Alex Massie

One More Trip on the Immigration Merry-Go-Round

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This post on immigration prompted a pair of fine, Chestertonian (in the sense of we the quiet people of England stuff) responses to which I think it's only proper that I reply.

First, Carroll Barry-Walsh writes:

Of course, it's the type of people we let in because there is a difference between letting in people who share our values, who want to - and take positive steps to - become British and discard those elements of their culture which are inconsistent with or hostile to our culture. And then there are those who simply come from the Third World and continue to live here as if they were still there but with more money. They don't discard those cultural practices which are contrary to our values, to our laws; no - they demand that we accommodate them, that we tolerate the intolerable. That is what we don't like and want to change. There is nothing "enriching" about having polygamy or Female Genital Mutilation or "honour" killings or forced marriages or burqas or death for apostates or book-burning on our streets or demands that free speech be curtailed or virulent anti-Semitism or demands for sharia law etc and it is utterly disingenuous to pretend that there is.

There absolutely has to be some recognition that if people are let into the country they have an obligation to assimilate and become British and that this means that they cannot continue to live as if they were still in their country of origin.

A nation is more than simply a collection of people who happen to be in a particular geographical area at any one time. A nation consists of people with a shared culture, a shared language, a shared history, shared values and beliefs, a shared narrative about what they are about and where they are going. People coming to this country can become British, no matter what their origins and colour/ethnic group etc but they need to do something positive to become British and we need to make it clear what we expect of them. The problem we have now is that we have not had that expectation, still don't have it in any meaningful way and Labour in particular have poo-poohed the very idea of a nation as I have described it.

If people fear change then immigration will terrify them for it represents a change more substantial, more intimate than almost any other kind of development. It breaks the easy familiarity we have with our environment; it breaks the easy association of our national life with its past; it introduces new and jarring associations with a number pasts which to many have little or no appeal - and that is just the start. It transforms neighbourhoods - churches and Sundays and pubs are replaced - by mosques and Fridays and halal butchers. The very smells on the street cease to represent anything sensibly like home. Can you not see this, Mr Massie? Do these visible, tangible, palpable upheavals not affect you at all?

Of course in small doses a touch of the foreign, the colourful, the exotic is welcome. Of course, if one or two areas gain an ethnic character distinct from the prevailing type, nobody is harmed. But when a whole country looks as if it is about to go under for ever beneath a sudden tide of indifferent and sometimes hostile newcomers, then something has gone wrong.

It is at this point that you will remind us that the figures are misleading - the number of people coming in is going down, you purr. So we have always been informed when the reality of immigration becomes unbearable, but it makes your argument inconsistent. Either you think that continual, large scale immigration is a good, in which case stop reassuring us that it is not happening. Or you think that if it were happening, our anxieties would be understandable - in which case, don't quietly imply that somehow we are "racist", objecting to the type not the number of immigrants.

We are not against any particular type; rather, we are for a particular type - the English type and his or her right to predominate in England. Our objections to mass immigration would still stand, therefore, even if we were genuinely getting the most various and mixed new population in the world. It is the long continuity of an island people in its island home which we cherish - yes, a particular people and only "white" as it happens.

We want the familiar; we want our home; we want something of old England to survive in this heartless unmeaning world. Why criminalise so tender and so necessary an emotion? Why moralistically ram the multi-culti nowhere down the throats of a perfectly tolerant people? You say you are a free trading liberal. So were Gradgrind and Scrooge.

Nonetheless, I'd say that it's disingenuous of Carroll Barry-Walsh to suppose that those of us who favour immigration don't also think it important that immigrants "buy into" their new country. That needn't mean forsaking all ties with the lands of their birth, not least since Britishness has been a hyphenated matter for millions of us for centuries. (Not simply in terms of Scottish-British or Welsh-British, but also Catholic-British or Jewish-British and many others). But, for example, it does mean that there cannot be a place for honour killings or female genital mutilation in Britain. There's no contradiction between embracing the positive, liberating consequences of immigration and deploring these practices. Indeed I'm not sure you can properly embrace the former without deploring the latter. Coercion is coercion.

To that extent, then, we may agree. But I think Mr Barry-Walsh under-estimates the attraction of assimilation for immigrants themselves. It is in their interests to do so after all. The question of what's good for the immigrants themselves is too often ignored in these debates.

True, we have a problem - a significant, but, I think, manageable one - with pockets of our immigrant communities and true too assimilation and integration is not always as easy or rapid as might be considered ideal. But on the whole and in the medium, let alone the long-term, it does happen.

Social change is always disruptive and often challenging. This isn't merely a question of immigration. Consider, as a companion to this discussion, the challenges and disruptions caused by the changing role of women in our society. That's something that's changed beyond almost all recognition in the past century. And like all change that involves losing some things that had some value even as it also brings change that is liberating and beneficial. There are always trade-offs, but who really thinks the emancipation of women is to be regretted? You can't wind the clock back. Our culture isn't what it was in 1900 and it isn't what it will be in 2100 either.

