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Gary Younge
No, Theresa May – immigration is not the real threat to national cohesion

In May a party dedicated to leaving the United Kingdom received 50% of the vote and 95% of the seats in Scotland; a report later that month revealed that the average house price in London was almost three times the price of an average house in the north-east. Meanwhile the fate of the Northern Ireland assembly remains precarious after allegations that the Provisional IRA has not fully disbanded.

So when Theresa May claimed on Tuesday that migrants pose a threat to national cohesion, you have to wonder which nation she was referring to. “When immigration is too high,” she told the Tory party conference, “when the pace is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society.”

Let us first deal with the premise on which this claim is based. Economically, electorally and culturally, the UK has rarely felt less cohesive – but that lack of unity has nothing to do with immigration. Take the last election. One in two Scots voted for the Scottish National party, and one in four in Northern Ireland voted for Sinn Féin. These are not just parties with different points of view from the mainstream – they are parties whose raison d’être is to bring about the end of the UK in its current form. Then there were the one in seven voters who backed the UK Independence party, which seeks not simply to preserve the nation in its current form but, by sheer force of nostalgia, seeks to take it to a hermetically sealed and culturally calcified state that never existed.

Far from there being a consensus on what it means to be British, the UK is in the midst of an existential challenge. It is simultaneously being forced to reckon with who should be in it, and what it should be in. The issue of what makes us British, whether that Britishness can be preserved and in what manner and at what cost, is not only not settled – it is hotly contested.

“Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-consciousness,” argues Ernest Gellner in Thought and Change. “It invents nations where they did not exist.” New migrants are once again being asked not only to integrate but to “be British” – with a degree of certainty and confidence about what that might look like, when British people themselves can’t even work it out.

The Tories know this. Indeed it was central to their election campaign, in which they sought to scare English voters with the prospect of a Labour party propped up by Scottish nationalists. The day after Scotland’s rejection of independence, the all-party coalition that had backed the union splintered when Cameron stunned his previous allies with a naked rallying call to English nationalism. “The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer,” he said. He later went on to threaten Labour voters with the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon – as though the SNP were less a political party than a disease ready to spread south and contaminate all who rubbed shoulders with it.

He had a receptive audience. Between 1996 and 2011 the proportion of people living in England who described themselves as English leapt up by 17%, while those calling themselves British fell by 7%. Between 1992 and 2011 the proportion who, when forced to choose, defined themselves as English rose by 35%, while those who thought of themselves primarily as British fell by 32%. Roughly one in four Scots see themselves as Scottish, not British, while two thirds of Northern Ireland’s Catholics see themselves as Irish.

British identity has long been a very porous, private matter. There were many ways to get there and few prescriptions on how you made the journey. Its vague and fluid nature allowed space for a range of options, hyphens and elisions.

But social cohesion is about more than identity. It demands resources. The real mendacity in May’s claim was to blame low-paid migrants for looting the nation’s public sphere even as her party takes a wrecking ball to it. “It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further and some people are forced out of work altogether.”

It’s not low-paid migrants who traded in credit default swaps, or were bailed out by public funds to the tune of billions and are now back to collecting huge bonuses as though nothing ever happened – that was the Tories’ financial backers. It’s not asylum seekers who decided that the poor should pay for the mistakes of the rich and slashed funding for libraries, education, youth services, welfare and tax credits. It’s not refugees who decided that the steelworks in Redcar would not be saved or that pits should be closed – thereby devastating entire communities and creating the kind of regional imbalances that render all talk of cohesion meaningless.

The very institutions that have tied this nation isle together – the National Health Service, the BBC, the welfare state – are the very things May’s party is busy dismantling.

Social cohesion cannot be dictated by fiat, less still conjured from thin air. Its greatest threat comes not from immigration but from the claim by those who have much that those who have little should blame their plight on those who have even less.

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