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Journalism of Courage

UK Census 2021: Why immigration dominates UK politics

The latest data will likely deepen the insecurities of those who view immigration as the root of all ills in the UK. What story does the census data reveal? We break it down.

While “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question, the biggest increase has been in the population identifying as having “No religion”. (Photo via AP)

The United Kingdom’s Census 2021 has revealed a lot of interesting demographic trends that are likely to have political significance in the country. Nigel Farage, the lead campaigner for the Brexit vote, for instance, has taken to Twitter to say “There is a massive change in the identity of this country taking place through immigration.”

What does the latest census show?

According to a press release from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS), the population of the UK at mid-year 2020 was estimated to be 67.1 million, an increase of about 284,000 (0.4%) since mid-year 2019.

What are the drivers of population change?

There are only three ways in which the population of a country is affected: birth rate, death rate and net immigration (that is, net of those entering the country and those leaving it).

Why is immigration in focus?

It is noteworthy that almost 87% of this increase over 2019 came from net immigration. “…we estimate that 622,000 people immigrated to the UK while 375,000 emigrated; this makes net international migration 247,000,” states the ONS.

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In fact, CHART 1 shows why immigration has become such a big political issue over the past three decades. In 1992 or 1993, all of the population growth was due to the difference between the birth rate and the death rate in the existing population. In fact, in 1992, the net immigration was negative; in other words, more people were leaving the UK than coming in.

But over the last three decades, the natural change (green bars) has progressively become less and less important in determining the increase in population. The more dominant factor each passing year has been the net immigration number (shown in brown bars).

How are religious identities changing?

England and Wales have always been majority Christian. But as CHART 2 shows, that is no longer the case.


“For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011,” states the ONS.

However, despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question. It is noteworthy here that the religion question is voluntary in the census.

The biggest increase has been in the population identifying as having “No religion”.


“No religion” was the second most common response. In 2011, only 25.2% of the population (around 14.1 million) identified as having “no religion”. In 2021, this number shot up by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% of the population (or about 22.2 million).

Muslim population saw the second biggest increase — growing by over a million. Many other religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikh — saw an increase, albeit marginal.

How are ethnic identities changing?

Since 1991, the census for England and Wales has included a question about ethnic group. The ethnic group question has two stages.

Firstly, a person identifies through one of the following five high-level ethnic groups:

“Asian, Asian British, Asian Welsh”
“Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean or African”
“Mixed or Multiple”
“Other ethnic group”


After this, a person identifies through one of the 19 available response options, such as:

Census 2021 reveals that while “White” remained the largest high-level ethnic group in England and Wales — 81.7% (or 48.7 million) of usual residents identified this way in 2021 — this is lower than the 86.0% ( or 48.2 million) in 2011. In other words, Whites have come down both in percentage terms as well as in absolute numbers.


Most other ethnic groups saw an increase — again, both in percentage terms as well as absolute numbers. See CHART 3.

The second-most common high-level ethnic group was “Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh” accounting for 9.3% (5.5 million) of the overall population; this ethnic group also saw the largest percentage point increase from 2011, up from 7.5% (4.2 million people), according to ONS.


Why does this matter?

UK’s politics has been driven by concerns over immigration and the deep sense, especially among the “Whites”, that the nature and character of the UK are changing with such high levels of immigration. The decision to choose Brexit, which surprised many in 2016, was seen as a direct result of this concern, amongst other economic worries as well.

Nigel Farage, one of the most influential politicians in the UK and one who led the campaign for Brexit, posted the following message on Twitter:

“The Office of National Statistics figures out today are showing that London, Birmingham, and Manchester are all now minority white cities. Massive massive demographic changes are taking place in our country. More significantly for the country as a whole, it shows that only 46% now identify as Christians. There is a massive change in the identity of this country taking place through immigration. You may think it is a good thing. You may think it is a bad thing. But here is the real point of this: The ONS are now saying that in future they will not ask for the nationality or birthplace of those taking part in this census. One in six in England & Wales is already born outside the UK. In future, they want to hide the real figures from you. That’s the real standout from these numbers. It is a scandal.”

While The Indian Express could not independently verify all of Farage’s claims, the point of the data is that it will likely deepen the insecurities of those who view immigration as the root of all ills in the UK. Yet, this is also a time when — six years since the Brexit vote — many in the UK are now more openly blaming the Brexit vote for the current economic mess in the UK. In particular, many independent estimates suggest that the UK economy has lost out on substantial economic growth as a direct result of exiting the European Union.

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 17:30 IST
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