05/01/2017 05:21 GMT | Updated 05/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Britain Has Become Divided - Let's Build A Country All Citizens Can Call Their Own

We have a difficult time ahead. But our country has chosen its course. And so it is ours for the making, as we forge a common life and meet these shared challenges together, unfolding where we work, in our schools, streets, pubs and places of worship, in the places where people from different walks of life come together. Let's build a country which all citizens can call their own.

Jack Taylor via Getty Images

This blog is adapted from a speech delivered by Chuka Umunna at the launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Social Integration interim report on integration of immigrants on Thursday 5 January 2017

This is an important moment for us - the launch of our first report marking the end of the first stage of our inquiry into immigration and integration. I'd like to thank my colleagues on the Social Integration APPG for all their hard work and also The Challenge for their invaluable support as our secretariat. They do the work I want to talk about - building relationships, connecting people, creating trust.

Immigration and globalization

Immigration has been a defining issue in our national politics. We have experienced demographic change on an extraordinary level very quickly. Over the next fifty years our country will continue to change profoundly. We have seen nothing like it in our history. For many it has felt like a whirlwind over which they have little control. It has undermined their way of life and they worry it threatens their culture and identity. And all our main political parties have been far too slow to respond and so we have witnessed the rise of a populist right which claims to speak for 'our people' to the exclusion of others.

Globalisation - by which I mean the amalgamation of international economies, the flow of people, capital, information, and services across borders, and new technologies of media and communication - has brought wealth to many but it has also brought instability and extremes of inequality too.

People's jobs have been lost as those technologies have transformed work, and factories have shut down and moved overseas. The organisations created by workers to protect themselves and their families from the power of capital have either disappeared or been weakened. Wages have been stagnant and millions struggle to maintain their standard of living. Our country has become more divided as a result.

Rich versus poor

Our cities against our towns and country. The 52% versus the 48%. North versus south. Old against young. Inequalities of wealth and power that give one part of the country or some groups in society opportunity while robbing others of hope. And these divisions in our economy and national culture were laid bare for us all to see by the EU referendum. The vote to leave was symptom not cause. Lord Peter Hennessy, the historian, has described the referendum as a 'lightening flash that illuminated a landscape that has long been changing.'

Our country has been fragmenting. Our union of nations pulling apart. People are losing trust in the political system but also in each other. The ties that bind us together into society are frayed and in places they are broken. Our mission must be to rebuild this country.


In this changing landscape politicians, of all parties have spent our time talking about the market and the state. These two institutions have dominated our politics for over thirty years. For those on the Right it is more of the market and less of the state, for those on the Left it is less of the market and more of the state. In this tit for tat we have neglected society.

We have ignored the experience of individuals living and working together. Having families. Making friends. Creating communities. Sharing the good times and leaning on one another during the bad. And so Westminster has become a distant elite. It is the wish of myself and my colleagues on this APPG - of all parties - that we contribute to reversing this trend, putting society first and revitalising our democracy.

It is a desire familiar to the best traditions of the socialism to which I subscribe, but of parts of liberal and conservative thought too. A politics that builds on what people hold in common, not on what divides them. Our mutual obligations to one another. A love of family. A commitment to work and to making a contribution. The need for a sense of belonging. A love of country. A willingness to live and let live. To stand for decency and to play fair. These values are deeply rooted in the traditions and institutions of our country. It is these values that will shape our future.

The age of globalisation can threaten what is familiar and enduring in our national life but it need not be this way. Our task is to strengthen our common life embracing the best of our past, present and what the future can bring. Our time demands we confront inequalities of power, wealth and opportunity. Our challenge is not to ignore conflict, nor pretend differences between people don't exist, nor avoid the clash of competing interests but to resolve them. To defeat political extremism and restore trust in our system, our politics must be more democratic and must stand for the common good.

A politics of national renewal that builds a country secure in its borders and in its place in the world, a Parliament more responsive to all its people and a nation prosperous for all its citizens.

Renewing our union by recognising people's desire to have more control over their lives in a fast changing world.

The report

This democratic politics of the common good begins with a full, frank and challenging conversation about the issues which lie at the heart of our national disunity. How will we build a more integrated and united Britain? First we need better controlled immigration. Second we need to improve social integration. Our national conversation on immigration has been polarised. Some believe the country is full. Others want an open door. But a consensus is there to be made. The majority of people - whether they voted Leave or Remain last year - want immigration to be managed democratically by the government they elect. It isn't as much about numbers as it is about control.

