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p. 944. ‘Integration’, class inequality, and ‘community cohesion’locked

  • Ali Rattansi


The concept of ‘integration’ has replaced multiculturalism as the key theme of national and local policies towards ethnic minorities. Especially in Britain, the notions of ‘community cohesion’, ‘social cohesion’, and ‘citizenship’ have been hailed as the way forward for incorporating minorities. What exactly do these terms mean? The idea that minorities have failed to ‘integrate’ into societies is a central motif of the approach that replaced multiculturalism. In Britain, the concept of integration was taken over by the notion of ‘community cohesion’, moving the agenda further away. How is this cohesion to be defined and how is the lack of cohesion to be repaired?

As the backlash against multiculturalism has gathered pace, it has been replaced by ‘integration’ as the key theme of national and local policies towards ethnic minorities throughout Europe. In addition, especially in the UK, the ideas of ‘community cohesion’, ‘social cohesion’, and ‘citizenship’ have also been heavily trailed as the new way forward in managing the incorporation of ethnic minorities into the national polity. The British government now has communities ministers, a Commission for Integration and Cohesion, and new government departments. And throughout Western Europe, there has been a new emphasis on clarifying the meaning of ‘national identity’ so as to better integrate ethnic minorities into national cultures. In all but name, cynics might want to argue, a new European civilizing mission appears to have been launched.

But the meaning of these ideas and the policies that flow from them have inevitably proved contentious. Nor is it the case that supporters of multiculturalism have just faded away. A lively debate is under way, although sometimes it may seem as if the only defenders of multiculturalism now are to be found in academia and a few activist and ethnic minority strongholds.

The pitfalls of ‘integration’

The idea that the key problem in ethnic relations is a failure on the part of minorities to ‘integrate’ into the European societies into which they have migrated is a central motif of the new approach that is replacing multiculturalism. However, as we have seen, there appears to be no clear line linking multiculturalist policies with civil disturbances, terrorism, or suicide bombings. Moreover, the evidence on the degree of separation and segregation is contentious, at least in Britain. And even in the Netherlands and France, together with Britain, it is the incomplete and half-hearted character of multiculturalism that has been highlighted, equally plausibly, by many well-informed researchers and commentators as the real problem.

In social life, it is never clear what counts as complete integration nor who can be said to be fully integrated. Goalposts can be moved at will. In the 1980s in Britain, the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit devised the cricket test: minorities could not claim to be integrated until they supported England rather than India, Pakistan, or the West Indies in England’s cricket matches with these countries. Early in the 21st century, the New Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett decided that the speaking of English in the home by minorities was the route to integration as well as one key index.

So, one might well ask: integration into exactly what? One answer that many European governments have come up with incorporates the idea of core national values, labelled ‘Britishness’ or French national identity, for example. However, as we shall see, this type of thinking runs into some intractable problems.

Social scientists have been arguing for a very long time that integration when applied to social life, and immigration processes in particular, is a multidimensional concept. There is no single p. 96measure of the process. Integration can take place at spatial levels (for example, residential patterns), structural levels (for example, in education and the labour market), and cultural levels (for example, in adherence to common values). Moreover, there is no necessary relation between the three, so that neighbours can subscribe to very different values, and high educational and occupational achievements can occur despite spatial separation, and so forth.

The UK government was warned of the extraordinary complexity and multidimensionality of processes of integration soon after the 2001 disorders in a document by the Oxford University research centres, for Migration and Policy, and Refugee Studies, which were commissioned by the UK Home Office to provide an advisory report on the subject, Integration: Mapping the Field (2002).

The rise and rise of ‘community cohesion’

In Britain, the concept of integration was soon eclipsed by the overlapping but distinct discourse of ‘community cohesion’, which had made its appearance in British debates at more or less the same time, being mentioned in the Cantle and Denham Reports initiated by the UK Home Office (2001, 2002); the Denham Report was explicitly entitled Building Cohesive Communities.

This change moved the agenda even further away from commitment to multiculturalism; echoes of earlier demands for immigrants to assimilate seemed to be surfacing as well. And it began to compete with important measures such as the Human Rights Act (1998), the emphasis on combating institutional racism as recommended by the Macpherson Report on policing after the police failures revealed in the aftermath of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence’s murder, and the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000).

p. 97‘Community cohesion’ occupied centre stage in UK Government policies in the wake of the events of 2001. I shall examine the three key sources of the notion of community cohesion, noting some of the criticisms that each strand has attracted, before examining the idea as a whole and the policies to which it has given rise.

