© Phil Disley

Britain's future looks like this

Look at the capital and you’ll see Britain’s future—better educated, less white and increasingly liberal
June 17, 2015

Since the general election, commentators from across the political spectrum have declared that the politics of London and those of the rest of the country are diverging. On the right, Brendan O’Neill writes that “vast swathes of the United Kingdom are now Labour-free zones. With one very striking exception: London. Here, Labour did better than in 2010.” On the left, Andy Burnham rails against a “metropolitan elite,” an unsubtle dig at the capital’s liberalism. The Labour MP Simon Danczuk argues that the party now needs to tailor its message on immigration to Rochdale, not Islington.

It would be foolish, of course, to deny that the capital differs in all sorts of ways from the rest of Britain. For example, inner London generates about three times as much wealth per head of population as the country as a whole. About three in five members of its workforce are university educated, compared with two in five nationally. And polling suggests that Londoners are more socially and economically liberal than Britons in general. While 40 per cent of them are non-white, the national figure is 14 per cent. Apart from Greater London’s easternmost fringes, the UK Independence Party is barely a presence in the capital.

"Though one might not know it from the opinion columns or the election results, Britain is in fact becoming more like London, not less."
Yet the accepted wisdom—that London and the rest of the country are becoming increasingly, and possibly irreconcilably, alienated from one another—collides with significant long-term demographic, attitudinal and economic changes. Though one might not know it from the opinion columns or the election results, Britain is in fact becoming more like London, not less.

The most obvious manifestation of this trend is the dramatic growth of Britain’s ethnic-minority population, which—although there are notable differences between groups—is on the whole younger and has a higher fertility rate than the population as a whole. The non-white population is thus growing as a proportion of the total: the 2011 census showed that it comprised 80 per cent of Britain’s total population growth over the preceding decade, with the overall ethnic minority proportion of the country rising from 9 per cent in 2001 to 14 per cent in 2011.

According to a 2013 projection for Demos, the think tank, by Trevor Phillips and Richard Webber, the country’s population will be about as ethnically diverse in 2025 as America is now. By 2040 it will be as diverse as America outright, with the figure in both countries at roughly 40 per cent (about equivalent to London today). No other major European country will experience this convergence. Even a more conservative estimate, by the think tank Policy Exchange, predicts that Britain’s ethnic-minority population will constitute one third of the total by 2050. By 2070, according to David Coleman of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, Britain will be majority non-white.

Even these striking figures do not fully describe Britain’s increasingly London-ish, patchwork population. In the 2015 election, for example, four million Britons eligible to vote were born outside the country, up from 3.5m in 2010. The rise is mostly accounted for by (generally white) immigration from elsewhere in Europe.

As the make-up of Britain is Londonising, so is its inhabitants’ sense of themselves and their shared identity. In London, “Britishness” tends to be understood as something that new arrivals can pick up. The broadly accepted understanding of nationhood is based on “civic” factors like adherence to British values and institutions, and participation in the country’s public life, rather than “ethnic” ones like an individual’s native language or place of birth. With each generation, the country as a whole is moving in this direction. According to a government-commissioned report on social cohesion, the “trend over time, such as one can be discerned, is of a move from an ancestral understanding of Britishness to one based more on civic values.”

This conforms to the findings of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, which shows that the shift is sharply generational. Most Britons think Britishness is defined by a mix of ethnic and civic factors, but whereas only 13 per cent of those born before 1945 think only civic factors apply, 40 per cent of those born after 1964 do. As the BSA concludes: “These findings suggest that, over time, the importance attached to ascribed ethnic factors in thinking about national identity may well decline, as older generations die out and are replaced by generations who are less likely to think of Britishness as dependent on factors such as birth, ancestry and sharing customs and traditions.”

