Wolverhampton: Generational change and historical legacies of migration

We often talk about whether or not we have talked enough about immigration in Britain.  But Wolverhampton, the 22nd location for the National Conversation on Immigration, has definitely been talking about immigration for at least half a century, since it was the city’s MP Enoch Powell who made the most infamously famous contribution to the national immigration debate, in his ‘rivers of blood’ speech of 1968.

Our citizens’ panel gave us a clear account of why the Wolverhampton of 2017 understood itself to be a very different place from that of half a century ago. The way in which the city has changed over the last two generations was reflected in how many of the Wolverhampton citizens panel could themselves draw, in different ways, on personal and family experiences of migration, including British-born participants whose Irish grandparents, African Caribbean and Indian parents had come to the city, or who had married people who had come from abroad; while others felt settled in the city having themselves come to Britain from Belgium, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.

‘There aren’t many people here who can say that their family going back generations and their blood come 100%’, said one participant.

That family experience of migration led people to talk about the positive contributions of migration over time while also recognising its pressures too. ‘Because my Dad came over here when he was 25, and married a local woman, I can see both sides of the question. I think there have been more positives than negatives, overall, but that its about maintaining a balance too. Too much of anything can be an issue too. Its good that people get that chance to make a life here, but then my Dad could find himself on a long NHS waiting list too.  So I find that I can swing both ways on this issue, depending on who I am sitting with’, said one participant.

Participants felt that there was a significant difference across generations, in views about immigration and diversity, partly reflecting the shift in experiences about what the norm was.  ‘I think there has been a big change across the generation. I went to school there were one or two Asian children in the school. Now its much more mixed’, said one participant.

The group also reported that their experience  was that integration could be a gradual process, which might take a generation to happen fully. That generational gap could make it difficult to strike the right balances – not just in trying to get the policies on immigration or integration right, but also how we talk about immigration in ways that do enable those with different views to feel confident that their voices will be heard.

Participants were keen to have an open debate about immigration but were sceptical about whether the newspapers or social media made that easier, particularly following a referendum which had divided people with different views.

‘I’ve never unfriended so many people with all this referendum and election stuff going on’, said another. People were concerned about how people were using social media to talk about immigration which often reflected a polarized debate.

‘I think some people are still reserved about whether they can express what they feel. This now needs to be more about both sides listening more – not just shouting over each other, but listening to the other point of view too. Sometimes you might have to agree to disagree’, said another.

In both the citizens panel and the stakeholder roundtable, there was a sense that the city of Wolverhampton felt itself to be a place of diversity and contact – but that the outer suburbs could be more distant from that. There was a danger that new migrants to the city might integrate well into settled migrant and ethnic minority communities – without bridging out to engage more sceptical members of the population in the less diverse areas of the city. Both discussions talked about the value of people getting to know their own neighbours – while worrying that a combination of spending cuts and reduced civic society activity could make that more difficult.

Others felt that tensions today were more likely to be around faith than race, but  we also heard how faith leaders in the city had worked hard to build good relationships across people from different ethnic and faith backgrounds. One contributor to our stakeholder roundtable felt this had been been a positive by-product of the intense political controversies over immigration in the city and region in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘I think there was an extra effort to bring people together – because of that legacy from the time of Enoch: there was a sense that this was not what we all wanted Wolverhampton to be known for’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *