Observer columnist Kenan Malik has taken Spectator columnist Lionel Shriver to task for her recent column arguing that “white Britons” should be making more fuss about the prospect of becoming a minority in the U.K. in the next few decades. “In the big picture,” Shriver writes, “along with the native populations of other western countries, white Britons needn’t submissively accept the drastic ethnic and religious transformation of their country as an inevitable fate they’re morally required to embrace without a peep of protest”.
Malik is not impressed: “Shriver’s,” he writes, “is but the latest in a series of arguments by prominent conservatives bemoaning the decline of the white population or defending the legitimacy of white ‘racial self-interest’”. Boiling Shriver’s argument down to the claim: “To be truly British, the country needs to stay largely white”, Malik retorts that what the identity politics of both left and right get wrong is they fail to recognise that ‘whiteness’ does not matter:
For both right and left, whiteness has come to acquire an almost magical quality. On the one side, whiteness is something to be protected, something too little of which transforms British communities, and mysteriously makes them less British. On the other, whiteness has become an embodiment of privilege or wickedness and racism seen not in social or structural terms but in the inherent qualities of being white.
It’s an obsession that replaces political argument with magical thinking and gives new legitimacy to bigotry. Racism matters. Whiteness does not.
It’s worth noting that the facts of demographic change are not in doubt. Shriver succinctly summarises them in her piece, and Malik does not question them.
In the past 20 years, foreign-born residents of the U.K. have doubled to nine million, going from 8% to 14% of the population. In tandem, the white British proportion of the population has fallen from 89% to 79%, while ethnic minorities have grown from 10% to 21%. Since 2001, 84% of U.K. population growth has been due to immigrants and their children, rising to 90% since 2017 – the majority non-E.U.
More than a third of U.K. births now involve at least one foreign-born parent; in parts of London, 80% of births are to foreign-born mothers. Indeed, non-U.K. nationals are disproportionately concentrated in British cities. The majorities of London, Slough, Leicester and Luton have an ethnic minority background. About half the births in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Cambridge are to foreign mothers.
Unsurprisingly, then, a third of British school children are already from ethnic minorities; in 20 years, ethnic-minority children will constitute more than half the students in state schools. As of 2018, 90% of immigrants were under 45. That means the ethnic transformation of the U.K., whose white population is far older, is destined rapidly to accelerate.
The point in dispute, then, is whether this remarkable demographic change matters. Does it matter if the ethno-cultural majority becomes an ethno-cultural minority?
Malik is clear that ‘whiteness’ does not matter and implies that Shriver thinks it does. I’m not sure, though, that that is the fairest way to summarise Shriver’s view. While she does refer to white people a number of times in her article, she makes clear her argument applies equally to people of whatever colour:
We are a political and territorial species. Although Pollyannas push us to regard ourselves as members of one big happy human family, we compulsively clump into groups. These groups claim territory and, under normal circumstances, defend it. …
This is not all about race. Kenyans resent Somali immigrants. Black South Africans resent Zimbabwean immigrants. Colombians resent Venezuelan immigrants. Anywhere, when the proportion of the ‘other’, however they might be defined, crosses a critical and perhaps even quantifiable statistical line, people who were born in a place stop getting excited about all the new ethnic restaurants and start getting pissed off.
With no sense of irony, Mexicans resent the droves of American retirees who settle on their coasts, radically transforming the local culture and nattering along the beach exclusively in English. I’m sympathetic, too. This is normal. Call them ‘xenophobic’ if you will, but most people want to live around people like themselves.
My feeling is that to make the argument about ‘whiteness’, as Malik does, is to miss the central point and risk getting side-tracked into historic questions of ‘scientific racism’, which try to establish the superiority and dominion of one ‘race’ (the ‘white’ one) over another race (the ‘black’ one). All agree that such notions are ethically repugnant and have no place in modern civilised discourse.
The modern question isn’t about whiteness and blackness (as much as Critical Race Theorists would like to convince us it is) but about questions of nationality, heritage, homeland, ancestry and the significance of being native or indigenous. It’s also about the role of similarity in promoting cohesion and trust. These are universal questions and concerns; their connection with any particular skin colour is purely incidental to the specific countries being considered at the time.
