Making Sense of the Madness: Moving on from ‘The Big British Immigration Row’

Every now and then I need to be reminded that what I’m doing matters. Channel 5’s Big British Immigration Row last week definitely did the job: an inflammatory and frankly bizarre two hours of ‘discussion’ which once again proved that the immigration debate in the UK is dangerously wrapped up with matters of ‘race’, religion and criminality. While for some debate rages on over the economic and social costs and benefits, for others, like social commentator Mo Ansar, “the economic debate is over” and “what we’re left with is an argument based on fear, and prejudice, and hysteria.” Immigration is a notoriously divisive issue, and always has been. So why can’t we just get on?

The fact is that generally we do get on. People rarely oppose immigration because of personal interactions with migrants. In fact, researchers have repeatedly found that opposition to immigration is driven by “concerns about the group, or British society, as a whole” in relation to resources, customs and traditions. Meanwhile self-interest apparently has “little bearing” on opposition to immigration.[1] Such findings suggest that people generally oppose immigration because of the potential threat that immigrants are assumed to pose to a British way of life. Yes it’s about jobs and housing and welfare, but it’s about those issues on a larger scale than the individual alone. As McLaren and Johnson explain:

…even if the individual is not personally under threat of competition for jobs, housing, etc., they may worry that others within their key ingroup are actually in such competition […] in essence, members of minority groups tend to be perceived as taking resources that ‘belong to’ one’s own group.

McLaren and Johnson also describe how migrants are often depicted as “symbolic threats” to the nation. This is particularly true of Muslim migrants who are perceived to pose a specific and significant threat to ‘British’ national values and ideals.[2] This symbolic element is another important driver of anti-immigrant sentiment within society.1 When we talk about the national level it seems clear that anti-immigrant sentiment is a function of social distance; on a personal level migrants aren’t a problem, and we have migrant friends, but en masse they constitute a real and immediate threat to ‘our’ way of life and success in this country.[3]

We are not unable to ‘get on’ as people, although programs like The Big Immigration Row may make it appear that way. There are obviously real concerns about the country’s finite resources, which are perhaps felt most strongly by the socially and economically powerless in society. Yet, time and time again, the figures show that migration is beneficial to the economy. So what’s going on? We think migrants are a threat to the nation, its values and traditions, but when they’re our friends it’s alright? We’re fearful of what immigration’s doing to the country, to ‘native’ unemployment and school waiting lists, but the statistics say it helps? And at the end of the day Sita next door does make a mean cup of tea…

The principle of ‘community cohesion’ assumes that by fostering the everyday interaction of ‘different’ groups we can reach an enlightened state where migrants are integrated and neighbourhoods function as cohesive communities.[4] Community operates on the local level. It’s about relationships, experiences and interactions that occur in everyday life. Thus, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion’s report Our Shared Future explains: “it is through millions of small everyday actions that we can all either improve or harm our local communities.” Even in the most diverse neighbourhoods people interact, get on, and live together in “convivial” and “competent” ways. If this is true and people are ‘getting on’ in these local settings – and I realise it may not be working in every setting – could the interaction of people in everyday space hold the key to moving beyond the national and group level rhetoric of conflict and threat? Can it help us make sense of the madness?

In a recent article the team at LIVE DIFFERENCE argued that a focus on “conviviality” and the small-scale interactions that occur between people in daily life could help to shift the focus away from the crisis talk that dominates public discourses on immigration. In fact, they go further to suggest that rather than focusing on “conditional meaningful interactions” (as the cohesion agenda does), it is preferable (and more realistic) to focus on “fleeting exchanges and mundane competencies for living cultural difference”, that is, the informal, everyday practices that ‘just happen’ when you live together. These “competences”, arguably, hold the key to understanding the complex ways in which diversity and multi-culture are lived.

On the other hand, it could be debated whether fleeting interactions and ‘random mixing’ are enough to foster community. Surely interactions only matter if they are significant or meaningful?[5] This has tended to be the line taken by the government’s cohesion agenda;[6] however, in Susanne Wessendorf’s study of social mixing in Hackey (a super-diverse area of London) she found that even fleeting contact was important. A willingness to mix in public spaces was found to be part of “an implicit grammar of living in a super-diverse area” where unwillingness to interact is thought to harm the social fabric. Although interaction was not always meaningful and did not extend to the private sphere, residents did not see this as a problem.

Expectations of “cool conviviality” and “light engagements” are certainly more realistic than the deep, sustained interactions expected by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. The convivial approach therefore leaves space to consider the inequalities and structural factors that may be preventing more sustained, regular interactions between sections of society. It allows us to focus on the local, everyday competencies (or limitations) that make multiculturalism work (or not). After all, the banal actions that make up daily life can be important bases for intercultural dialogue.

The local, everyday approach to understanding multi-culture certainly has a very real role to play and holds potential for moving us on from debates based on potential threats to national values and resources. Of course these things are important, but our opinions on them are often distorted by fear, prejudice and media. I do not agree with Katie Hopkins on anything. However, one point she (almost) made amidst the nonsense rings true: it somehow doesn’t matter what the facts are when people’s perceptions are distorted. Until perceptions change it sadly doesn’t seem to matter how beneficial migration is or how nice our immigrant friends and neighbours are. Perhaps by spreading attention more evenly across the levels of society and looking at the everyday conviviality that does work we can have a more informed debate. And it’s a debate we need, not a row.

Further Reading

McLaren L and Johnson M. (2007) Resources, Group Conflict and Symbols: Explaining Anti-Immigration Hostility in Britain. Political Studies 55: 709-732.

Neal S, Bennett K, Cochrane A, et al. (2013) Living multiculture: understanding the new spatial and social relations of ethnicity and multiculture in England. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 31: 308 – 323

Wessendorf S. (2011) Commonplace diversity and the ‘ethos of mixing’: Perceptions of difference in a London neighbourhood. Working Paper No.91, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford.


[1] McLaren and Johnson (2007). Iversflaten (2005) also found that opposition to immigration comes down to “concern about the unity of the[ir] national community”.

[2] Unfortunately conversations about immigration often fail to distinguish Muslim migrants from British-born Muslims, which can give the impression that all Muslims are immigrants.

[3] Media headlines that talk of “tides”, “floods” and “hoards” of immigrants play into the idea of threatening mass-migration.

[4] Community cohesion also fits in nicely with the coalition’s localism agenda and focus on reasserting ‘British’ values.

[5] E.g. Ash Amin warns that everyday encounters can ‘entrench group animosities and identities, through repetitions of gender, class, race, and ethnic practices’ (2002:969 in Wessendorf).

[6] See Vertovec’s report (particularly the quote from the CIC on page 28).

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