The flight of white Britons from London has been generating considerable heat for moderators of online chat to hose down on the nation’s media websites.
There’s been a lot of statistical analysis of this population movement, as ever in matters of immigration and race adding up to the right or wrong answer according to the views of the writer or reader. There’s a lot of anger out in chatroomland, much of it directed at Muslims accused of failing to integrate into mainstream British society.
It’s also brought a new comparison to replace the notional number of football pitches, countries the size of Wales or planets the size of Earth. We now have to imagine the equivalent population of a city the size of Glasgow marching out of the capital between 2001 and 2011.
In my own London borough, Redbridge, there has been a 29.8% decrease in the white British population, according to census data. That figure masks sizeable variations within the borough, measured by council ward. In my local area, South Woodford, the figure is considerably smaller, according to the ONS map reproduced in a report by the BBC’s Mark Easton. I’d have said the biggest demographic change locally is in the number of east European voices heard in the street and at the tube station, and the biggest visible change in the diversity of the cafes, restaurants and shops.
Easton has considered in some detail the population history of Barking and Dagenham, and the rise and fall of of car manufacturing by Ford in the borough, to conclude that the story is much more positive than bald headlines about the white British having become a 45% minority of the city’s population might suggest.
Easton picks up on the growth of the white British population along the Essex coast in places like Leigh on Sea. The suggestion is that the cockney sparrows who were rehoused in the postwar homes for heroes of the Becontree estate in Barking and Dagenham, and who invested in the Thatcherite “rght to buy” dream, have now cashed in their equity and their Ford redundancy cheques to move further out.
“The movement of the white British is often characterised as white flight – the indigenous population forced out of their neighbourhoods by foreign migrants. That may be part of the story, but I think the evidence suggests it is also about working class aspiration and economic success.”
He misses one salient fact. The white British population has seen its biggest percentage increase of 13.7% in South Derbyshire, where Toyota has its Burnaston plant. The first car rolled off the line there in 1992 and even in today’s economic climate there are vacancies for production workers. Quite a draw for ex-Ford workers, I suspect.
By comparison with inner London boroughs, where the “white other” category of rich white Europeans and Russians is growing, the story in Barking And Dagenham is different.
“The people moving into the borough tend to be of black African heritage. I was introduced to Victor and Victoria, whose parents came to Britain from Ghana in the 50s. He works for London Transport and she is a nurse in the NHS – typical of the professional black families who’ve arrived from inner London to take advantage of available housing as the borough’s white residents leave.
“With a time-lapse camera, it would appear that London is pulsing as generations and ethnic groups move up and move out.”
Easton’s piece triggered 2,062 comments, many of those most highly rated vehemently hostile to his argument and to immigration and minority ethnic communities, while pleas for tolerance and stories of the geographic mobility of previous immigrants to London, including the Irish, are lowest rated.
Then there are the writers who should know better. Step forward Graeme Archer at the Daily Telegraph and a piece entitled Let’s talk about the exodus of 600,000 whites from London. As if we were not.
He takes the Glasgow comparison and paints a dystopian vision.
“Argyle Street, in the city centre – empty. Byres Road, next to the university – derelict. The Crow Road – abandoned (except, perhaps – if this were an exciting new BBC drama – for an old Iain Banks novel, rain-damaged pages flapping in a gutter, symbol of the great evacuation). All those tenements, riverside apartments, suburban villas, all lying vacant.”
His vision of a collapsing society is not one I recognise from South Woodford. Not for nothing does his Telegraph biog state that “Graeme Archer is a professional statistician, who won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011”. So we have the bow to impartiality before he draws the opposite conclusion to Easton.
“Fundamentally, none of this is strictly about “race”, but rather the cultural constructs we layer on to genetics. There are good and bad neighbours of every hue, of course. But the scale of white flight demands more than issuing congratulations to the second and third generation children of immigrants, who’ve done well in life and moved from Zone 2 to Zone 5 of the Central or Northern Underground lines. It’s also absurd to assume that the grandchildren of cockneys are moving still further out, just because their houses have increased in value.”
And then there are the BBC’s alleged sins of omission in reporting on Bethnal Green.
“Hate crimes disfigure its streets: in an ironic reversal of one reason for the East End’s fame – that it was where indigenous, working-class Londoners faced down home-grown fascists – the streets of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel are now scenes of increasingly violent attacks on gay people. The BBC doesn’t talk about this, oddly, or wonder why the Eastenders’ movement is always away from their original homes: there are plenty of expensive properties in E2.”
Except that a cursory Google search finds the BBC has been covering the attacks on gays since at least 2011.
Archer’s piece is sufficient to generate another 1297 comments and counting for the all-important click count, most written by people angry at the fact of immigration and attaching the blame to Labour politicians for the alleged adverse impact.
There are in the comment threads on both stories a smattering of expats and people planning to leave the country, oblivious to the irony that they will rely on the welcome other countries extend to immigrants.
In the Guardian, Rupa Huq points out a delicious irony.
“The current displacement of the white British is essentially a new version of an old story, one that has made London the city it is. Twentieth-century Jewish suburbanisation away from the East End provides earlier precedent, as do similar journeys made by French Hugenots and the Irish. One of the reasons Thatcher was selected by Conservatives in Finchley in the 50s was her pledge to end the ban on Jews joining Finchley golf club.”
Soul in the suburbs
London’s soul, she says in an echo of an old punk song, is in the suburbs.
“Polski skleps (Polish convenience stores) and boldly designed Hindu temples (such as at Neasden) and mosques appearing alongside pre-existing churches not only contradict both notions of suburbs as private worlds and the decline of religion in the UK but have also been welcome additions to the suburban landscape. Ethnic retail has saved many high streets from adding to the sense that we are living in boarded-up Britain.”
And at the New Statesman, Sunder Katwala picks up a key problem with making the 45% figure the headline – that it suggests the majority of London’s residents are migrants and sees the “salient contrast as between ‘white Britons’ and ‘ethnic minorities, immigrants and foreigners’.”
The truth, he says, is that “our increasingly diverse capital is 60% white and 63% of Londoners are British-born. Overall, threequarters of Londoners are British citizens, and under a quarter are foreign nationals.”
Not only that, but most immigration is now temporary. Instead of the “Ellis island model” of settling for good, 72% will now leave within five years, according Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
The fact is, then, that many of the Telegraph-reading whingeing Poms who’ve taken off for foreign climes will be back to “dear old Blighty”. Just when you thought you’d seen the back of them.