Blink and miss. When so much else happens in this age of information overload, it is easy to miss the significance of drab and dry official figures. A common thread ran through two disparate events last week: a leading member of the royal establishment apologised and resigned when it was revealed that she repeatedly asked the UK-born Afro-Caribbean head of a charity where the latter was ‘really’ from, and the latest release from the 2021 Census data showed that for the first time, less than half of Britain’s population say they are Christians, with Birmingham and Leicester becoming the first cities where non-whites are in a majority.
The two headlines, appearing weeks after a British Asian/Indian became the prime minister confirm that the country is increasingly comfortable with what used to be seen as the ‘other’.
There is some poignancy in Birmingham emerging as one of the most ethnically diverse cities. It was here in 1968 that the enigmatic Enoch Powell made perhaps the most inflammatory speech in British political history, known as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Powell, who was a Conservative MP from Wolverhampton South West, declared at a time of rising immigration from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.” According to him, immigration would lead to race war and bloodletting. He added that seeing migrants arrive from Britain’s former colonies was “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”.
Since that speech, Britain has well and truly rejected Powell’s racist prophecy, with second and third generation of immigrants going on to excel in various fields, including politics. Take a look at England’s football team at the World Cup or the cricket team. Their participation in British life is celebrated, even though challenges remain, with racism and inequalities continuing to blight everyday lives of millions in the minority communities.
The leading member of the royal establishment who resigned was Lady Susan Hussey, lady-in-waiting of Queen Elizabeth, and Prince William’s godmother. She was at a reception at Buckingham Palace, where the Queen Consort, Camilla, had warned of a “global pandemic of violence against women.” Among the 300 guests was Ngozi Fulani, founder of the London-based charity Sistah Space, which supports women of African and Caribbean heritage who have faced domestic and sexual abuse. Fulani, who was repeatedly questioned by Lady Hussey about her background at the event, said she was “totally stunned” by the inquisition. A spokesperson for Prince William later said "racism has no place in our society. The comments were unacceptable, and it is right that the individual has stepped aside with immediate effect”, while Buckingham Palace said her remarks were “unacceptable and deeply regrettable”.
It is a measure of the progress made in combating racism that the exchange was quickly reported, the well-placed individual apologised and relieved of her position in the royal establishment. It is a matter of debate if such an exchange some decades ago would have had a similar effect.
The changes wrought in British society over the years were also reflected in the Census data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Since the 2011 Census, it revealed a 5.5 million (17%) fall in the number of people who describe themselves as Christian and a 1.2 million (43%) rise in the number of people who say they follow Islam, bringing the Muslim population to 3.9 million. As many as 37.2% of people – 22.2 million – declared they had “no religion”, the second most common response after Christian, suggesting that over the past 20 years the proportion of people reporting ‘no religion’ has soared from 14.8%. London is the most religiously diverse region of England, with just over 25.3% of people reporting a religion other than Christianity.
Says Andrew Copson of Humanists UK charity: “These results confirm that the biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last ten years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious. They mean the UK is almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth. One of the most striking things about these Census results is how at odds the population is from the state itself. No state in Europe has such a religious set-up as we do in terms of law and public policy, while at the same time having such a non-religious population”.
The ONS data also estimates Britain’s white population to be 81.7%, down from 86% in 2011. The percentage of British-Asian population is 9.3%, up from 7.5% in 2011. The data shows that 59.1% of the people of Leicester are now from ethnic minority groups, a major change since 1991, when non-whites accounted to just over a quarter of the city’s residents. The city has a large population of Asian origin, many settling there after being expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972. Non-whites are also in a majority in Luton (54.8%) and Birmingham (51.4%).
Challenges over issues linked to the British Empire remain but, as The Guardian commented editorially: “Despite the best efforts of politicians like Powell and his ilk to turn people against each other on the basis of race and ethnicity, a more multiracial, multicultural country has become a feature of modern life. It is progress that the public have overwhelmingly accepted that Britain is not just populated by white people – and have stopped imagining that it could ever be otherwise…(Preserving) Britain’s diversity requires hard work as well as good intentions. Racial differences need managing to bridge divides, not widen them. The trouble is that right-wing politicians have for too long profited by scapegoating outsiders...Britain’s racial model is far from perfect. But race, culture and ethnicity are lived in a far more convivial way than how it is often evoked politically”.
The realities of globalisation and staff shortages thrown up by Brexit-related restrictions on immigration from within the European Union mean that Britain will need to open its doors to more professionals from across the world, which will add to diversity in everyday life not only in London but also across the British Isles. The next Census will most likely present a more diverse picture of British society than now.
- The writer is a senior journalist based in London.
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