The sources of ‘community cohesion’

1. Communitarianism

Communitarianism had emerged in the 1990s as a sort of ‘third way’ perspective, critical of both the new Right and the Left for dissolving the ‘social glue’ that had held locales and society as a whole together. The former was blamed for the excesses of free-market individualism and libertarianism which had helped erode ethics of social responsibility and norms of reciprocity, epitomized in Mrs Thatcher’s notorious ‘there is no such thing as society’ nostrum. The Left was castigated for too much bureaucratized centralization which had drained power away from local communities, together with welfare systems that failed to properly support independent social networks and did little to help the institution of the family.

However, as sociologists and anthropologists have pointed out time and again, the concept of community is surprisingly nebulous. It is very difficult to define with any precision. When does a social group constitute a genuine ‘community’? How much unity should it display and in what characteristics? The question of whether Internet networks constitute ‘communities’ highlights well the difficulties involved. The question of when a community is a community replicates the problems involved in deciding when a group is really integrated with another or within itself. When the two ideas are used together, as in the notion of ‘integrated communities’, which is intrinsic to the concept of community cohesion, the difficulties are compounded. There is p. 98here, too, a link with the problem of essentialism discussed earlier. It is too easy to make the assumption that communities are homogeneous and strongly bounded.

It has also been argued that the discourse of ‘community’ has allowed issues to be de-racialized, so that racism is not mentioned, and minority communities are pathologized as not living properly ‘British’ lives without also acknowledging that language-learning facilities are often hard to access and thinly available, but also that second- and third-generation minority women are increasingly successful in education and the professions and that racial discrimination and harassment are important reasons why minority groups continue to stay together in original areas of settlement.

‘Community’, in other words, is a bland enough notion, but in the case of ‘community cohesion’, it often conceals skewed and unfair descriptions of ethnic minority social groups.

2. The theory of ‘social capital’

It was the publication in 2000 of the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community that helped propel the already influential concept of social capital into serious global debate and allowed it to have an important impact on social policy in various parts of the world, especially through its adoption by international agencies such as the World Bank.

The notion of ‘community’ is central to this framework and dovetails well with communitarian thinking. This enables an easy insertion of the concept of social capital into the community cohesion agenda.

Putnam defines social capital as ‘the connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’. He emphasizes that high p. 99social capital allows participants in the dense networks to trust each other and act together to pursue and achieve shared objectives. In principle, a distinction is made between ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’ social capital. ‘Bonding’ capital is identified with cohesion amongst defined communities; it brings together people who are ‘like one another’, whether in relation to class, ethnicity, gender, or age. ‘Bridging’ capital is part of the process of the creation of overlapping networks between particular communities, bringing together people who are unlike each other. Putnam and his followers are aware that a high amount of bonding capital can have a ‘dark’ side, for it serves to create strong boundaries between insiders and ‘others’ who are thereby excluded and may be stigmatized. Thus bridging capital is a crucial component if wider social cohesion is to be achieved.

It is also in this context that the idea of shared values becomes important; too much cultural difference means less unity in values, and this is regarded as leading to low levels of bridging capital.

Putnam’s narrative is one long lament for the disappearance of a once idyllic period in American history between the 1890s and the 1920s when the society was supposedly characterized by strong civic ties, high levels of civic and political participation, and high degrees of trust.

For the present malaise, as he sees it, he blames, contentiously, three developments: television, dual-career families, and urban sprawl. And his recommendation for reversing the decline of community in the USA is a new period of civic revival, with the development of community associations and civic and political participation, creating new forms of bonding and bridging social capital which can bind together a nation in danger of disastrously ‘pulling apart’.

p. 100The attractions of this diagnosis and ‘solution’ to British policy-makers convinced that the crux of both the ‘ethnic minority problem’ and the wider social issues facing Britain is the fracturing of community relations should be obvious. Putnam gave seminars at 10 Downing Street. And the idea of building social capital in British cities became firmly embedded in government policies as an alternative to multiculturalism and the celebration and encouragement of ‘diversity’.

Some of Putnam’s work has focused on ethnic diversity, and he has concluded that ethnic diversity generally contributes to a decline in trust. There is, he argues, an urgent need to build bridging capital between diverse communities, and he recognizes too that this is more difficult than building the more inward-looking bonding capital. Citing Bosnia and Belfast, Putnam argues that bridging capital is vital for ‘reconciling democracy and diversity’.

