Far from being topics of taboo, integration, immigration and racism have been politicised for years in dishonest narratives. Are Tony Blair and other centrists going down the same path again as populism rears its ugly head once more?

“Integration is the best way of protecting diverse multicultural communities from populists determined to sow division.”

Is it?

That was the loaded question raised once more in a report by the Tony Blair Institute last week.

In it, the former Labour Prime Minister is unequivocal.

“There is a duty to integrate, to accept the rules, laws and norms of our society that all British people hold in common and share, while at the same time preserving the right to practise diversity, which is fully consistent with such a duty,” he said. “Government cannot and should not be neutral on this question. It has to be a passionate advocate and, where necessary, an enforcer of the duty to integrate… Integration is not a choice; it is a necessity.”

That Mr Blair believes Government should not only encourage integration, but enforce it will be concerning to some.

The findings of the report, ‘The Glue That Binds: Integration in a Time of Populism’, are underpinned by “principle and pragmatism”, according to the Institute.

It advocates that the UK should make integration an “explicit policy priority” and even appoint an Integration Minister because “there is strong evidence that social mixing can reduce anxiety and increase trust and understanding between groups, and promote resilience to extremist ideologies”.

The view of Britishness or Englishness is ethnically exclusive and regards newcomers as foreigners who are inherently different and threatening and probably here to rip us off in some way.

Professor Jonathan Portes, King’s College London

“Integration” is distinct from “assimilation”, it says, with the latter “a one-way trajectory of becoming like the rest of the population, with a focus on adaptation by migrants”.

“Genuine integration cannot simply apply to minorities,” the report states. “It must be about the whole of society, entailing both a sense of belonging for newcomers and a sense of ease with the pace of change for majority citizens”.

That populism is on the rise in Britain is not in doubt.

Fed by and fuelling Brexit, the cultural change heralded by the 2016 Referendum – the normalisation of an inflammatory discourse around issues such as integration, race and immigration – has coincided with a rise in hate crime. According to the latest official statistics, there was a 17% increase in the number of hate crime offences recorded in 2017-18, compared to the previous year. Out of the 94,098 that occurred, 85% were related to race and religion.

But, is strengthening integration – a term that is more often than not interpreted as placing an onus on immigrants to keep their heads down and fit in – a solution to this?

And what about the more difficult proposition of confronting and tackling the ugly core of the issue – racism itself? With all the integration imaginable, the structural and historical power dynamics of racism will continue to exist if they are not actively examined and dismantled.

That racial undertones will, if not for all then some, be at the heart of concerns about immigration cannot be side-stepped. The question is: does a focus on integration do just that?

The Tony Blair Institute believes fingers should be pointed for the rise of populism at politicians unwilling to speak about the need for integration.

Referring to discussions around the integration of Muslim communities in recent years, the report says that “silence on these issues has left space for populists on the right to frame the debate in ‘them and us’ terms”.

“Clearly it is important that progressive politicians push back strongly against the notion – peddled by extremists – that an inability to integrate is somehow innate to Muslims and arises from a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and Western values of democracy and liberalism,” it states.

Police with riot shields stand by as demonstrators are frog-marched to waiting vans in Southall in 1979 after a battle broke out at the town hall where a National Front rally was taking place. Photo: PA Images

“Many politicians harbour an understandable concern that even raising such questions risks fuelling anti-Muslim prejudice (which itself is rising) by seeming to stigmatise an entire community. Yet in wishing to deny oxygen to the extremists, progressives have often gone too far in the opposite direction, by refusing to broach the issue altogether.

“Their silence on these issues has left space for populists on the right to frame the debate in ‘them and us’ terms. It has also fuelled the suspicion, exploited to devastating effect by right-wing populists such as France’s Marine Le Pen, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and Britain’s Tommy Robinson, that elites are attempting to shut down a legitimate conversation.”

Those I spoke to working in this field believe that it is not a lack of politicians speaking about integration, immigration and racism that is the problem – but a politicisation of these issues for partisan gain.

Speaking at London’s Mile End Institute last week, Omar Khan, director of the race equality charity the Runnymede Trust, said racialised narratives around immigration were used as a political device by those campaigning to leave the EU.

“Brexit has indeed revealed an undercurrent of racism in Britain that we still haven’t appreciated and come to terms with, but Brexit has also amplified it,” he said.

“The formal and informal Brexit campaigns clearly thought they would get some mileage by appealing to some more-or-less explicit forms of racism – there was Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, but also the ads targeted by Facebook with images of Africans coming via Spain, images of Turkish people coming through.

