Britain has undergone great changes over the past decade, as the census makes clear

Editorial: Another country

Bronwen Maddox introduces the February issue
January 23, 2013

Britain has become a different country in just a decade. That is the message of the census, which showed the largest growth in the population since the survey began 200 years ago. Politicians are in flight from the implications. No party has addressed the five serious questions arising from this change, as Philip Collins argues. The first is where parties should seek their voters, given that the old politics of identity, based on religion or class, have broken down. The second is what to do about immigration; public concern is high, although the youthfulness of the new arrivals makes easier the third problem, the ageing of the population. But immigration exacerbates the fourth, the pressure on housing and the end, for many, of the dream of owning a home. The fifth challenge—of how to reshape the economy to compete in the modern world—is arguably easier during such change (although Michael Gove will not draw much comfort from Peter Kellner’s poll).

As Philip Collins argues, Britain has accommodated the changes with astonishing calm, although the rise of UKIP is a sign of unease. And the speed of change is forcing politicians finally to face those hard questions. A year ago, we ran on the cover of Prospect the question “Tax the aged?”, which leading politicians described to us at the time as a taboo they dared not break; now, it is at the centre of Westminster debate.

The bigger question is one that confronts any country of more than one ethnic group, whether that has been its character throughout its history or acquired through immigration: how to define the rights of minorities clearly and generously enough to allow people to live in peace. Few get it right, and not quickly; that is one theme of this issue of Prospect, which includes arguments from those who have dedicated years to trying to broker peace or shape a constitution. The “bad peace” of Sri Lanka is the subject of Meera Selva’s report, while Marc Weller, a professor in international law who was a UN senior mediation expert, asks whether peace has come at the expense of justice. Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress for more than 15 years, and a close observer of two decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, asks whether there is a last chance to save the “two-state solution.”

Even in Britain, questions of minority and regional rights are hardly settled. David Goodhart, who has written extensively on multiculturalism, argues that the appearance of harmony conceals separation. John Kerr, former head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who orchestrated the drafting of the European Union constitution, warns Scotland that if it becomes independent, it cannot assume that joining the EU would be easy, quick or cheap.

Such questions will only increase as people move around the globe. Politicians who dare to confront them now will find that their parties survive in that fluid future. Those who fail will find that their voters leave them—or that whole regions do.