A tolerant country?

Published over fifteen years ago in 1991, Colin Holmes’ ‘A Tolerant Country?’ poses a question that is as relative today as it was then.

Holmes starting point is what he sees as the internalised celebratory vision of Britain as a tolerant country and British people as inherently decent and tolerant of immigrants, refugees and minorities, a self-presentation about which Holmes is clearly dubious.

amy cA few years ago at the height of the refugee crisis it was repeatedly argued that Britain has a long and respected history of providing a haven for refugees. This included repeatedly statements from Theresa May’s Home Office about Britain’s “proud history” of granting asylum, statements which, to use Holmes’ terms, help to “puff up national pride.” Such statements are often accompanied by assertions of Britain’s tradition of liberty and toleration, characteristics that are also set out by the UK Government as ‘British values’. In an independent “review into opportunity and integration” last year, for example, Dame Louise Casey explained that she had approached the review “with an absolute belief that we are a compassionate, tolerant and liberal country.” These characteristics, it seems, continue to be celebrated as core features of Britain and her people.

That such value and importance is placed on tolerance within political and public narratives, and is a central tenet of British Citizenship education, must surely be considered a noble and moral effort. However, the general conception of toleration as a benign ‘good’ ignores some its key characteristics, while also obscuring some worrying characteristics of contemporary British society.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines tolerance as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.” To tolerate, therefore, is not to affirm or accept the Other ‘as-different’, but to “conditionally allow” that which is essentially unwanted or deviant. In other words, when we ‘tolerate’ something or someone, we believe it/they is objectionable.

Writing in the British context, Professor Bridget Anderson explains that individuals can be considered ‘tolerated’ citizens, but still not be ‘good’ citizens. These are the people ‘we’ put up with but do not necessarily want, whose beliefs or practices we object to but which ‘we’ allow, albeit conditionally.

In the UK, ‘Britishness’ is often celebrated and positioned as good, as moral, liberal and tolerant, in direct contrast to other (and especially non-western) cultures. In fact, it is often the perceived in-tolerance of the Other – particularly but not exclusively in relation to gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights – that provides the grounds for exclusion. This is the relative dimension of tolerance that Holmes talks about; the idea that ‘we’ are more tolerant than ‘them’ and are therefore morally superior.

Professor of Political Philosophy Wendy Brown, describes tolerance as a civilising discourse, explaining that even while it is in many ways emancipatory, it is also subordinating, and has “dark and troubling undercurrents.” This, Brown explains, is because tolerance is always implicated with power, and is frequently used to consolidate the dominance of those already in positions of relative power. For example, when ‘we’ position the Other as illiberal, immoral, backward and/or in-tolerant, we are also able to attribute value to ‘our’ selves, emphasising our own moral agency and superiority, and consolidating our power and dominance as ‘tolerate-rs’ over the ‘tolerate-d’.

The limits of tolerance

In its conditionally, tolerance has limits and in recent years British politicians, including former Prime Minister David Cameron, have suggested that Britain has in fact been too tolerant of ‘different’ beliefs and practices. Although support for UKIP has declined since the EU referendum, support for anti-immigration parties and policies in recent years suggests that when it comes to immigration and ethnic and religious diversity many in Britain have reached the limits of their tolerance. If anything, they argue, Britain has been far too tolerant.[i] This seems particularly true when it comes to Britain’s Muslim communities.

In their comments about tolerance, both Casey and Cameron chose to focus attention on Britain’s Muslim communities in ways that expose the continued significance of the ‘host’/ ‘guest’ metaphor that traditionally characterised UK immigration and race relations policy. Despite the fact that 47.2% of Muslims in the UK were born in Britain and 73% state their nationality only as British, Muslims are frequently constructed as ‘guests’ who have abused their ‘hosts’ tolerant hospitality, rather than fully-fledged substantive British citizens in their own right. They, along with many other migrant and/or minoritised groups, seem to have been granted only conditional tolerance, positioned as people to be tolerated rather than people who themselves tolerate.

Britain’s leaders continue to celebrate the country’s tolerance as both accepted reality and unquestioned good. The idea that ‘we’ are a tolerant people not only “puffs up” national pride, as Holmes’ puts it, it also makes us feel better about our behaviour in relation to the Other. Whether that means turning a blind eye to refugee crises across the world, forgetting the violence of Empire, or critiquing the practices of migrant and minoritised groups, the “celebratory myth” of British tolerance acts as a buffer for any guilt or responsibility we might feel and allows ‘us’ to speak and act with a virtuous morality so often denied to the Other.

When people talk about tolerance they often do so as if tolerance is a benign good in society, and yet, at the heart of toleration lie feelings of disapproval, distaste and aversion. Tolerance is not so much about respect and acceptance as avoidance and silence; not welcome and embrace but conditionality, marginalisation and continual exclusion. How did such a half-hearted, lukewarm image of society become the aim?


Further reading

Anderson, B. (2013). Us and them?: the dangerous politics of immigration control. Oxford University Press.

Brown, W. (2006) Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Empire and Identity. Princeton University Press.

Brown, W. and Forst, R. (2014) The Power of Tolerance. Columbia University Press.

Holmes, C. (1991) A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities in Britain. Faber and Faber.


[i] According to Philosopher Karl Popper, the paradox of tolerance is that “[i]f we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

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