top of page

Without realising it, Britain has become a nation of immigrants - The Economist - 18.03.24

Another surprise: it’s very good at assimilating people.

In 2013 lifespring church moved from the suburbs into a former cinema near the centre of Reading. At the time, its congregation was small and not varied. “We moved in as a white middle-class church,” says Neville Hollands, a senior pastor. These days Lifespring has members born in more than 40 countries. The diversity of its congregation is reflected in the thicket of flags on both sides of the stage during Sunday services, where 300-odd people praise Jesus to the accompaniment of drums and power chords.

Immigration has transformed Lifespring Church, Reading and Britain itself. The 2021 census of England and Wales showed that 10m people, one-sixth of the population, were born outside the United Kingdom. That was a higher share than in America or any large European country except Germany. The proportion is almost certainly higher still today. The census took place near the beginning of a huge increase in net migration—immigration minus emigration—which quickly reached a record level (see chart 1).

Chart: The Economist

This is a neuralgic political issue, particularly on the right. Polls by YouGov show that Conservative voters cite immigration and asylum as an important issue more often than they mention anything else, including the economy. Politicians and the public alike fret about asylum-seekers—a small but highly visible, and visibly uncontrolled, part of the overall flow. Though he is the successful son of immigrants, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, issues warnings about its effect on society. To his right, would-be successors like Suella Braverman, a former home secretary, say that multiculturalism has failed.

But the fact is that, asylum excepted, Britain handles immigration very well. The country manages to attract people from a large and ever-growing range of countries. Although the popular image of a migrant is a desperate young man floating across the English Channel, Britain’s foreign-born residents are frequently middle-class and slightly more female than male. They quickly get up to speed economically, and their children do strikingly well in school. The government makes no effort to disperse immigrants from ghettos, as, say, the Danish government does. Yet they disperse themselves anyway.

When fretting about immigration and integration, Britons often have places like Rochdale in mind. That poor town near Manchester contains just one sizeable foreign-born group, from Pakistan, which has not always rubbed along well with the white British majority. Last month George Galloway, a fedora-sporting firebrand, won a by-election there after mobilising Muslim anger over the war in Gaza; an anxious speech from Mr Sunak followed. But Rochdale is atypical. To understand Britain’s present—and future—as a nation of immigrants, it is better to look elsewhere.

Somewhere like Reading, a town of 174,000 inhabitants about 60km (38 miles) west of central London. It has a hugely diverse foreign-born population, amounting to one-third of the total (see chart 2). Of more than 330 local authorities in England and Wales, only six saw larger percentage-point increases in their foreign-born populations in the decade to 2021. Like many other places in Britain, Reading has experienced three major waves of settlement since the second world war. Immigrants have transformed the town, but they have barely troubled it.

People move to Reading partly because of where it is: close enough to the capital to allow for quick commuting, when the trains are running properly at least, but distant enough to make it cheaper and more relaxed. “People here don’t walk as fast, and they’re not afraid to make eye contact,” says Belén Ballesteros, a Spanish-born receptionist who moved to Reading from London. She found that she could rent half of a four-bedroom house, with a garden, for the price of a room in the big city. Another draw is the local economy.

Reading has a large hospital (the Royal Berkshire), a growing university and a clutch of it firms, which benefit from the town’s proximity to Heathrow airport and the m4 motorway.

For the full article and more charts please click here:

For the full article in pdf, please click here:

Without realising it, Britain has become a nation of immigrants - The Economist – 18.03
Download 24 • 440KB

For more expert analysis of the biggest stories in Britain, sign up to Blighty, our weekly subscriber-only newsletter.

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "A nation of immigrants"

27 views0 comments


bottom of page