues, it has come to be grouped with a range of perspectives on: nation, ethnicity, integration, cohesion and diversity, faith, community, economic change, security, social change, individual/ family prospects and standards of living. Together, these issues and outlooks coalesce around a new politics of identity. And politicians have increasingly searched for a language of meaning in this regard. Nowhere is this more visible than in discussions over cultural diversity, cohesion and integration.
The Politics of Post-Multiculturalism
Two recent political speeches, both by senior members of the Coalition, have touched on the politics of identity. The first was Baroness Warsi who argued in January 2011:
"For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate – even commendable – thing. You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test."10
The second was from the Prime Minister himself, David Cameron, who said in a speech at the Munich Security Conference a few weeks later:
"We must build stronger societies and identities at home. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them."11
The Prime Minister’s ‘muscular liberalism’ speech – as he described his approach to issues of identity – in many ways echoed a speech given by Tony Blair to the Runnymede Trust in 2006:
"The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means. And neither racists nor extremists should be allowed to destroy it."12
Politicians have been searching for the holy grail of a new ‘Britishness’ for much of the last decade. That they have failed is no surprise. National identities are most definitely not exogenous to the political process: the history of the nation-state is one of the successful moulding of cultural identity to legitimate power. However, modern culture is too free-flowing for that process to be an easy one; or even to be possible at all. Nonetheless, the direction has been in favour of a more integrationist and less multicultural political rhetoric. It is easy to understand why, when the political axis of identity is considered. Only eight per cent of the population are Committed Multiculturals, with a further 16% Mainstream Liberals who share a more diluted but similar outlook.
Two things have happened. Firstly, the multicultural13 ‘brand’ has been deliberately toxified as politicians seek to speak to and for the centre ground of Identity Ambivalents and Cultural Integrationists. At the same time this process has skewed identity politics away from multiculturalism.
Meanwhile, the strategy pursued by David Cameron and Baroness Warsi is interesting. The Prime Minister’s comments in Munich were not new. The speech was well adapted to the language and outlook of Cultural Integrationists who are more strongly Conservative identifiers than any other group.
At the same time, Baroness Warsi is sensible to highlight rising Islamaphobia. Essentially, a tough message on the need for integration and a tough line against Islamaphobia could help to build a firewall between Cultural Integrationists and Latent Hostiles. However, on the basis of the Munich speech, the Prime Minister’s strategy is pitched very narrowly and is more rhetorical than substantive. In other words: it is insufficient.
All this raises the question of what Labour’s response should be. In some respects the Blair approach on integration missed its target. It was a message aimed at the same sort of people that David Cameron is targeting; it the positions of Cameron and Warsi. It also raised the unanswered question of what exactly are these ‘British values’ to which immigrants should subscribe.
Remember, the Identity Ambivalents are economically and socially insecure: their ‘tribe’ is not simply a value system or cultural expression.
The most significant intervention that current Labour leader Ed Miliband has made about the politics of identity was his speech to the Fabian Society in January 2011. At its core was the assertion that there is a ‘progressive majority’ in Britain. "We need to be honest over 13 years in government we forfeited the right in too many people’s minds to be the natural standard bearers for this progressive majority in Britain."14 The Populus survey does not support the assertion that there is a ‘progressive’ majority. It suggests that there is a solid anti-progressive block (47% – Cultural Integrationists, Latent Hostiles and Active Enmity), a solid progressive cohort (24% – Confident Multiculturals, Mainstream Liberals), and a rump (28% – Identity Ambivalents) which simultaneously displays progressive and non-progressive attitudes.
From the perspective of holding the mainstream together and preventing any leap-frogging of Identity Ambivalents to Latent Hostility and Active Enmity, Labour’s message must, while culturally aware, also answer social and economic concerns. In this regard, the focus on the ‘squeezed middle’ is important though not necessarily sufficient if it just becomes a dry policy agenda.
One thing remains certain: data shows that attitudes to immigration have hardened, with a ratio of 60:40 – including 67% of Identity Ambivalents – thinking it has been a bad thing for the country.
However, there is more of a divide over questions of diversity. There is a 50:50 split on the question of whether there is a ‘place for every kind of person in this country’ or ‘some people are just too different to fit in.’ There is a 49:51 split on the question of whether a ‘variety of cultures are part of British culture’ or a ‘variety of cultures have undermined British culture.’ A shrill anti-diversity rhetoric is not what is called for. However, the ‘progressive’ outlook does not have a head start; it is, in fact, handicapped.
In a sense, both mainstream parties have a role to play in ensuring that the proportion of the population drifting or leap-frogging towards Latent Hostility or Active Enmity is limited. The Conservative Party is better placed to reassure Cultural Integrationists; Labour’s natural constituency of interests rests with Identity Ambivalents. If either fail, then the politics of identity in the UK could become far more assertive and even toxic.
Rumbling in the background is an economy that is not producing enough jobs with a living wage; a public sector that is shedding employment, cutting services, and distributing resources away from the least advantaged communities; inflation and tax rises –VAT and fuel duty – that are simultaneously hitting people hard; a political class that has reached toxically low-levels of trust; and, as consequence, fear and insecurity about both the present and future.
In short, ‘muscular liberalism’ speaks to only one section of the centreground of identity politics, while David Cameron’s economic and fiscal policies alienate large swathes of the other. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband’s ‘progressive majority’ is in danger of focusing too much on the left-hand side of the politics of identity – even with a ‘squeezed middle’ narrative that has so far failed to resonate.
The Identity Ambivalents – the largest single ‘tribe’ – are in danger of falling between the two stools of ‘muscular liberalism’ and ‘progressive majority.’ This is also the group that is most likely to shift political allegiance – hence the ‘ambivalent’ label.
This is the context to today’s politics of identity and it has a number of themes. It is to these themes that we now turn.
13. Here we are taking multicultural to mean a belief that individuals are free to pursue their own group identities as long as they abide by democratic norms, the rule of law, and respect the rights of others.