The wide influence of Putnam’s version of the social capital thesis and the manner of its deployment in his historical and contemporary analyses belies its severe conceptual, methodological, and empirical limitations. And some of the limitations become particularly evident when more competent social research from the UK is considered, making the wholesale transfer of the Putnam thesis to the UK especially problematic and inappropriate.

Conceptually, social capital as he defines and uses it appears in the guise of a neutral, functional idea that serves to highlight issues of trust and reciprocity that are socially beneficial. But his usage ignores what many other sociologists have pointed out, that social capital also exists as ‘cultural capital’ which allows upper classes to build exclusive networks and a series of advantages, especially success in education, which enables a monopolization over generations of opportunities and access to other resources. Factor in the over-representation of ethnic minorities in the working p. 101classes in Europe, and to some extent – especially for African Americans – in the USA, and the conclusion is clear: social capital cannot simply be seen as a neutral resource for the benefit of the whole society.

There are two other peculiarities of the Putnam version of the social capital thesis. The emphasis is primarily on the quantity rather than the quality of relationships, such as friendliness and egalitarianism. Moreover, he takes a broad historical sweep, thus failing to deal with the historical specificity of locales and neighbourhoods and the traditions, social memories, and socio-economic and political inequalities that influence the quality of relationships between different social groups in different social spaces.

And Putnam’s analysis ignores important social changes that have taken place, so that his indications and measures of bonding and bridging capital have become less and less relevant. As Barbara Arneil has shown, Putnam has continued to measure participation in conventional political parties and other traditional groups and institutions. This ignores the rise in alternative politics and looser forms of cultural participation – activities such as women’s sport, women’s political groups (women play a crucial role in Putnam’s analysis without any acknowledgement of the way this skews his results and recommendations), and a whole range of ways in which individuals socialize and groups come together in late 20th-century America that are very different from the period that forms the base line for Putnam’s comparison and lament of the decline of community.

Putnam’s findings are not borne out when transferred, with greater conceptual and historical sophistication, to the British context. Peter Hall’s analysis of British surveys reveals a different picture. For Britain, Hall concludes that there is little intergenerational difference in rates of participation in p. 102associations, and therefore little evidence of a decline in social capital. And in the case of women, there was a doubling of civic and political engagement in the period 1970 to 1990. One major reason for the different results is that Hall takes full account of the changes in women’s educational experiences and achievements. As he shows, by 1990, 14% of British women had some post-secondary education, compared with hardly 1% in 1959. Putnam’s analysis discounts the effects of changes in American women’s education (a 12% increase in post-secondary educational experience), thus grossly underestimating increases in their participation rates and social capital. Hall’s analysis suggests that the state and its educational policies have an important role to play in increasing civic and political engagement.

The difference in the types of associations that are included in Hall’s survey compared with Putnam’s is also important. Hall includes, for later periods, findings on participation in environmental movements, non-church religious associations, women’s groups, sports and recreation, as well as local community associations on issues such as poverty, housing, and racial equality, all of which are more relevant to assessing the civic and political engagement of post-1960s generations than the old-fashioned church and political organizations on which Putnam focuses. Indeed, those like Wuthnow who have used more relevant participatory information for the US such as engagement in human rights and environmentalist activities have also revised the Putnam thesis.

One important omission from Putnam’s analysis gives a strong indication of the kind of selectivity that underlies his whole exercise. Putnam’s focus is on the overall decline in trust; he has little to say about the large differences in civic trust exhibited by privileged and marginalized groups. Research suggests that there is a huge difference in trust between whites and African Americans: the mean percentage of trust among blacks for the whole period is only 17%, compared with 45% for whites. Indeed, p. 103one conclusion drawn by other researchers is that much of what Putnam regards as a general decline in trust in the last 20 years of the 20th century in America is explained by declining levels of trust among those whose lives became more difficult and insecure, especially in conditions of growing social inequality.

For the UK, Hall’s analysis reveals a large gap in trust between the middle and working classes in relevant British surveys. The better-off exhibit higher levels of trust than the unemployed, those on low incomes, those with insecure jobs and in generally deprived and declining neighbourhoods. And analysis by Letki of data from England and Wales on ethnic diversity found some lack of trust between ethnic groups, but shows that the biggest contribution to negative interaction and attitudes between neighbours is made by the general socio-economic quality of neighbourhoods.

