Melanie McDonagh

Immigration is about culture as well as politics

Immigration is about culture as well as politics
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Must say, I felt a bit defensive when I looked at the tables of origin for immigrants to Britain for the decades to 2011, helpfully set out in  The Daily Mail. The real gist of the thing was the numbers – an increase from just under 2 million in the decade to 1951 to 7.5 million in the decade to 2011. But what was riveting was the immigrants’ countries of origin. For most of the time, the Irish led the field, with about half a million a year arriving in the course of each decade, give or take 100,000. In the last decade though, we were knocked right off our perch. At the top was India from which almost 700,000 people came during the ten years to 2011, followed by nearly 600,000 Poles and nearly half a million from Pakistan. The Irish were down to fourth place, then, which confirms anecdotal evidence I pick up in Ireland to the effect that Australia is where the bright young things are headed for right now.

Thing is, from an Irish perspective, Britain doesn’t exactly feel like a foreign country, probably because it isn’t. Being part of the same union from the time of Henry VIII (to pick just one possible point in history) until 1921 doesn’t make for foreignness. And before you say a word, may I point out that this cuts both ways: proportionately, apparently, there are more Brits in Ireland than Irish in Britain. It’s one reason why I can’t get worked up either way about the question of Scottish independence; come what may, you’ll still get Scots gravitating to London to run the place – they’re not going to stop at the border.

The thing is, all immigrants aren’t the same. The notional difference is between EU and non-EU migrants. The real difference is between those who blend in with the carpet and those who don’t. I’d say myself that most people in London regard Australians and New Zealanders as just a little more exotic than the Welsh. Most of the dividing line  is to do with language: people from English speaking countries on the whole happen not only to be related to Britain, give or take a few generations, but have, for obvious reasons, much the same mindset and approach to governance as Brits do. Ireland happens to be on the EU side of the divide; Canada isn’t, but people from both countries simply blend in here in a way that say, Tunisians do not. Yet the immigration system is premised on the notion that there can be no divide in the approach to people coming here; it’s EU or non-EU. A more rational system would take culture (and therefore the capacity to assimilate) into account too…but would that fall foul of human rights laws.