In a recent ICM survey on British culture and identity, it was revealed that nearly 40 per cent of a nationally representative group of respondents (conducted with the participation of over 60 citizens’ panels on behalf of the think-tank British Future and anti-racism group HOPE Not Hate) felt that multiculturalism is threatening British culture.


Sixty-three per cent felt immigrants made a valuable contribution to the British economy through working in low-skilled and low-paid jobs. Though the majority are accepting, this also reveals deep-seated views about the value of migrants as a group who are primarily assessed on their contribution to the UK economy. This is known as the Good Immigrant-Bad Immigrant binary and is all too clear in these survey results: migrants who work in the NHS were seen as personifying the best qualities of immigrants, particularly Indian doctors and Filipino nurses and care workers. Low-skilled Eastern European migrant workers were seen as contributors but inspired slightly less confidence. In contrast, refugees in need of protection clearly provoked the most anxieties over control and them being burdens.

‘Balancing’ was common in this survey. Many responded that they saw both positives and negatives to immigration, the positives always being contribution to the economy and the importation of skills, but worries about pressure on public services remain abundant. Negative views were clearly expressed about those thought to be coming to the UK for its welfare system, or to send money home to family members in need.

It is viewed as paramount for migrants to make a contribution and integrate positively into British society — based on a ‘seen but not heard’ situation of migrants selflessly fulfilling expectations. These views deny recognition of those willing to work hard but who suffer from a lack of opportunities. There is of course nothing wrong with favouring the hardworking and motivated over the lazy. But not only does this overlook the difficulties faced by migrants looking for work, but also creates unhealthy competition between different immigrant groups vying for the title of ‘Britishness’ and leads to the ostracisation of certain groups that do not wish to conform.

From the perspective of a young person and a third-generation ethnic minority, it is both frightening and predictable to see these demands being made as a prerequisite for ‘Britishness’. It links to the prejudice in rural vs urban areas, with those in less cosmopolitan areas unsurprisingly being less tolerant than those in cities, having had less day-to-day contact with BAME members of society (particularly where there is a high proportion of students and graduates).

Likewise, older generations have only recently been forced to come to terms with diversity. Specifically, with the shock waves sent through communities when the first non-white families settled in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and largely persisted. Both the survey report and a 2014 report by Oxford psychologists reveal how ‘passive tolerance’ can come about simply through proximity and association with ethnic minorities and migrants. As the report states, ‘local experiences of integration matter’. Those with friends — neighbours and colleagues of either a different ethnic background, migrants or refugees — had a more positive attitude to multiculturalism by one full point in comparison to those without migrant or BAME friends.

Under 35s were most positive about the impacts of immigration. British culture being under threat was rarely a concern expressed by younger respondents. Although, despite being more celebratory of cultural diversity, they did show concerns about the labour market and increased job competition as a result of relaxed borders. Yet the survey also showed it was young people with the fewest qualifications that had the biggest concerns about strains on the labour market, which is highly revealing.

The competitiveness that is generated is particularly dangerous when immigrants begin to pit themselves against one another. This is one justification as to why so many British Asians voted ‘Leave’ in the 2016 EU Referendum (many Leave areas were those with large South Asian populations: Luton, Slough, Bradford). Perhaps, this is because British Asians simply don’t see themselves as European, but it is also worth considering how the community has been impacted by the Good vs Bad media portrayals. Through over forty years of hard work and struggle, many likely feel they have passed the ‘test’ and made it into an exclusive realm of Britishness, and now don’t need to extend altruism to future migrants. Closed borders and immigration controls serve these ideals.

This also evidences alarming and depressing realities of these survey results. When expectations of migrants foster a sense of duty and indebtedness, and an infatuation with the host nation, minorities feel that integration earns you brownie points.

This is problematic because integration and multiculturalism mean different things. Though generally seen as a positive two-way process, integration can quickly turn coercive and conformist when tied to an ultimate goal of obtaining Britishness. In contrast, multiculturalism is more intimately tied with pluralism and identity politics, allowing for the retention of cultural and religious distinctiveness. Integration is frequently cited in the survey but these differences are important to keep in mind during discussions, with multiculturalism more of a postmodern conception and popular with youth.

A prime example of ‘lack of integration’ shaming was in the BBC documentary ‘Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men’ presented by Mehreen Baig. The blame was placed solely on the cultural values of the British Pakistani community in Bradford, seen as the cause of their isolation. A lack of integration is seen as a source of failure, while racism and discrimination that may have led to segregation are ignored. Undoubtedly, the documentary revealed major issues the British Pakistani community needs to deal with, but is was also a display of internalised racism that exacerbates the Good Immigrant narrative. Anti-Muslim prejudice unsurprisingly emerged as fiercest amongst respondents, with cultural differences suggesting a threatening incompatibility with British life — automatically resulting in Bad Immigrant status.

The report states that ‘Integration is key to building public consent for immigration’, revealing the coercive tones that immigration policy is dangerously playing with. If trust, tolerance and acceptance can be learned through association as studies suggest, it is up to the younger generations for whom this is more inherent and ingrained to ensure that the integration policy going forward is focused upon respect and celebration of cultural differences.