This finding is also very relevant to the debates around David Goodhart’s argument that diversity undermines support for the welfare state, and the ‘white working class debate’, both of which are discussed in the next section.

Putnam’s chosen villains, especially dual-career families and television, can also be interpreted quite differently as part of a remaking of modern societies that is not necessarily detrimental to ‘community’ and ‘social capital’ as such, but which creates different forms of social networks and a reconfiguration of older patterns of male domination, cultural deference, and youth activities.

Underlying Putnam’s anxieties, and those of European governments too, is nostalgia for a somewhat mythical golden age of communal unity, leading to an over-emphasis on common cultural values. Again, this is a significant consideration when interrogating UK government proposals on community cohesion.

p. 104Local research on the processes of community formation amongst new migrants in Britain carried out by Roger Zetter and his colleagues shows why a simple contrast between bonding and bridging capital, and the discouragement of the former amongst migrants, is not a satisfactory policy response. In other words, only encouraging ‘cohesion’ between different communities within the framework of common values and norms of reciprocity and so forth misses the point that many migrant groups still need to organize in a way that allows them to access local welfare resources and employment opportunities. Common national or ethnic origins – Romanian or Kurdish, for example – become the almost inevitable bases for networking and organization, especially where racist hostility is encountered and when there are felt to be distinctive cultural needs and preferences in health care, education, and religion that need to be expressed.

Research carried out in Tottenham in North London and Moss Side in Manchester by Maria Hudson and her colleagues also shows how it is not only important for groups such as Somalis to organize separately, but also why Somali women’s groups have been springing up and have actually been helpful in the wider integration of Somali women, with some of the women moving on from more specific concerns to organizing their involvement in the local carnival. Obviously, this is not a form of ‘bonding capital’ that has dire consequences for social or community cohesion; ‘Bosnia’ or ‘Northern Ireland’ are far from the inevitable scenarios that follow from allowing these forms of solidarity.

All in all, the concept of social capital, like the concept of community, appears to be a flimsy foundation for policy-making and cannot provide the basis for moving the agenda beyond forms of multiculturalism, a move which I regard as necessary.

3. The white working class and the problem of ‘fairness’

On the 14 October 2009, John Denham, at the time the communities minister in the UK government, announced the start p. 105of a £12 million scheme targeted at mainly white working-class areas in various parts of the country. Special community forums were also to be set up to allow local people to air grievances. The grants and the measures were explicitly designed to prevent white working-class feelings of resentment at being unfairly treated in comparison with immigrants from feeding a growing trend for such communities to vote for the Far-Right British National Party. Already, two BNP members, including the leader Nick Griffin, have been elected as Members of the European Parliament, and the party has won a number of seats in local council elections.

In December 2009, Denham berated the middle classes for not understanding the impact of immigration on poorer workers, because they were insulated from competition for jobs and resources. They could therefore feel ‘culturally enriched’ by migration; but working-class people experienced pressure on jobs, housing, and training opportunities and had an understandable ‘sense of unfairness’.

Of course, the reports into the 2001 disorders had all highlighted that the white communities of the Northern cities, especially the working class and poor, had consistently expressed a strong sense of anger at what they thought was the unfair allocation of public funds to projects for the Asian communities compared to the provisions being made for them. All the local authorities had denied this, pointing out that they had been scrupulously fair in the way grants had been allocated.

After 2001, the resentment of the white working class became an issue in a related but distinct debate in Britain. It stemmed from an essay, ‘Too Diverse?’ by David Goodhart, editor of the influential Centre-Left journal Prospect. Goodhart drew mostly upon American arguments that had proposed that immigration and ethnic diversity (and subsequently multiculturalism) in the USA had prevented the development of the kind of collective solidarity p. 106that might have led to the creation of a strong European-type welfare state. The similarity in reasoning between the Putnam thesis and this argument is obvious. Goodhart extrapolated from this interpretation of American history to draw the conclusion that immigration and growing diversity (and by implication, the multiculturalism that celebrated diversity) were undermining the kind of common culture, trust, and solidarity that had earlier allowed a culture of sharing to develop and had undergirded the British welfare state.