An underlying issue here is what relationship, if any, the nation state has to nationality, understood as an ethno-cultural concept. What is the relationship between the nation state of France, say, and people of French heritage?
Intuitively you would assume there was a close connection. Is the nation state of France not precisely, indeed tautologically, the state based on the French nation? Is nationality not, at least in part, an ethno-cultural concept?
You will find little dispute anywhere that a nation state is the political self-determination of a nation, or that nationality is a concept with an ethno-cultural dimension. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, for instance, includes as one of its definitions of nationality: “a people having a common origin, tradition, and language and capable of forming or actually constituting a nation-state”; and also “an ethnic group constituting one element of a larger unit (such as a nation)”.
It’s not hard, then, to make a simple argument based on these generally-accepted definitions to derive the ethno-nationalist idea that, on some level, there is an important connection between the nation, understood ethno-culturally as a people with a shared ancestry and culture, and the nation state.
This simple connection can be challenged in a number of ways. One is to insist that the nation in nation-state is understood purely politically, and to divest it of all ethno-cultural connotations. This is the fiat approach: we simply define the nation state to have nothing to do with the ethno-cultural nation with which it has historically and demographically been associated. The relationship between them is redefined by political and social will to be purely incidental, and not one to be concerned about in any way, such as might cause someone to worry about large-scale demographic change. In this paradigm, which appears to be Malik’s, demographic change cannot possibly make Britain less British, because being British has nothing to do with demography.
The challenge in this paradigm is to define what does constitute Britishness without tacitly appealing to the same concepts that have been rejected. Britishness, if it is not to be an arbitrary legal designation, must be constituted of something a group of people have in common. But what people have in common is what is usually referred to as their culture – their language, customs, values, traditions, history, heritage, religion, and so on. So how can Britishness be defined without appealing to any cultural concepts? Or is it to be left entirely empty, save for the legal formality?
A halfway house would be to prise apart ethnicity and culture and define Britishness in terms of culture but emphatically not in terms of ethnicity. However, while appealing for its inclusivity, this doesn’t really solve the problem, as large-scale demographic change would still result in rapid cultural shift, since unless there is a high level of integration of a kind not currently being achieved in Western nations (or elsewhere, and surely made impossible by the rate of change), most people of minority ethnic heritage will still to a large extent identify with and practice significant elements of their traditional culture. This means worries about demographic change would persist, and while ethnicity would be formally banished from the considerations, in practice it would amount to the same thing, as the worries would boil down to people of minority ethnic groups not assimilating quickly and comprehensively enough to the culture of the historic majority. In other words, can ethnicity and culture really be so neatly prised apart, when culture consists in the customs of a people?
Lastly, the simple connection of nation-state and nationality can be challenged by questioning whether the ethno-cultural notion of nationality can even be defined in a stable way that allows it to be used as a basis for worrying about demographic change. In other words, is the concept of Britishness (say) so loose and fluid that it doesn’t really make sense to worry about it changing as a result of a large-scale influx of people of different cultural backgrounds? On this idea, Britishness is just what British people, of all backgrounds, make it to be. The question for this position is whether it is really true that national cultures can’t be defined sufficiently for the purposes of understanding the differences between nations, and whether the looser, more fluid definition can do what is required of it and underpin a stable and successful political community.
To sum up, how important is it that Britain stays “largely white”? This I think is the wrong question to ask. The better question is: How important is it that Britain retains its historic role as the national homeland of the British peoples by ensuring people of British ancestry and culture remain the demographically predominant groups?
There are other questions connected with this. Do people of British heritage want a national homeland where they live under their own laws and customs with people who are mostly like them – culturally, and often in appearance as well? If so, how achievable is that, given a high rate of immigration and demographic change? How quickly and comprehensively can people of other backgrounds be assimilated to keep the objective on track? If this is not thought to be a legitimate or desirable objective, what are the practically workable alternatives and how do they compare?
There is no question, of course, of ethnic minorities being treated as anything other than equal citizens, without discrimination or prejudice. The question is about the nature of national heritage and identity, and the role of the nation state in that. These are some of the biggest questions of our times, and they’re not going anywhere.