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  • Writer's pictureHersh Thaker

Leicester: A Role Model City for Diversity and Integration

This article was originally written for and published by iGlobal as part of my regular column.

According to the latest ONS census data, Leicester is one of the first cities in the UK to be majority non-white. It joins 14 other local authorities that recorded more than half of their residents identifying with an ethnic group other than white. Leicester is the largest majority-minority, with 59.1% of the people of Leicester now from ethnic minority groups.

Leicester has long been a model city and a beacon for multiracial harmony and diversity. The latest census data should be celebrated as a milestone, and there are lessons that other cities can learn from its story. The city stands tall and is unique not only in the UK but in the world as a case study of how different cultures have assimilated, integrated, and thrived. Although recent disturbances have marked Leicester's record, we can take lessons from history and repair differences through the impartiality, openness and dialogue that helped build this city.

Though the migration story of Leicester did not begin with the arrival of Ugandan Indians in the 1970s, it was certainly the catalyst that transformed Leicester into a remarkable story of multiracial harmony. Leicester became the first non-white city has long been predicted and is a fitting tribute to a city that has long been a model multi-racial city. Leicester, in the 1970s, was a hotbed for National Front activities and one of the most racist cities in the country.

Leicester’s success story is multi-faceted and is credited to the attitude of Ugandan Gujarati Asians that settled and the city's proactive efforts to enable them. Leicester City council set up Britain's first race relations committee at the time, which ensured the needs and sensitivities of the new and diverse communities were considered in every aspect of policymaking. Significant investment was also afforded the faith groups to set up community organisations and businesses without fear or restraint. There are lessons that local political leaders across the UK can still draw from such proactive and positive engagements. What also helped was that the political leaders were supported by community and faith leaders who were extremely able and willing to integrate.

The Gujaratis that settled in Leicester, unlike many communities that settled in places like Oldham, which had disturbing race-related riots in 2001, were largely educated professionals, entrepreneurs and businessmen. They had been successful in their ventures before being expelled, so although they did not arrive in the city with their pockets stuffed with cash, they knew how to get things done. They bought their own modest houses, set up thousands of businesses in the city, got involved with local politics and built community organisations. They got their heads down, blended in, and actively tried to get on with people whilst proudly preserving and celebrating their identity.

For example, Leicester’s annual Diwali celebrations regularly draw tens of thousands to the city and have become the biggest Diwali celebrations outside of India. Such is the two-way respect in the city; as the Diwali celebrations pass, the lights on Belgrave road are replaced with Christmas decorations. The British Indian community that makes up the majority of residents along Belgrave road will also put up their Christmas trees without feeling any conflict but proudly take the opportunity to gather as families, try different foods and share gifts.

Leicester’s unique record in community cohesion was noted several times in the groundbreaking Cantle Report, commissioned to investigate community cohesion after the disturbances in Oldham and Burnley in 2001. He particularly noted the pride those in Leicester felt about their community. He also highlighted the teaching of all faiths and cultures in schools, the celebration of religious and cultural events on the streets and the proactive approach to diversity amongst political and faith leaders who would meet to discuss issues affecting the city. His report noted that “openness and honesty meant that rumours and misunderstandings were less likely to gain credence and ferment resentment or jealousy”.

Leicester's recent achievement is significant because the city accurately reflects modern Britain. The fact that Leicester is one of the first majority-minority cities in the UK should be celebrated, not just by those who live here but by everyone who cares about diversity and integration. As we live through a time of pessimism, conflict and rising xenophobia, there is much the world can learn from the city’s story and aspire to make local communities across Britain as inclusive as Leicester has shown us it is possible to be.


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