Read more on London:

The London Syndrome

Uniformity, not money, is ruining London

The London schools revolution

If London’s attitude towards things like immigration and national identity is different from that of the rest of the country, this is at least in part a product of the city’s genius (relative to many of its international counterparts, at least) for absorbing large numbers of new arrivals reasonably smoothly. But as it becomes more plural in make-up, and notwithstanding those places where integration has failed (particularly in the north of England), Britain as a whole appears to be developing the same knack. Two factors illustrate this success.

First, rather than remaining confined to their places of arrival, highly diverse inner-city areas, immigrants and their descendants are spreading outwards to suburban and small-town Britain. In a study documenting the rise in the proportion of ethnic minority school pupils, from 11.5 per cent in 1999 to 17 per cent in 2009, Chris Hamnett of Kings College London was struck by the extent to which this was not confined to city centres: “We’re not looking at minorities being trapped or ghettoised in small areas,” he says. “There’s a process of suburbanisation.” The biggest increases in the ethnic minority pupil population were not in traditionally diverse Tower Hamlets, Newham or Birmingham, but in the leafy outer London boroughs of Croydon and Merton.

Hamnett finds that this trend is occurring across the country. “There are still large and typically more rural areas of the country where the percentage of ethnic minority pupils is very low. Yet even in these areas, the concentrations of ethnic minorities typically still doubled or trebled from 1-3 per cent to 4-5 per cent in a decade.” Philip Rees, a demographer at the University of Leeds, has made similar findings. His “diversity index” model indicates that by 2051 half of all local authority areas will exhibit the diversity currently seen in places like London, Bradford and Leicester. In the words of Sunder Katwala, the head of British Future, a think-tank focused on identity and integration, this means that “although the gradual spreading-out looks quite slow, it is about to get much faster.”
"Nationally, big cities are growing faster than the population as a whole"
The second indication of Britain’s knack for integration is that non-white Britons are increasingly living with and forming households with white ones—and raising fewer eyebrows in the process. The 2011 census found that the population of mixed-race Britons is growing faster than any other group, doubling to 1.2m in a decade. The generational gap on attitudes to mixed-race relationships is stark: 70 per cent of those aged 18-24 (that is, those who have grown up in a multi-ethnic Britain) are comfortable with mixed-race relationships and 5 per cent are uncomfortable; among those aged 65 and over the numbers are much closer—51 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

As the rest of Britain starts to exhibit some of London’s characteristics, the capital is growing. Earlier this year, its population regained its 1939 peak of 8.6m. It is expected to hit 10m by the 2030s. This growth is not an isolated phenomenon. Nationally, big cities are growing faster than the population as a whole. The Office for National Statistics records, for example, that Manchester grew by 18.9 per cent between 2001 and 2011 (compared with just 4.2 per cent for the north-west region as a whole). Likewise, Leeds will grow 11.8 per cent between 2011 and 2021, with the overall Yorkshire/Humber region growing by 7 per cent.

What is the reason for this growth? The short answer is that Britain is a liberal market economy whose manufacturing base has shrunk more than that of other western countries. As a result, it now specialises in areas such as business services, creative industries and niche manufacturing. These “post-industrial” sectors tend to cluster in cities. Bigger cities mean more competitive clusters, which in turn mean yet bigger cities.

In the process, Britain’s cities are becoming hubs for liberal values. In The Emerging Democrat Majority, a 2004 book that predicted many of the trends that would sweep Barack Obama to the White House in 2008, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira pointed out that the growing post-industrial urban areas in the United States reflect the political attitudes of the university graduates who dominate their economies. “These new post-industrial metropolises,” they wrote, “are peopled by the new professionals who live according to the ethics of post-industrial society. Their socially liberal values and concerns with the quality of life permeate the population, including the white working class.” With their cosmopolitan outlook and plentiful office jobs, Britain’s big cities confirm the Judis-Teixeira thesis about the nexus of post-manufacturing urban service industries and liberal, university-influenced social values.