The basic assumption underlying Goodhart’s thesis is that citizens – and he seemed to have the white working class particularly in mind – are likely to be supportive of welfare benefits only to people who seem similar to themselves in values and lifestyle. The more different the culture of their neighbours, and the less the sense of shared history, struggles, and a collective contribution to the welfare state, the less strong the feelings of empathy, sympathy, and solidarity that the indigenous white population would feel towards immigrants and their descendants when it came to state support.

There are serious problems with Goodhart’s initial thesis, as pointed out by Banting and Kymlicka, Parekh, Taylor-Gooby, and many other researchers. For one thing, not unlike Putnam, Goodhart posits a mechanical, inevitable trade-off between general social or national solidarity and ethnic diversity. But no such deterministic relationship is discernible historically. Goodhart draws heavily on the American example, but, even if his thesis is valid there, it is not at all clear that it can be transposed on to European nation states. As Taylor-Gooby has shown, the presence of relatively strong Left and labour movements, and the fact that the welfare state had already been established or was set up only as mass non-European immigration was beginning, means that in Europe growing ethnic diversity, which in the USA enabled hostile groups to divide the labour and welfare coalitions before they could establish welfare regimes, has not been p. 107able to have the same effect. Support for the welfare state remains high in European countries despite immigration. Parekh and I have also pointed out that in Britain, especially, non-European immigrant labour provided essential support for the creation of the welfare state; it was in the period of Mrs Thatcher’s neo-liberal ascendancy that immigration was severely restricted, while the welfare state suffered some of its worst cutbacks. Moreover, welfare states have been under pressure all over Europe, with restructuring and cuts occurring in all of them whether they have had higher or lower rates of immigration.

Goodhart remains more or less silent on multiculturalism, although the implications of his views are clear. However, as Banting and Kymlicka have pointed out, multicultural policies, in so far as they help shore up support for ethnic diversity, can ameliorate the possibly corrosive effects of immigration, again showing that there is no inevitable trade-off between diversity and solidarity. The effects of immigration and ethnic diversity are mediated and can be positively affected by political and policy initiatives that create a more hospitable climate in the receiving population, and are heavily influenced by local conditions of scarcity of resources such as housing, schooling, and employment.

This is where the white working class question re-enters the equation, in the context of a somewhat different playing out of conflicts around immigration, ethnic diversity, and the welfare state. In the UK, this debate, already prefigured in the 2001 Reports, has resurfaced much more strongly with the publication of a widely discussed and controversial study of London’s changing East End: The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict by Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron, and Michael Young, published in 2006.

The study’s narrative encapsulates a scenario played out in myriad local areas in Britain and has exercised considerable influence in governmental thinking on community cohesion and new policies towards the white working class, as witnessed by the p. 108announcement of the Communities Minister with which this section began.

The New East End story, in outline, is as follows. Between 1971 and 2001, the population of Tower Hamlets who were of Bangladeshi origin went from 2% to 30% of the total population of the borough. The period also witnessed extensive ‘white flight’ and displacement, with a growing number of white working-class East Enders moving to surrounding areas in the county of Essex to get away from the immigrants and their descendants. Other, usually younger, white working-class East Enders have had to leave because of severe shortages of public housing or affordable private accommodation, to join earlier generations who were re-housed in Essex in the aftermath of post-Second World War reconstruction and redevelopment.

By and large, the study paints a picture of acute hostility, resentment, and sense of betrayal by whites at what they see as the grossly unfair treatment meted out to them, while newcomers have had all their needs met. In particular, the authors tell us that the white working-class population is seething with anger at the new culture and practice of entitlement according to need rather than contribution to local and national wealth. The older generation of whites has also been concerned that their contribution to the war effort appears to have been forgotten in a new period of greater concern for immigrants and newcomers. To their dismay, the white working class saw the welfare state changing character. The principle of need, especially housing need, began to trump the virtues of ‘waiting your turn’ on a ladder on which length of waiting time was rewarded, as were family ties, so that sons and daughters of existing residents had priority.

The authors suggest that the collapse of employment in the docks and other manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with Bangladeshi men deciding to bring over their families, fearful for them during the war with Pakistan and anxious to be p. 109united with them before restrictive immigration legislation made it more difficult or even impossible. At the same time, the new needs-based system of state welfare allocation was combined with the centralization of power in the hands of middle-class local authority workers, many of whom dismissed working-class complaints as simply racist.

