All Fur Coat and No Knickers: Data Without the Analysis

Matilda Gosling

1 March 2013

Ten years is a long time in the history of a city. Londoners classifying themselves as ‘white British’ fell by 600,000 between the censuses of 2001 and 2011, leading some media commentators to welcome the city’s diversity and others to make grim utterances about that most loaded of terms, ‘white flight’. Graeme Archer said in the Telegraph: ‘Imagine if Glasgow disappeared... Consider, instead, Sheffield, or Nottingham, or Belfast. All cities of about 600,000 people. Imagine if everyone who lived there upped and left.’

Cities change and demographics change. London certainly wouldn’t be the beating heart of the country it is today without our chequered history of invasion upon exodus upon economic migration. The interesting part of the story is not so much in the patterns of demographic change, but instead in what causes those patterns - why people arrive, and why they leave (and, of course, their impact upon a place). A 2010 study on flows in and out of London, for example, found that flows into London increased between 2007 and 2009, in part due to the financial crisis and London’s labour market being more resilient than elsewhere in the country. People moving to London tend to be young: unlike any other age group, more 20 to 29 year olds move into London from elsewhere in the UK than move out (perhaps, like Dick Whittington, they eventually discover that the streets are not paved with gold).

Demos is currently working on a study which considers alternative explanations for white people leaving areas with greater diversity, including the nature of the diverse areas (they tend to be urban and poor); white people are more likely to be ‘retirees, wealthier or better educated’. Its study will attempt to isolate and control for these factors in order to identify the reasons behind the changing demographic profile of London. David Goodhart, Director of Demos, has separately highlighted how understudied the ‘white flight’ phenomenon is.

Where research is lacking, however, opinion is rife, and tainted by both implicit and explicit assumptions about race and culture. Archer has criticised the BBC and other commentators for glossing over these assumptions, and (in this alone) he is probably right. Ignoring issues because they are uncomfortable can have damaging consequences. Where Archer goes wrong is in his intimation that 600,000 ‘Londoners’ have left because of ‘the cultural changes that large-scale immigration can cause’. Firstly, these Londoners have been replaced by other Londoners, one beauty of London being that to be a Londoner is not just a birthright. Secondly, whatever the (general) outcomes of the Demos study, we can be reasonably confident that these 600,000 have left for a number of reasons. Some of them are racist. Some of them are not racist, but do not see a value in multiculturalism. Some would like to be able to afford something more than a one-bed flat with no garden in zone 3. Some want to be able to go for a walk in the woods on a Saturday afternoon. Some have new jobs. Some want to bring up their children breathing cleaner air. Some are fed up of commuting for two hours a day in a small tin can surrounded by eau de armpit.

There are probably as many reasons as there are people who leave, just as there are hundreds of reasons why people move into London: more jobs; better pay; great pubs for a Saturday night and museums for a lazy Sunday afternoon; transport home at all hours; interesting friends; the view from Waterloo Bridge; the food shops on Green Lanes and the Uxbridge Road; Hampstead Heath on a summer’s afternoon. Or perhaps that was just me. One of the greatest dangers of research is assuming that groups are homogenous - reducing people and their motivations to an easily reportable pattern. When even the analysis of research and data is pre-empted for the sake of a cheap headline, as has been the case with the ‘white flight’ proponents, the results can be misleading at best, probably inflammatory and, at worst, dangerous.

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