“So, clearly, whether or not the voters who chose to leave the European Union were motivated by racism, those that designed the campaigns certainly thought that was a reason for people to vote that way.”

It’s actually the whole political discourse, the centralising of immigration as a key electoral issue, which is the key factor that has provided fertile terrain for the Far Right.

Liz Fekete, Institute of Race Relations

Dr Khan said people’s concerns over issues such as immigration and integration are being used by populists who are “deliberately fostering that argument and fostering it in such a way that makes it very alarmist”.

“It’s not the objective facts of the numbers, it’s the way that’s been framed,” he said. “I agree that where you have high levels of population change and cuts to public services and shortages in places in schools for example, that does create pressures, but that’s not just about immigration, that’s about a general failure to fund those services properly.”  

He said analogies to the rise of populism in Europe in the 1930s made by politicians such as Labour’s David Lammy are valid because “we are seeing signs of normalisation of certain types of discourse that we need to be alarmed out”.

Tony Blair is not the only ‘third way’ politician in recent months to suggest that concerns about immigration has led to populism.

Last November, Hillary Clinton said Europe needed to control immigration to combat right-wing populism and that Brexit was “largely about immigration”.

“Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” she said.

Maya Goodfellow, whose book on immigration will be published later this year, has criticised centrist politicians because they “reproduce the very logic that the Far Right depend on”.

“These words all sound fairly neutral, that people need to integrate into British society, surely that’s just about people getting along and learning English,” she said last week at the Mile End Institute.

“The reason this is so insidious is because this reproduces implicitly the very idea of a ‘white nation’; this idea that there is a norm which migrants, particular migrants – when people talk about immigrants they’re usually not talking about white wealthy Americans – [need to conform to]… What’s interesting about this is no amount of integration is ever enough… At what point do you stop being continually asked to prove yourself, that you belong in this nation?”

Referring to adverts about Turkey joining the EU during the 2016 Referendum, Dr Goodfellow said the response of the Remain campaign legitimised such messages in failing to counter them.

“The response from the Remain campaign was ‘Turkey’s not going to join the European Union so we’re fine’,” she said. “So all these racial discourses about people from Turkey coming into Britain, essentially what the Remain side did was to say ‘yes those people are a threat, but it’s fine because they’re not going to be coming into the country’. These are the ideas that the Far Right thrive off. This sense that the country needs to be protected from outsiders and those outsiders are racialised.”

People’s perceived fears about immigration are not grounded in the number of migrants coming to Britain, she said, but on a “racialised discourse” – something far more complex but important to get to grips with than speaking about immigration targets.

Whether or not the voters who chose to leave the European Union were motivated by racism, those that designed the campaigns certainly thought that was a reason for people to vote that way.

Omar Khan, The Runnymede Trust

“People have always said there are too many immigrants,” she said. “Yes, there may be fears but what are those fears based in? You hear the phrase ‘legitimate concerns’ a lot, and the problem with that is it assumes that the fear is natural and rational, that it’s the norm and its not changeable.

“Actually, that fear, if it exists at all, is produced by historical racialised discourse about who is a threat and who’s not… The big problem is that we’re told it is not possible to address it and therefore we have to respect it and I actually think that is one of the most pernicious anti-immigration arguments that persists in our discourse at the moment and something that we should be consistently challenging.”

The late political thinker and director of the Institute for Race Relations, A. Sivanandan, famously said of migrants from Britain’s former colonies: “We are here because you were there”.

For Liz Fekete, the IRR’s current director, the “yardstick” for the integration of immigrants changed following 9/11.

“Integration used to be measured by integration into structures such as education, work, housing, but now there is a new yardstick, which is integration into values,” she told me.

“The debate about migrants and immigration has been intense since 2001. Politicians have been constantly saying that we need new immigration measures, that we need to cut down on the numbers of refugees. It’s actually the whole political discourse, the centralising of immigration as a key electoral issue, which is the key factor that has provided fertile terrain for the Far Right, for extreme right parties and anti-immigration movements.”

She believes politicians have failed to speak honestly about immigration.

“None of the politicians want to talk about why we don’t have policies of full employment, about the globalised economy, about why so many people are being displaced around the world,” Ms Fekete said.

