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The deep instinct that Britain’s immigration debate still ignores

No politician today would dare to speak about a ‘national soul’. No one will believe them until they do

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

The issue of immigration won’t go away, because it threatens the soul of the nation.

Nobody in political authority uses such language today, because they are unsure of the validity of ‘soul’ and of the political safety of the term ‘nation’. They will use the term ‘we’ in the context of Britain and its people, but would surely dodge defining it. Try as he might this election year, neither Cameron nor Miliband can do anything to persuade anxious voters they care about immigration, because they don’t use language which reaches the soul.

No one else does either, not even Nigel Farage — it just won’t do. Yet only this abandoned language will work if the issue is to be faced up to and the electorate is to hear it and believe it.

Half a century ago — in 1964 — I stood for Parliament, more or less for the hell of it since I was already fully employed as a journalist. I had covered more than 115 countries, almost all in a state of tension or conflict, usually arising out of ethnic sources or the rage for race-and-place self-determination.

Mine was an unwinnable seat and I duly lost. So did my party, the Conservatives, under Alec Douglas-Home, by a whisker. The newspaper I wrote for, the Sunday Times, had me provide an op-ed piece for the paper the following weekend on the issue of whatever had meant most in my community of Shepherd’s Bush. It was immigration, I wrote, virtually unvoiced and certainly unarticulated, in a west London constituency where it was estimated that since the 1959 general election the proportion of Commonwealth immigrants in the population had risen to 9 per cent. They were mainly Quashies (in the Caribbean vernacular) from the back streets of Kingston, Jamaica, a city I relished. Two self-appointed Jamaican volunteers came to join my campaign, carrying their own message of ‘Enough is enough or there will be trouble.’ My party had no perceptible policy. But I understood what my Jamaican supporters saw coming.

It was the first article to appear in the British national press to highlight immigration as a challenge to the homegrown identity of the man in the street. It was three years ahead of Enoch Powell’s emotive Birmingham speech, quoting Virgil on the poet’s vision of the Tiber ‘foaming with much blood’. Powell’s style of intervention rendered the subject untouchable by the mainstream parties. It was to remain so for a generation.

Powell had queered the pitch and blighted the language for what ought to have been a sober, realistic, open-hearted debate at the centre of political life. The largely working-class communities among which many immigrants were settling were broken-hearted at the theft of their collective identity in the places where they had grown up and at being told to be ashamed of their resentment.

The flood of immigration after Labour came to power in 1997 at last got the issue on to the political agenda, and meant that respectable politicians could begin to talk about pressures on schools, housing and the NHS, and the drain on the benefit budget, and on competition for jobs. They could even — as Cameron did last year — declare an intention to curtail the unrestricted movement of people within the European Union.

But this sort of talk misses the point. The founding Euro-vow, the unlimited right of the continent’s diverse peoples to migrate wherever they fancy within Europe’s borders, is a grotesque misreading of the human spirit, an affront virtually unrecognisable in the anomalous duchy of Luxembourg or riven, self–hating Belgium.

It is an affront to the instinctual and irrepressible craving for the recognisable ‘us’ in its myriad forms, sustained by shared history, myth and ritual. Codes of speech, humour and heaven knows what other subliminal clues make for the sense of the patria from which today’s nations emerged as nation-states with their chosen governments. ‘As water wears away a stone,’ in the imagery of Ortega y Gasset, ‘so the landscape models its men, custom by custom. Momentary bursts of genius… mark its profits.’

This is the soul’s requirement for the will-to-be, no less present in an urbanised, atomised, illusorily globalised society than in a tribe. Long before Homer recited ‘Let us flee to the beloved fatherland’, every hearer would have known the meaning of such an utterance. Ethnicity matters. ‘To love the little platoon we belong to in society,’ wrote Edmund Burke, ‘is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards love to our country and to mankind.’

My own experience of witnessing and writing on the turmoils of the world brought home to me that the more confident a people were about who they are and where they belong, the more open-hearted they are towards those others who belong or have belonged elsewhere. But where indigenous identity is baulked or challenged beyond a certain point, suspicion and hostility grow.

The soul, of which Burke spoke readily, is in search of whatever makes for that ‘whole’ which liberates and inspires. We make art to aim at ‘wholeness’, we seek others to love, or even God, with the same intent.

From the secret confidence of the collective self springs the creative corpus of a people. There are no ‘momentary bursts of genius’ that are not ‘ethnic’ in the fluid, adoptive sense I am deploying the word. Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ owes its right to ascend to (pan-European) universality out of the authenticity of its Lutheran German provenance. Buber’s ‘confidence of soul’ is essential. What would Sibelius be to any of us if he were not Finnish, Dvorak if not Bohemian, Vaughan-Williams if not English-Celt, Wagner if not Rhenish-German, Mussorgsky if not Russia, Bernstein if not American? Likewise literature; likewise the plastic arts; likewise worship.

This protean us-ness, then, is a constant in mankind’s presence on our planet. Man’s conviction of his identity provides his glimpse of his grandeur. No substitute will serve. Without this identity, Man is without root, and without root he is without leaf.

It is, I repeat, a protean reality: of course it will mutate, shift, merge, mix — but at its own pace. Our sense of ‘us’ can be a source of peace or a source of war; it will be subject to exploitation and corruption; it will be conducive to glory and to sacrifice, but it cannot be ignored or eradicated. It is, in sum, an issue of soul. And if our political masters do not demonstrate their grasp of that, they and we will rue it.

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