Brixton High Street. A quarter of people in England will be from minority ethnic groups by the time of the next census in 2021 (© Getty Images)
Britain’s social experiment with large-scale immigration just got even more interesting. The results of the 2011 census tell a story that is both encouraging and worrying. Most of the big picture was expected (as Philip Collins has written in the February 2013 edition of Prospect). But on one thing the experts were caught by surprise—London becoming majority-minority. The historic white British majority in the city is now in a minority. The old imperial capital truly has seen the empire striking back and it seems that native white Londoners do not like it.
For it is important to realise that the share of the white British population in London fell so dramatically from 59.8 per cent in 2001 to 44.9 per cent in 2011 not only because of high levels of immigration (both white and non-white) but also thanks to an exodus of white Britons. The number of white British Londoners fell by 600,000, about three times higher in absolute terms than over the previous census period, 1991 to 2001.
This is one of the biggest “misses” by the relevant experts in recent years. Most of the academics who study these things had not expected London to go majority-minority for another 20 or 30 years. Leicester was meant to be the first big town to cross the symbolically significant line though as it happens Slough got there first, and now has a white British population of just 34.5 per cent. (Leicester has also crossed the line, along with Luton.)
But it is London where the change has been most spectacular. I asked a London MP who represents one of the areas where the white British population has fallen below half how many of London’s 33 boroughs had now passed that point and he said: “I would guess five or six.” It is 23.
Is it happening because of “white flight,” meaning discomfort with the changing racial composition of an area? Looking at the boroughs where the exodus has been biggest and most rapid—Newham, Enfield, Redbridge and Barking and Dagenham—it is hard not to see race, or at least a desire to live among people you are familiar with, as a factor.
Take Barking and Dagenham. From the 1950s to the late 1980s the place had been a sort of white working-class, blue collar utopia in which almost everyone got a council house and, if they wanted, a job at the giant Ford factory. But then most of the factory closed and Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy policy opened up the borough to recent immigrants in search of cheap private housing. Barking and Dagenham became famous in the mid-to-late 2000s for the brief success of the far-right British National Party.
A place that was almost all white British in the late 1980s fell to 80 per cent white British in 2001 and then to 49 per cent in 2011. That latter reduction of 40,000 white British people, almost one third in just 10 years, was the highest proportionate reduction in the country. In their place came a cross-section of British immigrants of the past 15 years—black Africans, south Asians and east Europeans. The biggest single group of incomers was black Africans; just 4 per cent in 2001, they now make up 15 per cent. People from south Asian backgrounds constitute another 12 per cent of the population and east Europeans about 6 per cent.
There are many reasons why white British people might want to leave apart from (or as well as) discomfort at the scale and speed of demographic change: better schools, house prices, retirement and so on. And it is true that there is a long tradition of white East Enders moving from, say, Bethnal Green to Barking and then out to Essex. But even if it is true that the white British are leaving for quite traditional reasons, they are not being replaced in the population “churn” by white British families, so the result is still a more segregated future.
Where are the white British who are shunning the outer suburbs going? Most of them seem to be moving just a few miles to the surrounding counties in search of the way of life they once knew—almost all of those counties, especially Essex and Kent, saw an increase in their white British population between 2001 and 2011.
Essex is now 91 per cent white British, but the number in the neighbouring London borough of Redbridge is 34 per cent. The social geographer Richard Harris, from Bristol University, has found similar ethnic “cliffs” in neighbouring local authorities around the country: Leicester is 28 per cent British Indian, Leicestershire 4 per cent; Bradford is 20 per cent British Pakistani, North Yorkshire 0.1 per cent; Southwark is 16 per cent black African, the City of London 1.3 per cent.
Does this matter? There are many in liberal Britain who seem to believe it is a mark of sophistication not to notice these profound demographic shifts. But if the sort of polite apartheid that is developing in London and the south east of England starts to develop in other parts of the country—and Harris’s figures suggest it may be—this is surely a setback to a decent society.
The rate of immigration is now slowing but, even so, by the time of the next census in 2021 around 25 per cent of England’s population may belong to a minority ethnic group. Rather than turning a blind eye, politicians need to think harder about segregation and white flight and how to prevent or mitigate it.
Lack of contact between majority and minority is a recipe for low trust and prejudice. Yet even in rich, liberal societies, people in both groups still often prefer to live among their own, or at least in an area where their own group sets the tone. We do know, for example, that about 3m people live in households where no one speaks English as a first language and that schools in some areas are getting more divided—in London only about a third of south Asian primary school pupils attend a majority white school.
The census does also give grounds for optimism about the willingness of ethnic groups to mix with each other. The number of British mixed race people now stands at 1.2m. About 12 per cent of households (with more than one person) have people from more than one ethnic group: in Brent, such households make up 34 per cent of the total, in Manchester 25 per cent, while Lewisham has 39 per cent, according to the University of Manchester’s Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity.
Some parts of urban and suburban England are evidently seeing a common life emerge across ethnic boundaries. But this is happening less in places like Redbridge and Enfield, where the white British are fleeing, and even less in towns like Bradford and Oldham where the white British do not or cannot flee to the same extent, instead living “parallel lives” apart from the towns’ minorities.
The question is this: is London’s white flight an outlier, as in so many other things about the capital, or is it the face of the future for the rest of the country? If it is the latter, we are in for a bumpy ride.