Moreover, the expansion of the financial centre, the City, also located in East London, meant an influx of ‘yuppies’, for whom the area was merely a playground for cosmopolitan tastes in food and exotic locals, but who had no ties to the local communities and could leave as and when they chose, while their new luxurious housing consumed precious space and fuelled further local anger and resentment amongst the long-standing white working-class residents.

To add insult to injury, as it were, many second- and third-generation British Bangladeshi children, having been given extra help to learn English and settle into English life, had begun to do well in schools, attended universities, joined the professions, and moved out into much better housing in the suburbs.

It is not surprising, the authors argue, that 1993 saw the first election of Far-Right British National Party councillors in local areas, voted into office by sections of the embittered white working class who felt left behind, ignored, and betrayed by new political elites and governing classes.

But the New East End study has been severely criticized for providing an over-simplified and misleading account of the events as well as the reactions surrounding changes in the area since the 1970s and 1980s. Here I am drawing particularly upon critiques by those who have worked as local authority officers in Tower Hamlets, as well as various sociologists and geographers, especially Michel Keith, who had been a Labour leader of Tower p. 110Hamlets Council while also being a Professor at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

First, there is a serious omission of important contextual information by Dench, Gavron, and Young. Although their study spanned a decade, the white residents who are quoted are never placed properly in time and place. No indication is given of when, and exactly where, the white residents were making their comments, thus homogenizing them into a mass and failing to give any account of the specific circumstances, such as localized resource shortages, provoking their remarks.

This compounds the error of homogenizing the white working class in another misleading way. The ‘whites’ are actually a mixture of people of Irish, Polish, Maltese, Greek, and Greek and Turkish Cypriot origin, combined with descendants of the English of rural origin, the remaining descendants of Eastern European Jewish refugees, and newer arrivals from the European Union. There is no singular ‘white working-class community’ whose views can be treated as unified and articulated in an undifferentiated manner.

Also, there is a tendency to treat the poorest sections of the working class, those most affected by shortages of housing, jobs, and other resources, as synonymous with the whole white working class. This has also been true more generally of popular media coverage of this issue, where the poorest whites are often compared to the ethnic minorities as a whole, ignoring the class divisions within both sets of communities. For example, in comparing educational achievements, the poorest whites are compared to all British Asians or all working-class British Asians.

Minorities are unified in other misleading ways in the New East End study. The area also has immigrants and their descendants from the Caribbean and Africa. The local dynamics cannot be encapsulated in an account that simply pits whites against p. 111Bangladeshis. Moreover, there are cross-cutting ties that unite and differentiate the white and minority populations in a complex manner, especially along faith lines: the area has Catholics, Anglicans and other Protestants, Jews, and various types of Muslims.

There is no mention either of the fact that there had been a significant improvement in services and schooling in Tower Hamlets. So much so that the local social services department’s strategic partnership scheme had been praised as the ‘best in the country’, and the national local authority watchdog, the Improvement and Development Agency, had given Tower Hamlets an award for excellence in ‘community cohesion’.

Even more damaging is the omission of considerable evidence of discrimination against Bangladeshi immigrants by the local council, especially in housing allocation. Indeed, the complaints against the council’s earlier acts of discrimination, including the allocation of the worst housing to Bangladeshis, had reached the point where the Commission for Racial Equality launched a formal investigation, and in September 1987 the CRE served a non-discrimination notice against Tower Hamlets. This seemed to have little effect; in 1991, the High Court issued a non-compliance notice against the council. Similarly, there is mention of racist murders of Bangladeshis, but this does not translate into any serious discussion of the long struggle the Bangladeshis had to mount simply to be able to walk the streets of Tower Hamlets with a modicum of safety.

It is especially surprising that little is made of the fact that so much of the shortage of council housing, the key source of local conflict, had much to do with the selling off of public housing under Mrs Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policy, which was introduced in Tower Hamlets in 1980. The policy transformed the previous pattern of housing tenure. In Tower Hamlets in the 1970s, there were something like 40,000 council tenants, with 20,000 other p. 112households. By the year 2000, the ‘right to buy’ had reduced council tenancies to 20,000. In the New East End narrative, such growing shortage of public resources is taken for granted without any examination of why there was such acute scarcity.

The New East End story has been played out all over the country. As Steve Garner has pointed out, the ‘right to buy’ policies nationally meant that between 1971 and 2002, the level of home ownership rose from 49% to 69%, but the proportion of households renting council houses fell to 14% from a high of 34% in 1981. Research by Garner and his colleagues in various parts of the country has also picked up a strong sentiment of loss, betrayal, and unfairness felt by white working classes as they compete for scarce state benefits, especially in the arena of housing, but not just in housing.

