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Being considered 'British' harder now than in the past

Being considered 'British' harder now than in the past

Categories: Latest News

Friday June 20 2014

The Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent, BBC News, Channel 4, and Sky News all report on the release of the British Social Attitudes survey on social attitudes relating to Britishness, national identity and immigration.

The survey findings on social attitudes are likely to have been affected by shifts in Britain’s demographics. For example, the report notes that in 1989, only 7% of the survey’s respondents were graduates and 44% had no qualifications. In the survey just released, 25% of the sample were graduates, outnumbering those without qualifications (20%). Moreover, professional and managerial professionals have also increased from 35% to 37% while there was a drop of semi-skilled or unskilled workers from 37% to 29%.

Along with exploring attitudes towards the Scottish independence, Britain as a democracy and benefits, the survey assessed people’s perspectives on national identity posing the question: “Some people say that the following things are important for being truly British. Others say that they are not important. How important do you think each of the following is?”

  • Being born in Britain
  • Having British citizenship
  • Having lived in Britain for most of one’s life
  • Being able to speak English
  • Being a Christian
  • Respecting Britain’s political institutions and laws
  • Feeling British
  • Having British ancestry

The following are the percentages of respondents saying the proposed characteristics of Britishness are “very important” or “fairly important”:

95% people living in Britain believe it is necessary to speak English to be “truly British” (a rise of 9 per cent from 86% since 2003)

85% expressed having British citizenship was important as well as respecting institutions and laws

78% considered it important to feel British

77% considered that a person must have lived in Britain most of their life

74% thought it was important to be born in Britain,

51% expressed importance of British ancestry

50% ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that sharing customs and traditions was important to national identity

24% viewed being Christian as a feature of Britishness (a decrease of 11 percentage points from 35% in 1995).

Given the survey results, the Times in an editorial today argues how it is right to consider it necessary to speak English to be “truly British”.

It argues “Assimilation is not possible without a common language, but in Britain it has fallen victim to an exaggerated concern for diverse cultural sensibilities, with consequences that are almost entirely negative. Census data suggests that large urban areas in east London and the north west are becoming more divided by ethnicity, not less. As migration from eastern Europe imposes new strains on public services in some areas, attitudes are hardening against those unwilling to learn even basic English.”

The editorial appears to insinuate that diversity automatically means low levels of English language competency posing a very significant problem. However, the Daily Telegraph noted earlier this year Census findings revealed that of the 3.7 million people living in England and Wales for whom English is not their first language, the vast majority of them do speak English well and only 1.7% of the population admit to speaking English either poorly or not at all. But then the Times’ claim that language competency has been demoted in favour of an ‘exaggerated concern for diverse cultural sensibilities’ suggests conviction and not facts have informed its particular take on the issue.

In terms of attitudes towards immigration, the papers note the disparity between social groups. 60% of graduates think immigration has been good for Britain’s economy, in comparison to 32% of those with only A Levels or equivalent, and 17% of those with no qualifications.

As with UKIP’s standing in London during the recent European elections, London is distinctive in its views on immigration with over half of its population saying that immigration is beneficial for the British economy in contrast to 28% of those outside London.

What the papers do not seem to notice is further trends related to age, heritage and whether respondents enjoy personal friendships with migrants.

The survey found that the most intensely negative views are among older voters and those with no migrant friends. For example, 17% of those aged 70 or over considered immigration as being beneficial for Britain’s economy while 53% thought it had a negative impact. In comparison, the respective figures for the age group 18-29 were 36% and 40%.

Similar findings across age were found regarding the cultural impact of immigration on Britain with 54% of those aged 70 or over holding negative views.

In terms of migrant heritage, 51% of migrants, 43% of those with migrant parents, and 27% of those who were native born and with native parents were positive about the contribution of immigration to the economy.

Conversely, 53% of those who were native born and with native parents, held negative views.

In relation to the cultural impact of immigration, those who are native born and with native parents were more likely to espouse negative views (51%) than migrants (17%) and those who have migrant parents (33%).

Moreover, while 50% of those with several migrant friends were positive about the impact of immigration on the British economy, 63% of those with no migrant friends expressed negative views.

Similarly, 61% of those with no migrant friends considered the cultural impact of immigration on Britain to be negative.

The report concludes “there are hints here that is often those most removed from direct experience of immigration who find it most threatening.”

It also notes a mixed picture on the association between views on immigration and party identification. Of those with overall positive views about the impact of immigration on Britain, 38% identified with Labour, 20% were Conservatives, 11% identified with the Liberal Democrat while only 1% supported UKIP.

In comparison, 28% of Labour supporters, 22% of those who support Conservatives, 13% of UKIP followers and 2% of Liberal Democrats supporters held strongly negative views.

Penny Young, chief executive of NatCen Social Research, said: “In an increasingly diverse, multi-cultural country, we might expect people to be more relaxed about what it means to be British, yet the trend is going in the opposite direction.

“It is now harder to be considered British than in the past and one message comes through loud and clear, if you want to be British, you must speak English.

“And as we debate whether UKIP’s vote will hold up in the General Election, British Social Attitudes shows that the public is yet to be convinced that politicians have got a grip on immigration.

It echoes the BSA’s findings earlier this year which revealed 77 per cent of respondents want a reduction in immigration with those wanting to see immigration reduced “a lot” increasing from 51% to 56% since 2011.

The latest findings are also similar to the 2012 BSA survey which had previously noted attitudes concerning immigration had become much more divided than in 2002.


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