Contrary to what many people seem to believe, Britain is not riven by a large-scale culture clash. Indeed, despite widespread fears about the integration of Muslims into British culture, there is no evidence that Muslims are less likely to think of themselves as British than other groups. These are among the conclusions of research by Professor Alan Manning and Sanchari Roy, published in the February 2010 Economic Journal.
The study, which analyses data on the national identity and values of both immigrants and British-born people, finds that the longer immigrants remain in Britain, the more likely they are to think of themselves as British – and that immigrants from poorer and less democratic countries assimilate faster into a British identity.
For example, immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh assimilate into a British identity much faster than the average, while those from Western Europe and the United States do so more slowly, with Italians standing out as the group that assimilates least into a British identity.
Many people in Britain consider immigration to be one of the most important issues facing the country today. Their concerns seem to be as much about the social impact of immigration as its economic impact, which economists typically conclude are small.
Quite what the social consequences of immigration that are feared is not entirely clear – sometimes it is simply the dilution of ”traditional” culture; sometimes it is a more melodramatic fear that Britain is becoming a mix of mutually incompatible cultures, whose irreconcilable differences could end in a serious ”culture clash”.
This research uses responses from the Labour Force Survey of almost one million individuals to the question ”What do you consider your national identity to be?” as well as data on people”s views of their rights and responsibilities from Home Office Citizenship Surveys. The answers give little support to the idea of a serious culture clash within British society.
Among those who were born in Britain, over 90% of all groups of whatever religion or ethnicity, think of themselves as British. In particular, there is no evidence that Muslims are less likely to think of themselves as British than other groups.
Ethnicity has a somewhat larger effect on British identity than religion. All non-white ethnic groups report lower levels of British identity, but this is probably because many of them are second-generation immigrants. Young people from ethnic minorities whose parents are British-born report the same levels of British identity as the white population.
One group stands out as having an extremely low level of British identity – Catholics from Northern Ireland. It appears that any identity conflict among British-born Muslims is an order of magnitude smaller than that among Catholics from Northern Ireland.
The fraction of immigrants who identify themselves as British varies a lot by country of birth. But there is a simple explanation for most of this variation – how long immigrants have been in the country. New immigrants almost never think of themselves as British, but the longer they remain in the country the more likely they are to do so.
This process of assimilation is faster for some immigrant groups than others, but not in the way that might be expected. For example, Muslims are not less likely to feel British than those from other backgrounds, and immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh assimilate into a British identity much faster than the average, while those from Western Europe and the United States do so more slowly, with Italians standing out as the group that assimilates least into a British identity.
There is also evidence that immigrants from poorer and less democratic countries assimilate faster into a British identity. Part but not all of this can be explained by a greater tendency to take up citizenship.
Rights and responsibilities
This last finding might lead one to argue that whether people think of themselves as British is not a meaningful indicator of whether they feel they belong, nor of their integration into British life and values. There is little concern about the fact that Italians rarely seem to come to think of themselves as British because it is felt that Italians have similar views on the way in which society should be run.
So it is conceivable that those born in Britain call themselves British (because that is what their passport says they are) but they espouse a variety of diverse values. For some, it might be that their country of birth means that they automatically think of themselves as British while for others it might be the values (good or bad) that Britain represents to them, which lead to their identifying themselves as British.
To examine the values that lie behind notions of British identity, the researchers conducted an analysis of people”s views on rights and responsibilities. Their findings here are very similar to those on national identity: immigrants are very slightly less likely to have views on rights and responsibilities that the popular consensus holds to be ”desirable”.
But the differences are much smaller than the differences among the British-born population of different ages and with different levels of education. What”s more, the immigrant groups who emerge as having different values from the British-born population are not the ones that have become the focus of most public concern. Muslims, for example, do not have significantly different values.
These findings strongly suggest that contrary to what many people seem to believe, Britain is not riven by large-scale culture clash. This is not to deny the existence of some people who are prepared to use violence to further their agenda, but this evidence suggests that these are a tiny minority.
The researchers comment:
”In presenting our research findings at various universities, we have been surprised by how many people react by saying our results are all wrong and that they “know” that there is a serious culture clash. We should be seriously concerned that this “knowledge” is simply wrong.
”While there may not be much of a problem with immigrants and minorities in Britain not thinking of themselves as British, there may be a bigger problem in the refusal of the indigenous white population to see these groups as British.”
Culture Clash or Culture Club? The Identity and Attitudes of Immigrants in Britain” by Alan Manning and Sanchari Roy is published in the February 2010 issue of the Economic Journal.
professor of economics at LSE
PhD student and research assistant at LSE