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In Europe, publicly worrying about immigrant integration is a vote winner. The Fascist Golden Dawn in Greece threatens a May electoral breakthrough on the back of accusations that immigrants are violent and hurt a cohesive Greek nation. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen claims she is the political centre of gravity in the French Presidential Election as Hollande and Sarkozy traded barbs on halal and headscarves at a fierce TV debate last Wednesday.

Eric Pickles and David Cameron have had opportunities to publicly worry about integration and they both have previous form – they have been quick to underline the failures of multiculturalism and have worried about the impacts of immigration. But Pickles and Cameron have chosen not to publicly worry. As recently as St. George’s Day, Eric Pickles, the tough-talking, no nonsense Secretary of State, stood up to make a speech about Britishness. The headlines were there to be written, but they never arrived. His speech was low key and played against type. His final line, the full stop on his speech, summed it up: integration is what makes our country great. There was no story to write, and the government publicity machine did not even attempt to crank into action.

Of course, in his speech and the government’s new integration strategy Pickles finds causes for concern: new forms of bigotry, worries about segregation in communities, anxiety over the impacts of immigration on communities and so on. The Pickles answer is clear. He wants us to be a plural nation but government should get out of the way and let people get on with integration. Government should only act exceptionally and confine itself to setting out the conditions for success.

We addressed these questions in a new report for the Migration Policy Institute, supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

Our main findings are counter-intuitive. People, probably subconsciously, divide the integration debate into three different conversations without knowing it and then often talk past each other.

The first conversation is our national story, who the modern British people are and want to be. The second conversation is about our local areas. Are our communities successful and healthy places to live? The third conversation is about immigrant groups and how they are doing. Are they out of work, do they intermarry, are they failing in our schools?

On the first conversation, the Pickles approach is surely right. As opinion polling over time shows, we think the modern British story is a less ethnic one and more civic, less about where our parents were born and more about our role as active members of an ancient liberal democracy.

On the second conversation, politicians may worry about local communities, and whether immigrants make communities less cohesive, but our findings suggest we should worry less. Perhaps it is that immigration and integration are leitmotifs for change, and change worries us. Perhaps we have looked too often to the United States, where seminal work by Robert Putnam (who wrote the book Bowling Alone) links race, neighbourhood trust and social breakdown. But in Britain, our work and at least seven other major independent studies find no link between diversity and a lack of trust in local communities. Where communities are fractured, the reasons are that they have low quality services (schools, hospitals) and are poor places, where people have few resources.

Some academics go further, saying that all things being equal, the more diverse an area, the more likely the area is to be friendly and cohesive, with stronger neighbourhoods. Of course, a huge influx of immigrants to an area will cause problems, but we have answers to hand: better planning (we planned the arrival of over 100,000 Polish people in the 1940s, why not today?) and more flexible funding formulas would help a great deal. In fact, it should be a priority. Over 70% of immigrants now come to this country for less than five years. Old patterns of movement are cracking up and we need more flexible answers.

The third and final conversation is about immigrant groups and how they are doing. People have different things in mind when they talk about integration in this way. Some people are thinking of jobs and wages; others of social mixing, such as friendship and coupling. Here is where the biggest gap in government strategy lies. The government has little grasp on which groups are doing well and which are not, what the reasons are, and what types of performance we should measure. This is important as what we count, counts and the overall average is meaningless. For instance, if we measure employment, we find Indian men do better than the national average and Afro-Caribbean men do worse. But if we measure rates of intermarriage we find the opposite (Afro-Caribbean men are more than four times as likely to marry out). Without deciding on what is important and then knowing who is doing well and who is falling behind, we are at real risk of not prioritising our scarce resources.

Pickles then is right when he says integration is what makes this country great. The public also think so: over two thirds believe the integration of the children of immigrants (including the children of Muslim immigrants) is going well. Unlike other attitudes, this view is shared across all the social classes and by women and men equally. The view that we are going to hell in a handcart, let’s call it the Nigel Farage view, is confined to a miserabilist minority. It seems most of us believe in integration. But we have a responsibility to do more, and we should it do it more sensibly. We need more intelligent muddling through, more smart investments in groups who do less well and fall behind, and we need to spend more of our time and energy in thinking how best to do it.

Will Somerville is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. 

Follow Will on Twitter: @MigrationPolicy 

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