Neville and Doreen Lawrence, the parents of murdered black teenager Stephen, during a news conference in 1999. Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the 1993 murder would find that the police were ‘institutionally racist’ in their handing of the case. Photo: PA Images

“They are happy to make immigration the central issue in elections and then each party vies with the other as to who is the best manager of immigration… Our politicians are totally aware that we live in a globalised world and that no country can survive outside globalisation and are completely culpable for not wanting to have those difficult discussions.”

Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College London, told me he does not believe that promoting integration and tackling racism are “substitutes” for one another.

“If you’re coming at this from a liberal, civic, nationalist point-of-view – which I think is where most people are on this – integration is probably a good thing and would help,” he said.

“When you think about what governments can do to tackle racism and the causes of racism, what they can and should do is make it illegal to express your racism in ways that have negative effects on other people and we do that. If you think racism is reduced by promoting contact between people of different backgrounds then that is something which promotes integration and reduces racism.”

Professor Portes, whose book on immigration will be published in the coming months, said that, even with Brexit, immigration is not a new area of debate in British cultural and political life.

“There have always been some pretty unpleasant and incorrect narratives out there and a lot of these arguments don’t change that much,” he told me. “There is quite a bit of continuity here between the view of Britishness or Englishness which is ethnically exclusive and regards newcomers as foreigners who are inherently different and threatening and probably here to rip us off in some way, and the opposite view that immigration has a bunch of economic and social upsides.

“We have made some progress in the last 50 years in that expressing that conflict in overtly racial or ethnic terms is considerably less prevalent and more unacceptable.”

Fear, if it exists at all, is produced by historical racialised discourse about who is a threat and who’s not… The big problem is that we’re told it is not possible to address it and therefore we have to respect it.

Maya Goodfellow

He said politicians need to show “courage and leadership” in speaking accurately about immigration – including when “framing the debate and saying what is acceptable and what is not”.

“The Roger Scruton affair is a good example of this,” Professor Portes said. “Politicians should not be afraid to go out and say ‘Scruton may or may not be an important philosopher, but actually he’s clearly a bigot and his views are not just different from mine, they are sufficiently outside the frame of acceptable debate that he should not have even an unpaid role as a government advisor’.

“It’s difficult because the boundaries are blurred and you do want, in general, to err on the side of free speech and open debate, but equally there is a role for policing the boundaries.”

However, he said there has been a “clear shift in public opinion” since the 2016 Referendum and that people are much more positive about immigration because “now politicians are having to confront the trade-offs, so yes, you can reduce immigration but it’s going to have the following negative consequences”.

“That, in conjunction with a pretty noticeable turn in the way the media covers immigration – that isn’t to say it’s wonderful, but it’s a lot better than it was three years ago – shows there is an argument to be made that the Brexit vote has jolted the UK’s debate on immigration into a somewhat more constructive place and I don’t think liberals, regardless of what their views are on Brexit, should pretend that’s not happening and everything is terrible,” he added.

Whether focusing on integration can ever get to the bottom of why some people are concerned by immigration, and the role of race in this, is a debate that society needs to have. Honestly, respectfully, desperately – and now more than ever.


Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up to our newsletter (and get a free edition posted to you)

Our leading investigations include: empire & the culture warBrexit, crony contractsRussian interferencethe Coronavirus pandemicdemocracy in danger, and the crisis in British journalism. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Identity, Empire and the Culture War

‘Damn Rees-Mogg’s Politics of Civility’

, 27 January 2023
The Conservative MP's promise to bring back ‘civilised political debate’ in his new GB News show is an insult to the people harmed by this Government, writes Iain Overton

‘The Conservative Party: No Common Good’

, 16 January 2023
The Conservatives have abandoned their post-war commitment to any meaningful social contract, argues Chris Painter, and are reduced to discredited market dogmas and neo-imperial fantasies

Fighting Back Against National-Populism

, 19 December 2022
Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar consider what the progressive Left can do to counter dangerous hard-right thinking on the great social issues of our era

More stories filed under Argument

Stalingrad: The Second Time as Farce

, 2 February 2023
As Putin threatens the West at a commemoration of the decisive World War Two battle, Paul Niland says the Russian President's red lines are drawn in the sand

Wagner Crimes: How the UK can Take the Lead on Stopping Putin’s Mercenaries

, 2 February 2023
Wagner Crimes: How the UK can Take the Lead on Stopping Putin’s Mercenaries

‘Brexit – Three Years On: The Lie So Etched on Britain’s Body Politic’

, 1 February 2023
Jonathan Lis explores whether telling the truth about leaving the EU would take the entire establishment down too

More from the Byline Family