Ten million people living in England and Wales were born abroad. Fewer than half of Britons call themselves Christians. For some, the two main takeaways from the 2021 census for England and Wales – a more diverse nation and a more secular one – provide something to celebrate. For others, “white decline” and the decline in Christian identity are developments to fear.
Only 46.2% of the population of England and Wales now describe themselves as “Christian”, down from 59.3% in 2011 and 72% a decade earlier. The main reason is a leap in the number describing themselves as being of “no religion” – more than a third of the population.
Meanwhile, the number of “white British” has also declined, falling to 74.4% from 80.5% in 2011.
Many have linked the two trends, viewing both the erosion of Christian belief and the falling proportion of “white Britons” as products of mass immigration undermining the traditional character of British identity. In fact, the decline in the white British population is acting as a brake to the decline of Christianity.
While the number of white Britons identifying as Christian has fallen (by almost 7 million), the numbers of black, Asian and “white other” Christians have risen. Immigration has become an important prop in sustaining Christianity, east European and African immigrants, in particular, helping fill church pews. The lowest proportions of people declaring themselves as being of “no religion” are largely in the major cities, which are also the most diverse.
Just 3% thought that 'to be truly British you had to be white', a figure that had fallen by two-thirds since 2006
If critics such as Nigel Farage truly want to prop up Christianity, they would do well to argue for more immigration, especially from east Europe and Africa. Of course, none will do so, because the argument that immigration undermines Britishness is a claim more about immigration than about Britishness or Christianity. What is important to such critics is the symbolic value of immigration as a measure of unacceptable change. And, for all their insistence that their anxieties have little to do with questions of race, such critics often obsess about “white decline” as the keenest expression of the unacceptability of mass immigration.
The lament for “white decline” is a far-right trope that has seeped into mainstream conservative discussion, and is often expressed in straightforward Powellist terms (“Enoch was right”). The critics often get their facts wrong – London and Manchester are not, as Farage claims, “minority white cities”, though they are minority white British.
Why should it matter to such naysayers that there are, in some cities, more Britons without a white skin than with? Because, suggests one of Britain’s leading conservative voices, Douglas Murray, “we never voted for this. Quite the opposite in fact.”
It’s true that no party has had in its policy platform the demand that “we will turn white Britons into a minority”. But no mainstream party has had (in recent decades at least) a policy platform that demanded that “white Britons should always remain a majority”. Parties that have explicitly avowed such an aim – eg the BNP – have barely made a scratch on the electoral process.
In 2020, just 3% of people thought that “to be truly British you had to be white”, a figure that had fallen by two-thirds since 2006. Meanwhile, the census shows that in 2.5 million households in England and Wales – more than 10% of the total – there were two or more ethnicities, while a quarter of London households were of mixed ethnicity. Most people, in other words, are more comfortable with diversity, and less obsessed with skin colour, than the Murrays and Farages of this world. For sections of the right, “the voters” or “the people” provide a convenient alibi for their own prejudices.
We have as a society become more consumed by questions of identity
If the debate over the census data exposed some of the uglier seams of conservative thinking about Britishness, the furore over royal aide Susan Hussey’s questioning of Ngozi Fulani, the black founder of a charity for victims of domestic violence, at a Buckingham Palace reception, was revealing, too, about contemporary anxieties over identity.
Few people with black or brown skins will not have faced the “But where are you from? No, where are you really from?” routine. Only once the interrogator has discovered your deep ancestry would they be satisfied that they had discovered the “real” you.
In the past, it was a line of questioning rooted in straightforward racism, the “real” you exposing why you could never be truly British. Some of that sentiment still remains – it’s at the heart of the fear of “white decline” – though most people now have little trouble in accepting as British those with distinct histories and heritages.
At the same time, though, we have as a society become more consumed by questions of identity, and with the desire to reframe one’s sense of belonging by rooting it in one’s cultural difference and heritage. It is a shift that often helps blur the lines of racist thinking.
Many apologists have suggested that in the conversation at the palace, Hussey was simply being curious about Fulani’s background. There is nothing wrong with asking someone about where they come from. But any reasonable reading of the exchange shows Fulani insisting that she is British and Hussey continuing to press to find the “real” Fulani behind her Britishness. Whether one reads that as racism or social maladroitness, it is not difficult to see why Fulani might have found it uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the idea that this should be a sacking offence, or that the incident should dominate the national conversation for days, reveals how tendentious have become debates about identity and belongingness today
It’s as if there are two different Britains in which discussions about diversity, belongingness and identity take place. There is the Britain revealed by the census data: a more diverse nation, in which there is friction and conflict and resentment, but also one in which most people have become more relaxed about diversity.
And then there is the Britain of the public debates, in which identity becomes more politicised and often more racialised. If we want to know from where much of the friction and conflict and resentment of the first Britain derives, it would help to look at the second.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist