Why we need more evidence on our identity

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Good evidence is vital if an informed debate on national identity and race is to take place, Sunder Katwala, Director of the British Future think tank, which works on identity issues, has told Society Central.

Mr Katwala was speaking after the release of new research on Britishness and diversity at this year’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton.

“Identities matter a lot to people, so we have a lot of public conversations about it.  But sometimes we’re guessing – operating on people’s hunches or on what a newspaper editor thinks people are feeling,” he said.

“I think we have a lot of data and evidence – one place where we’re lacking evidence is in what’s going on over time in minority communities. Government is actually cutting back on things like the citizenship survey, which gives us information.

“There’s a real lack of evidence and one reason I think it would be really important to invest more in that is that when it is actually done, people’s views across different communities and different faiths are much less different than everyone’s expecting them to be.”

“There’s a powerful sense that people haven’t had a voice and haven’t had control over massive issues that have affected their lives. Globalisation, economic change in the workplace, immigration and other forms of change. But intuitions as to what people are feeling are not necessarily research-based, unless you have both very good academic surveys and actually proper real deliberative conversations.”

The report by NatCen Social Research, based on data from the Understanding Society study, found there had been a decline in the percentage of people in England who thought of themselves as primarily ‘British’ rather than English.

About two fifths of those of white ethnicity in England said they saw their ethnicity as ‘English only,’ and a quarter saw themselves as having a combined English and British identity. Minority groups were more likely to identify themselves as ‘British only.’ Almost one in 10 respondents said they felt neither English nor British,  with Black-African and other minority groups the most likely  to fall into this category.

John Denham, MP for Southampton Itchen and PPS to the Labour leader Ed Miliband, told a  fringe meeting at the conference that many of his constituents felt they were not being listened to by politicians, particularly on matters such as immigration.

“We can measure what people say is their identity but it gives us very little explanation of why they feel what they do. And I would suggest the sharp growth in English identity in recent years is the quite understandable expression of a  group of people who feel that uniquely they have no voice in our society. There is no surprise that there has been a rise in English identity because it is the most natural identity to turn to and it is no surprise either that that is less marked in black and minority ethnic communities, who already have a multiplicity of identities.”


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