And we get from Garner a point made consistently by a number of other commentators on the whole debate about the white working class. While the New East End and the BNP narratives see the whites as losing out to immigrants, Garner and the others argue that it is to the middle and upper classes that the white and ethnic minority working classes lose out. Interestingly, Kate Gavron, one of the authors of the New East End study, has now come round to the same view of shared deprivation relative to the middle classes. But the sense of unfairness felt by the white working class continues, and will do so until the more balanced narratives about their shared deprivation with ethnic minority communities in relation to the middle classes is circulated more strongly and convincingly.

Is community cohesion the problem and the answer?

The concepts and evidence underpinning official policy formation of community cohesion have not survived critical interrogation particularly well.

p. 113But in any case, how is community cohesion to be defined, and how is the lack of cohesion to be repaired? Urgency was added to the challenges of 2001 by protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which were partly attributed to British Asian Muslim disaffection and lack of loyalty to the British state, and in particular the July 2005 bombings in London carried out by a small group of radicalized, Islamicist young British Asian Muslim men.

A Community Cohesion Unit was established in the Home Office soon after the 2002 Building Cohesive Communities report; Community Cohesion Pathfinder Programmes have been set up; local authorities have to prepare community cohesion plans which set out how cultural contact between different communities will be fostered and barriers between them dismantled; and relevant research projects have been set up with the involvement of charitable and voluntary organizations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Runnymede Trust, and the Heritage and Lottery Fund.

Various governmental agencies have provided several, overlapping definitions of community cohesion, drawing originally from academic papers by Forrest and Kearns. Recent (2006) guidance to local authorities lists the following three features as constituting community cohesion:


a common vision and sense of belonging for all communities;


those from similar backgrounds have similar life opportunities;


strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds and circumstances in the workplace, in schools, and within neighbourhoods.

Many, if not most, commentators and researchers remain sceptical of official thinking on ‘community cohesion’. We have already seen that doubts can legitimately be expressed about the degree of separation and segregation between different ethnic groups. p. 114Moreover, the communitarianism underlying governmental proposals, the heavy official reliance on social capital theory, and the legitimacy of the white working-class sense of unfairness have also proved to be very questionable foundations for supporting the agenda of community cohesion.

In addition, there are three key areas of weakness in the community cohesion agenda.

Firstly, and perhaps the most pervasive criticism of governmental policies, is that they only pay lip service to the issue of common class inequalities between ethnic minorities and the white working-class communities that live in close geographical proximity to the ethnic minorities. Although the importance of equal life opportunities is always mentioned in governmental documents, little is said about how inequalities in opportunities are to be overcome, and there have been no serious proposals for overall redistribution of wealth and income.

As all the research shows, especially in response to Putnam’s ideas on social capital, the lowest levels of trust between communities and in government are to be found in the poorer areas. While schemes for local regeneration are useful, it is clear that they need to work in tandem with policies for redistribution, given that the period since the 1980s has seen a striking increase in inequality in incomes and wealth and a stalling in rates of upward social mobility.

One index of greater inequality and the privatization of more permeable urban spaces lies in the mushrooming of gated communities, as the wealthy build luxury housing and amenities, protected by intense private security measures. There is more genuine segregation and the living of ‘parallel lives’ between sections of the wealthy and the rest, especially the working class of all ethnicities, with detrimental consequences for social cohesion p. 115and the creation of an even greater sense of exclusion amongst the working classes of all ethnicities.

The absence of serious inroads into socio-economic inequalities means that, in effect, there is what has come to be called a ‘culturalization’ of policies of community cohesion. The cultures of ethnic minorities and the poor tend to carry the blame for lack of community cohesion. Moreover, governmental discourses slide around between a view of commonality as attachment to neighbourhoods and the poorly articulated ‘Britishness’ that has also become important in community cohesion debates. Here too, as we shall see, it is the minorities who bear the brunt of rhetorical blandishments to adhere to national values.

While these general criticisms have much force, we need to turn to more detailed research projects that have begun to enquire into issues of community cohesion at local levels. They provide a richer evidential basis for assessing the viability of strategies for moving beyond multiculturalism.

