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How diverse is the UK?


Immigration into the UK is a hotly debated and electorally salient topic. Immigrants are frequently represented in popular politics and media as being additional or extraneous to the population rather than core to its make-up. This contrasts with some other countries where immigration is regarded as part of the national story even if immigration controls are nonetheless relatively stringent. New research by Lucinda Platt from the Institute of Education and Alita Nandi at ISER has used Understanding Society to investigate how diverse the UK is, and to ask whether self-categorisation as ethnic majority or as minority ethnic are linked to feelings of ‘Britishness’.

In popular and political discourse immigrants are perceived as a threat not only to labour market or housing prospects of those settled for longer, but also to cultural continuity.

The UK has also been characterised throughout its history as a country of multiple populations: more distantly Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Jutes, Norse, Normans, French, Dutch and those fleeing religious persecution in Europe; more recently, those from other European countries, those who arrived through the extensive trading networks of the British Isles, and those with colonial links with the UK. The largest immigrant flows in recent years have been from the A8 countries, from Anglophone countries such as US, New Zealand and Australia and from the pre-2004 EU countries. Running throughout the history of the UK are substantial population flows to and from the Republic of Ireland.

Moreover, the UK itself is a multiple nation, made up of four countries with populations who identify themselves, and are recognised, as distinct. This research exploits the fact that Understanding Society has questions on own, parental and grandparental country of birth, on own and parents’ ethnic group, as well as questions on Britishness.

Questions on parental and grandparental country of birth were asked of 47,710 adults (16+ years) living in the sampled households who participated in the interviews conducted between 2009 and 2010. The question on Britishness was asked of a smaller group of 17,680 adults. Weights were used to adjust results for sample design and non-response. Within the UK population, 72% was born in England, 9% in Scotland, 5% in Wales and 3% in Northern Ireland. We find that 11% of the UK population was born outside the UK, but 29% of the UK population has some connection with a country outside the UK (that is, either own, parents’ or grandparents’ birth country is outside UK). Thus the composition of the UK looks substantially more diverse if we take into account the parentage of the UK population going back just two generations. On the other hand, claims to the UK being a diverse nation should not be overemphasised: 48% of the UK population are only associated with England. That is, nearly half of the UK population does not even have connections to the smaller countries of the UK in the last two generations and have family links only within England.

Looking together at ethnic identification and countries with which respondents are associated, suggests that there is a substantial level of ‘assimilation’ to majority (White British) identification over even a relatively small number of generations. This is found among a proportion of those born outside the UK, as well as among those with connections to other countries but born within the UK. While 29% are associated with a country outside UK, only 14% of UK population define themselves as of minority ethnicity (3.6% of which are White Other). In fact, 52% of those who have some connection outside the UK define themselves as White British, while 17% of those who were not born in the UK call themselves White British. Among those with parents from different ethnic groups, 30% call themselves ‘mixed’ but 35% of them call themselves White British. On the one hand this might be regarded as a positive ‘melting pot’ story. On the other, there might be regret at relative absence of ‘hyphenated’ or multiple identities which allow the maintenance of cultural claims.

Second, more people are associated with a country outside the UK than were born there or define their ethnicity in terms of it. For example, among UK residents 3.4% were associated with India, while 1% were born in India and 2% chose the category ‘Indian’ as their ethnic group. Again, 7% have parents or grandparents from the Republic of Ireland while 1% define themselves as Irish, though even fewer, 0.7% were born there.

Finally, the researchers examined the relationship of the expressed ethnic identity and claims to Britishness. They found that, after adjusting for sex, age and education (because younger and more highly educated people express a lower sense of Britishness), those of minority ethnicity typically express a stronger British identity than the White British majority.

This is true of UK and non-UK born minorities (though the non-UK born across all groups express a lower sense of British identity). It is not, though, true of those affiliating to a ‘mixed’ identity. Unsurprisingly, we found that those living in Scotland and Northern Ireland had lower British identification (on average) than those living in England and Wales.

On the other hand, for those describing themselves as White British, being born outside the UK has a negative effect on British identity. That is, those who ‘assimilate’ to White Britishness, have a lower sense of British identity than those who maintain a minority identity. Both these patterns are opposite to what might be assumed if the expectation was that expressed identity was meaningful for national connections.

In conclusion, there are far more people in the UK with non-British origins than those who say their ethnic group is not White British. In other words, many of the people whose parents or grandparents were born outside the UK define themselves as White British. Thus the apparently homogenous majority is more diverse than is typically represented. On the other hand, there is a substantial English core of the UK population: half of the UK population were born in England as were their parents and grandparents.

Finally, it is clear that expression of minority identity does not imply alienation from national identity (‘Britishness’), and nor does majority ethnic affiliation bring with it a stronger endorsement of national identity.

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