This view is shared by my constituents in Streatham which voted overwhelmingly to remain and by towns like Boston or Halifax where big majorities voted to leave. What the decision to leave the EU gives us is the opportunity to design a new immigration system.

So our report recommends an independent commission to explore how a devolved, regionally-led immigration system might give people a greater sense of democratic control over immigration and change in their area. Shaping immigration criteria to address national or regional needs will instil greater confidence that the system works for every area.

But Dame Louise Casey's report on opportunity and integration recognises that controlling immigration is not enough. Communities living separately, with few interactions between people from different backgrounds, allows mistrust and prejudice to grow, and leaves a vacuum for those on the extremes on all sides to exploit.

Last August I visited Boston and Halifax to meet and talk to people about their experience of immigration. (We will be visiting Dagenham, Bethnal Green & Bow and Redcar in the coming months too.) The pace of change in these towns has created anger and insecurity.

In Halifax settled immigrant communities and the majority population lead parallel lives.

They do not meet or mix much. Trust is at a low ebb and it increases anxiety, prejudice and the fear of crime.

In Boston, a woman told me that she wanted to build a friendship with the Polish woman next door but she had to wait for that neighbours' child to come home from school to translate.

Other Bostonians told how they felt uneasy about the young Eastern European men who drank out on the street at night. But many of these men lived in properties without communal space and to which they were only allowed access at certain times of the day. They had nowhere else to go.

We can and we must act

Social integration will grow from the bottom up. Members of the settled population and newcomers alike will shape and strengthen the ties that bind. The job of government - national and local - is to support them to do this.

Our report calls on the government to develop a comprehensive national strategy for the economic, civic and social integration of immigrants. Joining up departments and policy making to put integration at the heart of the process of migrating and settling in our country. Enrolling those immigrants who don't speak English in compulsory classes upon arrival in the UK. Investigating whether new immigrants could be automatically placed on opt-out pathways to citizenship.

On the role of local government, we say local authorities should have a new statutory duty to promote integration but they must be given the resources to respond to local needs. A new Integration Impact Fund can compliment the additional investment in public services in immigration hotspots established by the last Labour Government, scrapped and now promised to be reinstated by the current government.

This new fund should be used to build institutions and community spaces which bring together immigrants and members of the settled population to meet, to resolve differences, to work together and to find what they hold in common. Our sense of belonging is formed through the inheritance of our culture and the everyday common experiences through which we recognise something of ourselves in one another. We all share a desire to live together. Our deeply felt need for community animates our attitudes toward change. But reaching out to people from different backgrounds is not straightforward but can be done. Government has a role to play in supporting integration and the process of creating shared cultures and identities.

Earning and belonging

I want to finish by returning to Brexit which hangs heavy over this policy area. Brexit is a profound moment for our country. There are many in my own party who believe it is a reactionary one.

A consequence of xenophobia. A desire to retreat from the world. There is a minority motivated by xenophobia, racism and prejudice. They were responsible for the appalling increase in hate crime recorded in the wake of the vote - we must give no quarter to their prejudice. But this was not what inspired the majority of people who voted to leave.

There is no mood in the country for protectionism. England has no history of mass movements of fascism and antisemitism as there have been on the continent. England and Britain more widely is a moderate country with institutions that have evolved over generations to promote the rule of law, religious tolerance and the common good.

What I believe Brexit represents is a democratic moment. I say this as someone who passionately campaigned to stay in Europe. But this is my country. I have no fear of it. I trust its people. I trust those who voted to leave because they want more control over their lives. I trust those who voted to remain. They voted differently, but they want the same thing - they believed that staying in the EU was best for the country. No one has a monopoly on patriotism. So there is no need for us to be divided.

We have a difficult time ahead. But our country has chosen its course. And so it is ours for the making, as we forge a common life and meet these shared challenges together, unfolding where we work, in our schools, streets, pubs and places of worship, in the places where people from different walks of life come together.

Let's build a country which all citizens can call their own. That is what our APPG is all about.

Chuka Umunna is the Labour MP for Streatham and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Social Integration