The same economic trends, along with shifting public policies, are driving the growth of the university population. Each cohort of Britons is more likely to have undertaken higher education than the last. In the half-decade from 2007, for example, the number of students enrolling for a first degree at a higher education institution grew every year by about 50,000, almost equivalent to the voting population of a typical parliamentary constituency. The total proportion of young Britons who are in or have completed university education is now approaching 50 per cent (some 10 times the proportion in the postwar years).

As the cities and the university-educated population grow, so values change—Britain is becoming a more individualistic, “live and let live” society. According to the BSA survey, the proportion of Britons who think people who want children should marry has fallen from 70 per cent to 42 per cent. Those opposing pre-marital sex has dropped from 28 per cent to 11 per cent. Support for abortion has risen from 37 per cent to 62 per cent.

The growth of an urban, middle-class and often university-educated population in Britain is also edging it towards the laissez-faire preferences of Londoners on economic matters—here again, each generation of Britons is more individualistic than the previous one. As James Tilley, a political scientist at Oxford University, puts it: “It is clearly the case that the electorate has become increasingly libertarian over the last 25 years.”

That is borne out by studies of Britons’ views on the responsibilities of government. One such study, “Generation Strains,” published by Ipsos Mori and Demos, charts the small-state preferences of British voters. “Generation Y” (those born in the 1980s or after) are consistently less likely than previous generations to describe the creation of the welfare state as one of Britain’s proudest achievements. Compared with their parents and grandparents, they are much less likely to approve of higher taxes to increase public spending on the poor. Some polling suggests that young voters are also more hawkish on deficit reduction.

This pattern is borne out by polling on a range of issues testing for these political instincts. Further surveys by Ipsos MORI suggest that a majority of 15-34 year olds (unlike older groups) believe that free treatment on the NHS should be limited to those who look after their health. Generation Y is also more likely to think individuals, not the government, should cover the costs of long-term care. Polls by YouGov indicate that young voters are more supportive of the privatisation of utilities, more sceptical about government regulation of cigarette packets and more likely to think that the big supermarket chains are so big because they give people what they want and not because they drive small firms out of business.

Taken together, what do these trends—the growth of a more ethnically diverse and mixed society, the rise of the cities, a more pluralistic sense of nationhood, more individualistic attitudes to the economy and the state—tell us? The precise details of Britain’s future are impossible to predict, of course, but the country’s current direction nevertheless allows us to imagine a place that looks more than a little like its capital does today.

Imagine, then, that King William V abdicates in 2050. What sort of kingdom (if indeed it remains one) does he pass on to George VII? In formerly homogeneous areas—the Fens, the Pennines and the Somerset Levels—Pakistanis staff 24-hour pharmacies, Nigerian families run pubs and half of school pupils are non-white. A single London conurbation of 14m sprawls over 12 Transport for London zones. A third-generation Polish-Briton has just been elected Prime Minister. Most Britons are university graduates and are dramatically richer than previous generations, though income inequality is greater. The National Health Service has given way to a system of health insurance. Factories and old Anglican churches gather dust, while new office blocks, evangelical and Catholic churches, mosques, nightclubs and restaurants hum with life. At 77m, Britain’s population is easily the largest in western Europe (while Germany’s has shrunk).

If this sketch seems far-fetched, consider the precedents. London, though always distinct from the rest of Britain, has often incubated trends that have later spread out across the country—from new waves of immigration to fresh political ideas and trends in fashion and music. Its emergence (or should that be re-emergence?) as the world’s most globalised city over the past 30 years may have accentuated the sense of it being in the vanguard, but there is no evidence that the capital has become so alienated from the rest of Britain that what has begun there will not eventually take hold elsewhere. Indeed, if the country has one defining characteristic, it is surely its mongrelism—the synthesis of its own native traits with those from elsewhere in the world. London has been the engine of that process, and will continue to be so. Now, as before, to visit the capital is to glimpse Britain’s future.