One of the best of these has been carried out by Mary Hickman and her colleagues, researching areas in English, Irish, and Scottish cities. Their research strongly supports the view that both ‘relational’ and ‘structural’ issues and initiatives are crucial to the creation of cohesion and solidarity between communities. The view that it is only a matter of addressing structural disadvantage – poor local resources, unemployment, poverty, and so on – as suggested by many of the critics of community cohesion policies, is shown to be misleading. There is no one-to-one correspondence between deprivation and poor community relations.

In some areas, for example, new arrivals and past immigrants were not subjected to racist bullying and harassment; local conditions and cultures have been crucial. For one thing, some areas had a strong local narrative based around the notion that everyone was from ‘round here’ and culturally homogenous (in contrast to p. 116other locales that had developed a conception of the area containing ‘people from here and elsewhere’). The localism worked against the creation of friendly neighbourly relations with ethnically distinct newcomers. On the other hand, such insular local cultures showed the capacity to shift their attitudes and behaviour in the wake of sensitive and well-thought-out initiatives by local agencies.

Several such policies stand out. Firstly, where the arrival of newcomers was accompanied by extra resources which benefited all communities, attitudes to immigrants became less hostile and more accommodating. The new resources were deployed in the context of providing better information and ‘myth-busting’ on the spread of funding between communities. Secondly, local authorities that created recreational and other spaces for intercommunal interaction managed to improve social relations. Thirdly, local agencies that specifically worked with groups such as women to improve access to resources for all communities reduced hostility and created changes towards better relations with new neighbours.

Moreover, forums created to allow freer discussion of difficult interethnic situations allowed a greater diffusion of tensions. In Leicester, this function was performed by the city-wide Multicultural Advisory Group. Crucially, this body has included BBC Radio Leicester and the widely read local newspaper Leicester Mercury.

Leicester provides an interesting example of the management of the new ‘superdiversity’. The arrival of Somalis, often middle class in origin and who had initially settled in the Netherlands and Denmark, into the highly ethnically diverse area of Highfields had led to considerable hostility between Somali youth and already settled youth of African Caribbean origin. Initiatives in Leicester schools and elsewhere were mobilized. But their success owed much to the fact that the local council had already employed p. 117large numbers from ethnic minorities who were able to act as mediators.

This example also underlines an important shift in perspective that is encouraged by the research report. There is not only a ‘white backlash’, especially against the new immigration. It is long-settled communities from all ethnic backgrounds, including African Caribbeans and Asians, who resent newcomers, whether they are black, as in the case of the Somalis, or white, as with the new European migrants from Poland and elsewhere. Note, too, that the research uncovered racist attitudes from the new Eastern European white immigrants towards blacks and Asians, which was also being addressed in Leicester, especially at the school level.

Interestingly, in the light of many derisory comments from critics of such projects, cultural festivals and other joint cultural activities, such as women cooperating to produce crafts and textiles, were found to have generally beneficial effects. The critique of the ‘culturalization’ of ethnic relations policies can be taken too far.

There is much else of value in the findings of this research project. I would like to reiterate, though, the conclusion of the researchers that each locale has unique characteristics, something also borne out by research by Les Back in London. Leicester is therefore not necessarily a model in the sense that all its initiatives should be replicated everywhere. Also, there is little doubt that there is much greater continuing racialized hostility in Leicester than is recognized in the research.

It is worth remembering too that intercommunal projects face considerable difficulties in reconciling diverse needs, expectations, and experiences which have become hardened over considerable periods of time. Such projects require patience and long-term perspectives. Those involved in such projects, such as the p. 118community worker Alison Gilchrist, have warned against government policies based on targets and rapid results.

Clearly, there is no one simple framework and set of practices that can provide answers to the conundrums of developing ‘community cohesion’, and the general vagueness of the notion itself leaves much room for variety and local improvisation.

It was encouraging to see that in its final years New Labour thinking was taking on board the sorts of conclusions reached in the local research of Hickman and her colleagues. Thus a more sophisticated official approach can be found in the report Our Shared Future (2007) in response to the London bombings of July 2005. The document evinces serious understanding of the importance of local contexts, emphasizing that no single strategy can be prescribed for all neighbourhoods, that there is thus no automatic correlation between deprivation and interethnic hostilities. Areas that experience high levels of conflict usually have multiple issues to deal with, especially the combination of a rapid influx of new workers in an area of low employment opportunities and a shortage of housing. And it welcomes the plurality of identities that individuals now have, creating cross-cutting ties.