The most startling bit of data buried in last December’s U.K. census was the sharp decline of the white British population in London. Over the past decade, it turns out, the British capital has seen roughly 620,000 white natives move out. That’s like the entire population of Hamilton up and leaving over the course of 10 years. As a consequence, white Britons now make up a minority of the city’s residents, at just 45 per cent, compared to 60 per cent in 2001.
It’s a disconcerting trend, smacking as it does of “white flight,” the mid-to-late 20th-century American population shift that saw much of that country’s white middle class abandoning crime-ridden city centres for leafier, more racially homogenized suburbs. That shift left many American cities divided along racial and class lines, with some commentators blaming it for leaving many downtown cores (Detroit’s, for instance, or Cleveland’s) husks of their former selves.
But in Britain, where racist attitudes have seen a sharp decline, the trend seems particularly out of step—especially in a multicultural capital like London. Interestingly, the census also revealed that the nation’s mixed-race population has risen to 12 million and mostly resides in London. So the rather awkward questions left to the population experts are: who are these fleeing white British, where have they gone, and why are they leaving?
The conundrum is baffling academics. “Most geographers did not expect London to become a majority minority city for another 20 or 30 years,” Eric Kaufman, a specialist in ethnic migration at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, recently told the Financial Times—“they have underestimated the extent to which white people have opted to leave an increasing diverse London.” And few politicians seem to want to touch the issue, which doesn’t fit with the mainstream vision of a tolerant, multicultural Britain.
The analysts are divided on the question. A new report by the BBC’s home editor Mark Easton says the trend may not be driven by xenophobia at all, but something much more innocent: the white working-class dream of selling up and escaping to the seaside. But David Goodhart, author of the forthcoming book on immigration, The British Dream, says “certain areas of London have changed more quickly than most people are comfortable with. It’s not racist, it’s basic human social psychology that people want to move on.”
Glancing at a population map of the U.K.’s demographic shift, it’s immediately apparent that the exit of white Britons was not from the city’s affluent core (where the international super-rich have settled en masse in the past 10 years, resulting in a higher international white population of wealthy Europeans), but in the more suburban, down-at-heel outer boroughs. In particular, Barking and Dagenham, two boroughs on the city’s outer eastern edge—the latter made famous as the setting for the period film, Made In Dagenham, about a group of female factory workers who fought for equal pay at a Ford plant in 1968—have seen a dramatic drop in their white British population. It’s perhaps not coincidental that these two areas were the only parts of London in the which the British National Party, the anti-immigration party, actually had some traction during the last election.
But as with most things British, the story is complex. Dagenham was cemented as a working class stronghold with the 1931 opening of the Ford plant, which gave rise to the British suburban dream. But the U.K.’s manufacturing sector has since all but dried up (Ford Dagenham, which at its peak employed 40,000 workers now barely employs 4,000 and will further contract this year). And in the last two decades, many of the boroughs’ public housing residents went from tenants to owners, thanks to a government scheme allowing residents to buy their council houses for 30 per cent of market value. “For many white British households, the 2000s had left them without a job but with a sizable chunk of capital in their home,” Easton explains. “Some had also benefited from redundancy payouts and pension deals offered by Ford. It was a cue to move on.”
While some emigrated abroad, many others moved to coastal towns or quiet villages in the countryside. New research shows that smaller communities in sleepy parts of counties like Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Essex have seen a 10 to 14 per cent rise in their white British population in recent years. And one need only take a holiday to any quaint seaside village on the Suffolk or Norfolk coast to see the explosion of new residents renovating their recently acquired homes.
So is this London’s white flight? Not exactly. White bright new beginnings is more like it. Just goes to show that sometimes, for some lucky people, even economic downturns have their upsides.