BRITAIN’S diverse communities have contributed greatly to this country, making their mark in every corner of society from business, to politics, the arts and public services.
However these same communities have also faced widespread prejudice, a lack of access to opportunities and, worse, a state that refused to recognise racial discrimination.
This week marks 50 years since Enoch Powell delivered his infamous Rivers of Blood speech at a political meeting in Birmingham.
There he made ominous predictions of racial conflict and railed against the introduction of the 1968 Race Relations Act that ultimately recognised that all British citizens – regardless of their background or the colour of their skin – needed protection under law.
Thankfully these predictions have not come to pass. Britain has grown into one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic democracies and the 1968 Act has been strengthened to reflect this.
In 1972, just four years after Powell made his divisive speech, where he talked of the “existing population” finding themselves “made strangers in their own country” we acted swiftly to welcome thousands of Ugandan Asians who had been expelled from their home country by a brutal dictatorship.
Many came with nothing, but within a few years they had rebuilt their lives, making the most of the opportunities that Britain had to offer. And they gave back too – creating new businesses and jobs, taking on prominent roles as public servants.
Our country over this time has become a fairer place. Ethnic minority communities are among the highest achieving in our schools and employment rates are a record high – we are represented in senior leadership roles in all sectors.
We are also a well-integrated society. Nearly nine out of 10 people feel a strong belonging to Britain and around eight out of 10 agree that their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together.
But I know there is more to do create a fair, strong and better integrated country. In too many parts of our nation, communities remain divided. Without the opportunity to mix with others, misunderstandings and mistrust can grow.
When I was a child, I sometimes had to go to the doctor with my mother, but not because I was ill. It was because more than a decade after arriving from Pakistan, she still barely spoke a word of English and needed me – her six year-old-son – to translate for her. It’s a sign of how issues such as language skills can create real barriers to integration.
So last month, I set out bold proposals to tackle the key causes of poor integration. The Integrated Communities Strategy will help everyone to make the most of British life, to improve their English, socialise with people of a different background and get a good job.
To make this happen, we are joining up with five local areas – Blackburn, Bradford, Peterborough, Walsall and Waltham Forest – which have shown leadership in tackling the integration challenges they face. Working together, we’ll learn what works – and, just as importantly, what doesn’t work – and this will be shared more widely across the country.
This is a strategy that is not just fixing things in the here and now, but will set out an ambitious and long-term plan of action that we can all get behind.
Which is why I want people from all faiths and backgrounds to have their say, in our consultation, on how we can ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities and build the stronger, more integrated Britain we all want to see.
In doing so, we should not forget how far we have come. Half a century ago, we were being warned that a diverse society would end in bloodshed.
Next month, we will be cheering on a royal wedding that, for many, will be as much a celebration of a confident, diverse society as a celebration of love.
A society that is focused on what really matters – what unites rather than divides us.
- The consultation on the Integrated Communities Strategy runs until June 5. Visit www.gov.uk/ government/consultations/integrated-communities-strategy-green-paper for details.