Ethnic groups in the United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom is an ethnically diverse society. The largest ethnic group in the United Kingdom is White British, followed by Asian British. Ethnicity in the United Kingdom is formally recorded at the national level through a census. The 2011 United Kingdom census recorded a reduced share of White British people in the United Kingdom from the previous 2001 United Kingdom census. Factors that are contributing to the growth of minority populations are varied in nature, including differing birth rates and Immigration.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) based on population survey figures from 2019, people from ethnic minority backgrounds make up 14.4% of the United Kingdom (16.1% for England, 5.9% for Wales, 5.4% for Scotland and 2.2% for Northern Ireland).[1]


A variety of ethnic groups have settled on the British Isles dating back from the last ice age until the 11th century. These populations included the Celts, Picts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and the Normans[2] Recent genetic studies have suggested that the prehistoric Bell Beaker influx and the Anglo-Saxon migrations have had particularly significant effects on the genetic makeup of modern Britons.[3][4][5][6]

King William the Conqueror introduced the first Jewish settlers in England in 1070 [7] and later on in the 16th century was when the first Romani's were introduced in Britain. The UK has a history of small-scale non-European immigration, with Liverpool having the oldest Black British community dating back to at least the 1730s during the period of the African slave trade.[8] The oldest Chinese community in Europe, dates back to the arrival of Chinese seamen in the 19th century.[9] In the 19th century, there was an increase of Jewish and Irish people living in Great Britain, with many settling in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and in The East End Of London, where the ethnic dialects contributed to the formation of the Cockney dialect.

Since 1948, immigration from the West Indies and the Indian Subcontinent occurred in substantial numbers due to labour shortages in Britain after World War II.[10] Immigration started to increase in the 1950s and 1960s and the influx different cultures created different ethnic communities. However, instances of documented and perceived racism and heavy-handed policing by the native English population has led to a number of riots, most notably in 1958, 1981, 1985 and 2011. When Britain joined the EEC in 1973, the level of migration from Western European nations increased. Migration from newer EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe have resulted in a growing Eastern European population since 2004, however after the Brexit Referendum in 2016, numbers started declining.[11]

Sociologist Steven Vertovec presents the idea of superdiversity in Britain. The notion of the increasing population of ethnic groups and communities are creating new and smaller ethnic minorities in Britain. The dynamics of superdiversity influences the social and economic patterns of the United Kingdom creating complex social frameworks.[12]

Official classification of ethnicity[edit]

The ethnic group question used in the 2011 census in England. In Wales, "Welsh" and "English" were listed in the opposite order. The options in Scotland and Northern Ireland were slightly different from those in England and Wales.[13]

The definition of ethnicity has been defined as “the social group a person belongs to, and either identifies with or is identified with by others, as a result of a mix of cultural and other factors including language, diet, religion, ancestry and physical features traditionally associated with race".[14]

The 1991 UK census was the first to include a question on ethnicity.[15][16] The 2001 UK Census classified ethnicity into several groups: White, Black, Asian, Mixed, Chinese and Other.[17][18] These categories formed the basis for all National Statistics ethnicity statistics until the 2011 Census results were issued.[18] A number of academics have pointed out that the ethnicity classification employed in the census and other official statistics in the UK since 1991 involve confusion between the concepts of ethnicity and race.[19][20] David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel argue that this is the case in many censuses and the definition of ethnicity should first be illuminated.[20] User consultation undertaken for the purpose of planning the 2011 census revealed that some participants thought the "use of colour (White and Black) to define ethnicity is confusing or unacceptable".[21]

Population by ethnicity[edit]

Map showing the percentage of the population who are not white according to the 2011 census.

According to the 2011 Census, the ethnic composition of the United Kingdom is set out in the table below.

Ethnic group Population (2011) Percentage of total population[22]
White or White British: Total 55,010,359 87.1
Gypsy/Traveller/Irish Traveller: Total 63,193 0.1
Asian or Asian British: Indian 1,451,862 2.3
Asian or Asian British: Pakistani 1,174,983 1.9
Asian or Asian British: Bangladeshi 451,529 0.7
Asian or Asian British: Chinese 433,150 0.7
Asian or Asian British: Other Asian 861,815 1.4
Asian or Asian British: Total 4,373,339 7.0
Black or Black British: Total[note 1] 1,904,684 3.0
Mixed or Multiple: Total 1,250,229 2.0
Other Ethnic Group: Total 580,374 0.9
Total 63,182,178 100
  1. ^ For the purpose of harmonising results to make them comparable across the UK, the ONS includes individuals in Scotland who classified themselves in the "African" category (29,638 people), which in the Scottish version of the census is separate from "Caribbean or Black" (6,540 people),[23] in this "Black or Black British" group. The ONS note that "the African categories used in Scotland could potentially capture White/Asian/Other African in addition to Black identities".[24]

Note: In the 2011 Census Black Africans surpassed Black Caribbeans for the first time and became the largest black group:

National minorities[edit]

The British government recognises the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Cornish peoples as national minorities under the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which the UK signed in 1995 and ratified in 1998.[25]

A proposal for Longitudinal Study of Ethnic Minorities (LSEM) was suggested by sociologist James Nazroo to create designated ethnic groups under Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Caribbean and Black African.[26] The LSEM understood the constraints of the oversampling of groups and refined the methods of categorising the ethnic minorities.