Simon Denis also, I fear, has a view of Old England that is preserved in so much aspic that it seems almost Jacobite. That kind of despairing romance has a certain appeal and power, for sure. Change is often disconcerting and it's not surprising that many people find it discombobulating. That's understandable. But it has always been thus and, most probably, always will be. So, yes, I think it silly when those of us that are pretty relaxed about immigration pretend that the arrival of new and unfamiliar peoples has no impact upon the host country. Which is one reason why I don't make that claim. I recognise that, as Mr Denis puts it, immigration can introduce "new and jarring associations".

But again, 'twas ever thus. This was true of Jewish immigration a century ago and true of Irish immigration too. And, for many, it was true of the wave of post-war immigration from the Caribbean too. Each of these arrivals were controversial, sometimes massively so. The end of England or Scotland or Britain was frequently just around the corner. But it never quite happened, did it? Britain may have changed - as all countries change - but it also became a kinder, gentler, better place that moved on from the era of "No blacks, no Irish".

I don't see why this country - still, despite everything, a fine, if sometimes infuriating place to live - cannot absorb and benefit from immigration again. We've done it before so why can't we do it again? I believe we can and will. Not least because, of course, it's happening anyway.

The ghastly antics of a tiny - relatively speaking - number of muslim extremists are highly visible; the successful integration and contributions to our society made by hundreds of thousands of other muslims pass comparatively unoticed precisely because they're so normal, so much what we expect and have become accustomed to seeing based on our experience with previous immigrant communities and out own interactions with our muslim neighbours, colleagues, friends and acquaintances. This is a real silent majority that is rarely heard from. Too often, however, we assume the particular must be the general when it's actually nothing of the sort.

As for Mr Denis's point about the "inconsistencies" in my argument: I do believe that the numbers involved are often less dramatic than is suggested by the popular press and I also believe that we'd have little to fear even if the doom-mongers predictions were more accurate than I think they are. But that doesn't mean I can't also appreciate the concerns reasonable people can reasonably have about immigration even if I think them often over-cooked and, occasionally, hysterical.

But, again, I'm struck by the pessimism displayed by those most afraid of immigration. The last census reported that 92% of UK residents were white. Now that was in 2001 and doubtless the figures will look a little different at the next census. But they won't be massively different. Yet to hear some people talk you'd think the "White British"  - who constitute 85% of the population -  are an oppressed minority in their own country. I would suggest that this is unlikely. How can the "whole country" be about to "go under" when non-whites - resident for generations or newly-arrived as they may be - constitute less than 10% of the population?

Furthermore, we're invited to believe that the muslim minority - less than 3% of the population  - is poised to "take over" Britain within our life time? Please. Even allowing for higher birth-rates amongst first-generation immigrants (though the longer immigrant communities are established the more their birth-rates tend to move towards the national average) this isn't going to happen. Yes, Britain will be less "white" in 2040 than it is now. But it was less "white" in 2000 than it was in 1970 too. Societies change and adapt and evolve but that doesn't mean severing all the threads that still connect us to the past. There will, my friends, always be an England even if it's a little different from the England of an imagined happy and care-free and innocent past.

Again, however, this problem - if that's how you perceive it - is a measure of our success, not failure. Nor are we alone in facing these issues. They are, to one degree or another, common to almost all successful, western countries. You knew Ireland was doing well once it had, for the first time, a (non-British!) immigration "problem". One consequence of this is that the idea of states' based on ethnicity is going to have to adapt. In some ways that makes stressing both the rights and obligations of a polity based more on civics than blood or soil more important than it might have been in earlier, poorer times.

It's easy to scoff at American-style citizenship ceremonies and tests, but there's some value to these rituals. They help. Indeed, in some ways we're all going to have to become a little bit more American. My own opinions on immigration and citizenship owe much to my own times in America. I might live in rural Scotland at the moment, but my views on these issues are largely informed by having lived for several years in a largely immigrant neighbourhood in DC.

There are, I think, two main routes towards real success in the modern, western world. You can either be a small, relatively homogenous society such, to risk simplifying things somewhat, as one finds in Scandanavia and Finland or you can be a larger, more diverse society such as the United States, Australia, Canada or New Zealand - all of whom have large foreign-born populations and all of whom are startling successes at least in part because of, not despite, their immigration policies.

True, Britain is an older, more crowded place than any of these and so not every lesson from overseas is always directly transferrable here. But I'd argue that as an old country infusions of, forgive me, new blood are all the more useful. They refresh and invigorate. And in any case as a nation founded upon trade and upon being open to the world one could also say that a tradition of importing and exporting people is indeed a large part of what has made Britain, Britain.

Anyway, my own instincts on immigration are hopelessly utopian. We do not live in a world of open borders and nor are we likely to do so anytime soon.

But, you know, when I see a black Englishman playing Hamlet or a Bolton-born British-Asian boxing for Britain or a Paisley-born Pakistani-Scot representing his country at cricket or the son of a Romanian Jewish immigrant leading the Conservative party or any one of dozens and hundreds and thousands of other, quieter, less prominent examples demonstrating the contributions immigrants and their children have made to the life and culture of this country, enriching it even as, yes, their presence helps change it subtly, I find it hard to see that the country is being destroyed by this.

On the contrary, I think it's admirable that this has been a country prepared to grant so many people from distant lands the chance to make a better fist of life for themselves and their children and grand-children. I happen to think that there are cultural and economic benefits to this, but most of all I think it's just the right and moral thing to do.

Perhaps, as a man once said, all we have to fear is fear itself.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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