Is Britain getting more racist?

Published on Tuesday, 03 June 2014 09:29
Written by Daniel Mason

How racist is Britain? It's a question that has been on many lips in recent months - first as Ukip's anti-immigrant rhetoric saw it surge to victory in the European elections, and then last week when the British Social Attitudes survey suggested racial prejudice was on the rise.

Nigel Farage, Ukip's leader, has repeatedly and vehemently denied accusations that his party is racist, dismissing as rogues the individual councillors, candidates or supporters whose various tweets and Facebook posts have caught the media's attention over recent months.

He might be disappointed, then, to see research published this weekend by the pollsters YouGov in the Sunday Times showing that more than a quarter of Ukip backers admit to holding racist views.

According to the survey, 17% of people in Britain harbour some racist opinions, but that figure rises to 27% among those intending to vote for Farage's party in next year's general election. That's a much higher proportion than in any other main party. Among Conservatives it is 20%, Labour 14% and the Liberal Democrats just 6%.

And, after Farage said he would be uncomfortable if a family of immigrants from Romania moved in next door, YouGov found that 62% of Ukip supporters agree, compared with 37% in the general population.

The YouGov numbers tend to support Tony Blair's hypothesis, made in a speech on Monday, that the "defining characteristic" of anti-Europe and anti-immigrant parties such as Ukip is a "belief that a nation's identity consists in a sense of belonging to a group of similar look, culture, history and interests".

What makes the issue pertinent is that Ukip's rise has coincided not only with increased immigration but also with what has been widely reported as a more general rise in racial prejudice in Britain compared with early this century.

The 2013 British Social Attitudes survey, released by NatCen Social Research, revealed that 30% of Brits describe themselves as a little or very prejudiced, up from an all-time low of 25% in 2001 (though still down from the highs of the 1980s and 90s). Of the 30%, nine out of 10 want to see a reduction the level of immigration into the UK. That falls to a still high seven out of 10 among people who do not admit to racial prejudice.

Penny Young, the chief executive of NatCen Social Research, said the findings were "troubling".

"Levels of racial prejudice declined steadily throughout the nineties, but have been on the rise again during the first decade of this century. This bucks the trend of a more liberal and tolerant Britain," she added. "Our local and national leaders need to understand and respond to increased levels of racial prejudice if we are to build strong local communities."

Less surprising results from both the NatCen and YouGov surveys included that older and less educated people are more likely to admit to holding racist views, and that a smaller proportion of people in multicultural London self-identify as racists than in the midlands and north.

But is Britain really getting less tolerant? After all, the BNP fared badly at the European elections, with party leader Nick Griffin losing his seat in the north west (though he claimed the his former backers had "voted for Ukip's racist policies instead" rather than changed their views).

Nevertheless the process used in the surveys of asking people to admit to racism is questionable. As University of Manchester academic Robert Ford told the Economist: "In the 1980s, people said they weren't racist but didn't want black in-laws. Now it's the opposite."

Yet, the people polled by YouGov do believe the country has become more racist in the last 10 years - with 34% of all respondents taking that view, against 28% of say the nation is more tolerant. Nearly a third think little has changed. As Labour's shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said when the results were published, the least political leaders should take from the surveys is that they "cannot be complacent".

Omar Khan, from the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, made a similar point in the Guardian: "This nails the lie racism has been overcome in Britain or that when Jeremy Clarkson said the things he did it was an anomaly that does not tap into a wider problem. Politicians became too relaxed and thought that all they had to do was let things continue unhindered and that generational change would take over.

In any case, he is surely right in adding that the survey should, if nothing else, act as a "warning shot to politicians and the public about how we see ourselves".

What do you think: is Britain getting more racist? Let us know in the comments below for your chance to win £100.

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