Carmel Keren  

London’s identity is deeply rooted in its history of migration and diversity. In the face of the fluidity and openness created by the EU and globalisation of the 21st century, the UK is experiencing a growth in xenophobia and isolationism. This intolerance and protectionism is being institutionalised through an alarming series of new laws and policy. How are these attitudes challenging the notion of multicultural integration and its manifestations within the capital? To what extent do we absorb and nurture diversity of cultures within our society, or seek to impose our own national ideals on those migrating to the UK? 

Intergration, segregation 

Multicultural, a cultural melting-pot, a mosaic of people… London has long been synonymous with cultural diversity. Whilst this is enjoyed and celebrated by many Londoners and even capitalised upon, it is also becoming increasingly divisive. In the face of the fluidity and openness created by the EU and globalisation of the 21st century, the UK is experiencing a growth in xenophobia and isolationism. These attitudes are challenging the notion of multicultural integration and its manifestations within the capital.

Multiculturalism, a brief history 

It may seem like a modern-day phenomenon, but multiculturalism in London dates back to its earliest days as a Roman city. According to DNA research published by the Museum of London, Roman skeletal remains discovered across the city reveal people of wide-ranging ancestry- spanning across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Migration has defined London’s history for several centuries, but it was the 20th century which saw dramatic growth in migration. This was largely driven by greater mobility offered by air travel, as well as the aftermath of the British Empire and the two world wars.

20th century migration to London falls into three broadly distinguishable phases. Pre-World War II, the dominant concern was destitute Europeans: those displaced by the Russian revolution, the First World War, and Nazi prosecution. Already, an air of hostility clouded political discussion surrounding these immigrants- beginning with the ‘Aliens Act’ of 1905. Through acts of law and policy, Britain began to institutionalise bigotry, and thus legally define groups of immigrants as ‘undesirable’.

Springing as a reaction to the crisis in London’s East End, where overcrowding was seen to be radically exacerbated with the arrival of thousands of Russian and Polish Jews, fears regarding ‘aliens’ were compounded by mass unemployment, which saw 1920’s London County Council ban foreigners from all council jobs in.

After World-War-II, the second phase of migration was the ‘open-door’ period. Commonwealth citizens were encouraged to settle in the UK as part of the 1948 British Nationality Act. They provided a desperately needed workforce, under the guise of appreciation for their wartime efforts. By 1961, 100,000 Caribbeans had settled in London, predominantly working within the transport and construction industries.

This changed during the third migration phase. Race-related social problems, intensified by rising unemployment, sparked increasingly tight immigration controls during the 1960’s and 70’s. No longer needed, Commonwealth 5 nationals lost their privileges- and were suddenly treated no differently from foreign nationals. On the other side of the spectrum, Britain’s admittance into the European Union in 1973 meant the door was opened to European nationals. As the EU grew, each addition to the Union saw migrants enter the UK, always gravitating to London above all else.

Multiculturalism today 

In the 1901 census, just 4.5% of Londoners were non-UK born. This percentage grew to 36% in 2011. Migration to London is constantly rising, with census data showing an increase of 54% non-UK born population in 2001 to 2011.  

However, with this rapid growth in migrant population, tensions arise. Issues surrounding the intake and integration of migrant populations are dominating political discussion across all parties. In particular, as seen manifested in the divisive EU referendum debate. The ‘Brexit’ campaign is fuelled by xenophobia and nimbysm, fighting against what London has always been. This argument is rooted deeply in history - Britain’s national identity draws heavily on memories of empire and global power, victory in the Second World War – a sense that separation means independence. Europe has long been the ‘other’ against which British identity is cast.

“Much of the UK sees globalisation and its manifestations – such as immigration – as dis-empowering, impoverishing, and a threat. 4 Whereas for Londoners, globalisation is an economic competition they are apparently winning”1 Meanwhile, a policy announced by Theresa May due to come into effect in this April, states that non-EU migrants who have worked in the country for over 5 years will be required to earn £35k or face deportation. This has sparked predications of chaos in the health service, where a staggering 29,755 of nurses could be affected by 2020. Recent migration figures reveal non-EU migration almost tripled in 2014, with nearly all of those arriving on skilled-work visas. For decades, settlement has been granted on the basis of length of time living in the UK, not based on salary. This policy is part of the current government’s determination to reduce annual net migration.

At the same time, Cameron is proposing schemes aimed at teaching Muslim women English, under the guise of combating extremism. Cameron states: “It is time to change our approach. We will never truly build One Nation unless we are more assertive about our liberal values, more clear about the expectations we place on those who come to live here and build our country together and more creative and generous in the work we do to break down barriers.”2

This follows legislation proposed earlier in the year for new requirements for all public service workers to be fluent in English. A migrant’s ability to speak English has come to determine whether they actively want to integrate and be a “proper” citizen. In 2013, Chancellor George Osbourne stated: “If you are not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut”3 fuelling the notion that immigrants set out to take advantage of Britain’s welfare system. At the same time as Osbourne’s speech, funding for English classes was being cut.

The attitudes seen throughout the ‘Brexit’ campaign, visa policies and language requirements add up to a picture of increasing alienation and isolation within our society. Campaigns built on exploiting the fear and anxiety of what is seen as ‘the other’ – be that Europe, non UK population or Muslim women – all generate divisions and an ‘Us and Them’ mentality – albeit hidden amongst rhetoric of ‘One Nation’.

In our multicultural capital, we have come to a cross roads. On one hand, we identify proudly with a long history of diversity. We rely and depend on foreign migrants for to work across the sectors in 1 in 5 of our skilled jobs, and rely on the culture and food they bring to feed our multicultural tastes. Yet on the other hand, we are putting policies in place to make it harder and harder for anyone to enter, and stay on our shores. And those who do? Well, they had better learn English.   


1.     An Ambitious Project Collapsing, David Shrigley, 2004
2.     Capsters Sports Headgear for Muslim Women, Cindy van der Bremen, 1999
3.     Greetings From London, James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti, 2014
4.    Portobello Road, Charlie Philips, 1974
5.     UKIP National Billboard Campaign, European Elections, 2014


1.     Oliver, Tim ‘To be or not to be in Europe: is that the question?’, British Politics and Policy at LSE (2 Feb 2015)
2.    Press Association ‘Muslim women to be taught English in £20m plan to beat ‘backward attitudes’’, The Guardian, Monday 18 January 2016
3.    O’Hagan, Ellie Mae, ‘Osborne’s ‘learn English or lose your benefits’ is shameless scapegoating’, The Guardian,
Thursday 27 June 2013