Petronella Wyatt

The race card

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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My 17-year-old niece recently won a place at Trinity College, Oxford. Although she is one of the brightest girls at her private school, and often works through the night, she was almost convinced that her application would not be accepted. This was because clever, white children from middle-class backgrounds are frequently told that they will be overlooked in favour of foreign, less privileged offspring.

This fear turned out to be unfounded. My niece considered the selection process fair and scrupulous. I was thus surprised when Michael Howard decided to play the race card the other day, or rather to play the whole deck. Why this sudden zero-tolerance attitude towards immigration? Strangely, it is sometimes the case that immigrants themselves, or their children — Howard’s family came from Lithuania — are less tolerant than the rest of us. (In the way that Jews often make the most virulent anti-Zionists.)

It is argued that relatively well-off Brits can afford to be liberal on immigration as an influx of foreigners fails to touch their lives. As they are unlikely to work behind tills or in restaurants, their jobs are not threatened. And, as they are likely to live in more ‘desirable’ areas, they are free from that swamping feeling — of walking to the shops and discovering that no one speaks English. Or finding that the only local plumber available is a former barber from Latvia, who thinks your boiler needs a good shave.

Yet is this really true? St John’s Wood, where I live, has a population which is 50 per cent immigrant. Arabs, Europeans, Russians — we’ve got ’em all. Strolling in the park with my dog Mimi is like being at the arrivals lounge at Heathrow. Mimi, incidentally, who shows impeccable taste, is very friendly towards immigrants. She only hates immigrant dogs. Still, I admit we all rub along in a spacious, pleasant area, where there are plenty of jobs. Yet in less salubrious places, my informants speak of no feelings of siege. My other niece has taken waitressing jobs in dives about as low as an old Bernard Manning joke, and has felt no threat of dismissal in favour of someone who has just swung in from Romania. Most immigrants, in my experience, work extremely hard. Yes, a few beg. But so do those annoying young Londoners who harass you at traffic lights in order to wash your windscreen.

The real problem with immigration is a lack of integration. Perhaps the Americans went too far in the 1890s when inspectors reported with horror that Italian families were still eating spaghetti. I do not want officials round at my house complaining that I still consume large amounts of paprika and have therefore not been assimilated. But the general principle, which is a good one, has not been applied here. This is not, largely, the fault of the immigrants. It is the fault of a culture created by the British middle class which professes to despise all things English. Not roast beef, or toad-in-the-hole, or spotted dick — a diet of pure cholesterol which would soon kill off our immigrant population. But that certain thing known as Englishness. It is the fault of schools, whose home-grown teachers fail to instruct foreign pupils in the rudiments of our past and our habits. You cannot, for instance, blame a child for not knowing that two and two make four if they have never been taught arithmetic.

Far more important than turning the Tories into the ‘nasty party’ once more — a tactic which has never been a vote winner — is tackling our wretched state-school system. This country is a big country. Theoretically, we should be able to sustain more immigrants. But only if they are taught to feel British with pride. Mr Howard’s remarks, I fear, will have the opposite affect. They are alienating, and, ultimately, counter-productive to his own goals.