A United Kingdom?

With the UK more divided than ever, youth groups provide one answer to the challenge of social cohesion.

Political commentators reached fever pitch last month as Sweden went to the voting booths amid predictions of a far-right surge. Though the final result was more complex – less about the far-right’s gains than the centre’s losses – there was still success for the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, who increased their share of the vote by more than any other party. The story felt all too familiar: a nation divided, with the debate over immigration taking centre stage.

Anxiety about (ostensibly unskilled) immigration has at least some part to play in explaining what’s happening in Sweden and in other European countries facing populist challenges. Even if the Swedish Democrats did less well than the more febrile parts of the media predicted, the result was yet a shock.  Sweden has for years been a byword for benign tolerance which is one reason why it has welcomed more migrants per capita than any other in Europe, accepting 163,000 people in 2015. Yet despite a booming economy, integration has been a challenge, with unemployment much higher among foreign-born workers and widespread public concern about segregated communities and assimilation.

Resistance to the outsider is also evident in the UK. In a recent ComRes poll for the BBC Asian Network, two in five British Asians (40%) said that they felt that Britain had become less tolerant over the last couple of years. The findings highlighted the complexity and contradictions of social integration. While more than half (54%) said that they had toned down their Asian identity in order to fit in, the results also suggested that British Asians are more socially conservative than the average British adult. Two in five (43%) thought same-sex relationships unacceptable, for example, in comparison to just 15% of the population overall.

Despite its challenges, social cohesion has been high on the political agenda since Dame Louise Casey warned that the social fabric of the nation was fraying in her 2016 Review. In March this year, Sajid Javid announced the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, with £50m earmarked to fund the Government’s plans to create a ‘stronger, more united Britain’. The aim is to facilitate social mixing, a key barrier to integration. Yet mixing is not always enough: evidence suggests that more diverse neighbourhoods increase both positive and negative social contact among different groups.

A ComRes survey of young people conducted for the Youth United Foundation suggests that youth groups may be one answer. Young people who were members of a youth group were significantly more likely than those who were not to say that they spent time with others who were different from them. Importantly, they were also more likely to say that this contact was positive. At one group in Bradford, we spoke to a volunteer group leader. At school, he told us, young people often hang out in cliques segregated by where they live or where their family comes from. The culture of their group, however, was that all were one ‘regardless of age, culture, background, schooling, family’.

Last month the government announced a £5m funding boost to create thousands more youth group places in deprived areas of the UK. With a general election forever around the corner, the hope will be that, though a drop in the ocean given the wider issues facing both the UK and the continent of Europe, steps such as this can contribute to a societal move away from conflict and towards cohesion.