The virtue of tolerance is regarded as fundamental to the British character. We are taught that our respect for the values, ideas and beliefs of others is somehow written into our national DNA.
Indeed, the government has passed a law requiring teachers and other public servants to promote just this idea as a way to deal with the threat from terrorism.
Ask the British if they think they really are a tolerant people, as an Ipsos Mori poll for the BBC’s Crossing Divides season did, and a majority (53%) agree.
That may not sound emphatic, but the equivalent figure for France, Italy and Spain is around a third. In Hungary it is just 16%.
Among the countries that have the strongest sense of national tolerance, though, are Canada (74%), China (65%) and India (63%). If tolerance is an essential part of the British temperament, then other nationalities feel it even more strongly these days.
Scratch away at what is happening and our survey finds half of people fear Britain is less tolerant than a decade ago, close to double the proportion that think we have become more so.
Three-quarters of those surveyed thought British society was also becoming more divided, with half saying that tensions were greatest between immigrants and those born in the UK.
The poll also identified significant concern about ethnic tensions. Of the countries polled, only South Africa emerged with greater anxiety about race relations than Britain.
Official encouragement of tolerance is not enough to counter the sense of unease.
More than 25% of people in Britain think the country is “very divided”, according to the poll. Unsurprisingly but unhappily, the proportion that thinks the country is not divided at all is zero.
Forging friendships: The story of Rotherham
The Yorkshire town is deeply troubled by its divisions.
The numerous bridges over the River Don disguise the racial tensions scored across the borough, divides that have deepened substantially since the discovery that gangs of men of predominantly Pakistani origin had sexually abused hundreds of young girls in the town over decades.
High levels of hate crime have subsequently been identified; Muslims are reporting attacks, mostly assaults, once every three weeks.
Rotherham’s schools appear to be becoming increasingly divided on ethnic lines. Some neighbourhoods are almost exclusively white, while in others the majority of households trace their family heritage to Pakistan.
With the far-right regularly marching through the town and attempting to stir up racial conflict, one shudders to remember the race riots that swept through northern English towns back in 2001. A government-commissioned inquiry into the disturbances blamed segregated communities living “parallel lives”.
The report’s author, Ted Cantle, warned of further violence unless the polarisation could be broken and cross-cultural contact encouraged. His recommendations are being dusted off in Rotherham.
“It is not just about people living separate lives,” says Shokat Lal, Rotherham Council’s assistant chief executive. “Some of those tensions have been deliberately created by people outside the borough coming in.”
“We have had to deal with that, and the whole purpose of the Building Stronger Communities work that we do is to create some really simple mechanisms for people to come and meet each other.”
The council has made improving community relations a key part of its plan for Rotherham. A number of schemes have been introduced, including Let’s Drink Tea Together which employed an age-old Yorkshire remedy for calming strife.
“We have a responsibility for being an enabler, a facilitator to bring people together,” Mr Lal explains, “not in an engineered way, not in an enforced way, but creating the space where people can quite simply just talk to each other.”
It sounds trivial but the evidence is that – if people from different backgrounds meet and mix – tensions can be reduced. And vital new friendships forged.
“Where I am from it’s mainly white British,” 17-year-old Casey Holmes from Rotherham’s Maltby district tells me. “I tend to stick with people who are like myself, so I never had any interaction with people from different backgrounds.”
Across town in the Eastwood area I met Waj Maleck, also 17.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable going around in a predominately white area because I would be scared, especially with things in the news, that there would be some sort of hate there,” she says.
The stories of the two girls are typical of the “parallel lives” phenomenon identified by the Cantle Report, published when they were still in nappies.
But Casey and Waj have now forged a rare and deep friendship that cuts across Rotherham’s ethnic divides.
They met while completing their National Citizen Service (NCS), the government scheme for 16- and 17-year-olds designed to strengthen social cohesion.
“It was the first day when we had team-building games and Casey was on my side. We were helping each other and we thought we make a really good team,” Waj recalls.
“Where I come from there are not many people from different ethnic minorities, so with Waj it is something new and something I have not experienced it before, so our friendship is special,” Casey agrees.
Without NCS, it is unlikely the two girls would ever have spoken to each other, even though they are the same age and live in the same town. Having found each other, the two girls think there are lessons for wider society.
“NCS brings young people together, but I think there needs to be something that brings older and younger people together from different communities and backgrounds as it is just so important,” Casey says. “It’s been such a learning curve for me so it needs to done in other places in my opinion.”
“We are bonding over our differences,” Waj believes. “People think difference tears things apart but it doesn’t. Sometimes it just brings people closer together and that’s a bit powerful.”
Their story suggests it takes more than legislation to foster tolerance.
The state cannot force people to become friends. But what can be done is to create environments in which relationships can grow and blossom, an aim that seems urgent in a country so pessimistic about its divisions.