Multiculturalism and integration[edit]

It is estimated that in 1950 there were no more than 20,000 non-white residents in the United Kingdom, mainly in England and almost all born overseas.[27]

With considerable migration after World War II, this increased the ethnic and racial diversity of UK and especially in London. The race relations policies have been developed that broadly reflect the principles of multiculturalism, although there is no official national commitment to multiculturalism.[28][29][30]

The national identity of being British is to respect the laws and parliamentary structures as well as the right to equality, however this does not include the concept of multiculturalism. This concept of being British faces criticism on the grounds that it has failed to sufficiently promote social integration,[31][32][33] although some commentators have questioned the dichotomy between diversity and integration.[32] It has been argued that the UK government has since 2001, moved away from policy characterised by multiculturalism and towards the assimilation of minority communities.[34]

Attitudes to multiculturalism[edit]

Mark Drakeford, First Minister at the Welsh Government in November 2020 wishes a Happy Diwali to all those celebrating in Wales and the rest of the world.

A poll conducted by MORI for the BBC in 2005 found that 62 per cent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism made the UK a better place to live, compared to 32 percent who saw it as a threat.[35] In contrast, Ipsos MORI data from 2008 showed that only 30 per cent saw multiculturalism as making the UK a better place to live, with 38 per cent seeing it as a threat. 41 per cent of respondents to the 2008 poll favoured the development of a shared identity over the celebration of diverse values and cultures, with 27 per cent favouring the latter and 30 per cent undecided.[36]

A study conducted for the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in 2005 found that in England, the majority of ethnic minority participants called themselves British, whereas indigenous English participants said English first and British second. In Wales and Scotland the majority of white and ethnic minority participants identified with Welsh or Scottish first and British second.[37] Research suggests that on average ethnic minorities are twice as likely to say their ethnicity is important to them than white British participants, although the extent of this difference also interacted with political beliefs.[38]

Other research conducted for the CRE found that white participants felt that there was a threat to Britishness from large-scale immigration, claiming that they perceived ethnic minorities made a rise in moral pluralism and political correctness. Much of this frustration was directed at Muslims rather than minorities in general. Muslim participants in the study reported feeling victimised and stated that they felt the pressure of choosing between Muslim and British identities, whereas they saw it possible to be both.[39]

Political representation[edit]

There has been a trend of under-representation of ethnic minorities in the political system in the United Kingdom, in both the British Parliament and local government in England. Cultural and historical attitudes towards the ethnic groups influences the particular conditions of ethnic minorities in the political system. The disadvantage of ethnic minorities have been identified and in efforts of fixing the problem, MPs representing minority groups have proactively reflected and taken action to close the ethnic gap in the political and general population.[40]

In 1981, the Home Affairs Select Committee report stated that an increase in ethnic minority involvement in politics will create ... special representation for ethnic minorities.[41] Adolino noted that increase in ethnic minorities participating is an important new development in British politics.[41] However, the problem was still apparent in 2017, and Theresa May has stated ethnic minorities are still under-represented.[42]

Representation in Parliament[edit]

The representation for ethnic minorities in Parliament started in 1987, with four ethnic minorities being elected into parliament. Among them was Diane Abbott, the first black MP of Jamaican background. She was the former member of the shadow cabinet and now a prominent figure of the Labour party.[43]

Labour have had significantly higher minority parliamentary candidates in comparison with the Conservative party; since 1987 they have had 46 MPs and the Conservatives have had 22.

Prior to the 2010 elections, the Conservatives had 2 MPs who were minorities and this increased to 11 after the 2010 General Election.[44] After the 2017 General Elections, 52 minority MPs were elected, shared between Labour (32) and the Conservative (19) and one from the Liberal Democrats.[45]

Despite the increase in the representation of ethnic minorities within the UK Parliament, there is still a deficit in accurately reflecting the UK population as a while. Katwala and Ballinger have concluded that as there has been progression in the past 20 years and could potentially be a representative Parliament by 2020 as well as an ethnic minority person as the Prime Minister.[46]

Representation in Local Councils[edit]

A report by Green Park (2018) revealed across all local government sectors, there is a representation of 3.7% for minorities.[47] London councils has the highest percentage for representation in their local councils in late 2017, 10.5%; this increased from 5.6% previously in the year.[47] Even though representation grew in London as it has a large population for ethnic minorities, the under-representation gap is still large as 40% of Londoners are of ethnic minorities. Outside London, councils have an average of 3% minority representation.[47] In Scotland, 3.2% are ethnic minorities in local governments which is the most representative as ethnic minorities comprise 3.32% of the population.[48]

Since the 1980s, the number of minority councillors has been increasing over time. However, the main parties of minorities involved were the Labour party as both Adolino found 94.4% of minorities are involved with the Labour Party.[41] Anwar confirmed that this is a trend that continues.[49]

There were 35 minority councillors in London local councils in 1978 and this had increased to 193 by 1990.[41] This was 10% of the 1,915 councillors representing 20% of London's population.[41] Even though it was not representative, this displayed the great achievement in order to pursue representation during the time. According to a Census of Local Authority Councillors, there was 3.7% representation for minorities across all councils compared 13% of the population nationally.[50] Labour continues to have the largest proportion of ethnic minority councillors with 9.2%, followed by Conservatives having 1.5%.[50]

Anwar's statement concludes the under-representation of minorities in local councils in the UK is still relevant today. In his opinion: At local council level the representation of ethnic minority has made slow progress and it still does not reflect the nature of multi-ethnic Britain[49].

See also[edit]


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