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Politics and the immigration game

Home Secretary, Theresa may has said that mass immigration needs to be curbed to bring down house prices, improve wages and reduce the benefits bill. Is there more to this than playing politics with a sensitive issue in the light of UKIP's growing appeal? We do need a sensible debate about immigration and one that isn't contaminated with racism. But is this another attempt to find a scapegoat for austerity along with 'benefit scroungers'?

Immigration was a major issue in the last general election. It is not a problem that will disappear. In the general election of 2010 all three main political parties, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats pledged to control immigration, but they disagreed on how this could be achieved. It was given added fuel in the election when The Daily Mail said that 98% of jobs created in the United Kingdom since 1997 had been taken by migrant workers.

In the 1960s many of us were appalled by the speech of then leading member of the Conservative Party, Enoch Powell in which he warned of future problems resulting from large-scale immigration.

"We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre." 

Powell was immediately disowned by the then Conservative leader, Edward Heath, and shipped to the political wilderness. His speech was regarded as an incitement to racial hatred. But it was the language used rather than the substance of his speech that created the problem. Many have since suggested that Powell's speech was not racist in deed or tone. Whatever the truth of that, it certainly had a racial and discriminatory element. Referring to the then Conservative position on equality he said:

"As Mr Heath has put it we will have no "first-class citizens" and "second-class citizens." This does not mean that the immigrant and his descendent should be elevated into a privileged or special class or that the citizen should be denied his right to discriminate in the management of his own affairs between one fellow-citizen and another or that he should be subjected to imposition as to his reasons and motive for behaving in one lawful manner rather than another."

This certainly appeared to condone discrimination.

Concern about  potential immigration from former colonies had been expressed by the Conservative  when in power in the 50s and and early 60s.  Immigration from former colonies, composed largely of economic migrants had increased from 3,000 per year in 1953 to 46,800 in 1956 and 136,400 in 1961. The alarm bell was heard in the corridors of power. The Labour government was also concerned at the impact of large-scale immigration. James Callaghan, as Labour Home Secretary, introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968 placing controls on entry of British passport holders with 'no substantial connection' in Britain. Speaking later he was to say:

"Public opinion in this country was extremely agitated, and the consideration that was in my mind was how we could preserve a proper sense of order in this country and, at the same time, do justice to these people – I had to balance both considerations".

Labour were no doubt mindful of how immigration had played as an election issue. In the 1964 General election the Conservative Peter Griffiths won his seat with the racist slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Labour" .  Thus, the issue of immigration became an issue between the main political parties, but significantly the problems of  immigration had become linked to racism, and to this day it has been difficult to separate them. It is rare that the issues can be discussed separately. Also 1,000 dockers had gone on strike against Heath's sacking of Enoch Powell.

Nevertheless, the Labour government also introduced the Race Relations Act in 1968 outlawing discrimination. It extended the powers of the Race Relations Board and set up a supervisory body, The Race Relations Commission.

In 1971 I had had a direct involvement with the issues of immigration and discrimination. I became  involved in racial equality as an Alderman in the London Borough of Wandsworth where I served on the executive board of the local body for Race Relations, Wandsworth Council for Community Relations,  dealing with issues of discrimination in access housing, jobs, schools and justice. As such, I witnessed first hand the results of racial discrimination, in particular those associated with the arrival of 27,000 Asian refugees expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin.

In the '70s, there was much talk about 'integration' and 'assimilation'. These became the focus of policy. But now we talk about multiculturalism with a greater appreciation that the very concept of 'integration' can be discriminatory. If we talk about cultural assimilation, then whose culture is it? It is a 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do' approach. "They don't behave like us" is the first stage of discrimination, or regarding differences as an excuse for stigmatising and treating others as second class citizens.  Nevertheless, in the 1970s I think it was thought that the barriers that divided people of different ethnicities would somehow dissolve over time and with following generations. Children of immigrant parents would feel British, and their children even more so. To a large extent the evidence suggests this is so. There is no real conflict in supporting both the English cricket team and also that of the West Indies, Pakistan or India, unless of course they are playing each other!

In 1990, the leading Thatcherite politician, Norman Tebbitt, famously invented the 'cricket test', testing the loyalty of immigrant populations. Earlier this year the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg pointed out that it was unlikely his children would pass it because they backed the football team of the country of origin of their mother who is Spanish.

The problem with this view of integration or assimilation is that it is naive of the nature of identity. People have different 'cultural heritage'; you cannot wipe history clean. We cannot pretend that the only history that matters is 'British', or that different cultural and ethnic groups have played a significant part in that history.  To pretend otherwise is a kind of cultural imperialism where one group  decide what is to be culturally British and then encourage others to adopt it, or force them to do so if they will not. We'll all be the same, we will all show the same behaviour.  But what is it, this Britishness? Culture cannot be defined in this way; and certainly not by a simple test.

Since Enoch Powell's speech a rational debate on immigration has been difficult in the UK, particularly as concerns about the impact of immigration have been considered racist. But there are genuine concerns about immigration that are not racist; the consequences of overpopulation and its impact on housing, education, transportation, health and employment, and the impact on community cohesion and identity. Ignoring these problems is not a solution.

In his controversial speech at the Conference on security in Munich, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the issue of identity: "Instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to all. " Multiculturalism, he said, had 'failed' because it encouraged different peoples to 'live separate lives'.

Britain has been multicultural for a long time; it is not a recent part of its history.  But now we have become an overcrowded island and the clash between cultures appears more urgent. The inability of Islam to adapt to a secular order may be part of the problem. But the problem will not disappear simply because Mr Cameron believes that "the experiment" in multiculturalism has failed. It is not and has not been 'an experiment'; it is a fact of life. Societies undergo continuous change driven by economic circumstances and technological development. Being 'British', whatever it might mean, evolves.  We are a multicultural society and that's the end of it. We must learn to live with it. Integration is not measured by the extent by which a people must abandon their religious or ethnic identity, on the contrary, it is measured by the means by which they can be accommodated. For that we need to promote tolerance of the ideas of others as long as they are reasonable and conform to the ideas of liberty and gender equality.


Since publishing this post, Ed Miliband has also staked out Labour's position. We have to take account of genuine concerns about immigration and the problems of 'segregation', by which he means two communities living side by side but with little interaction. This means 'rejecting the idea that people can live "side by side in their own communities, respecting each other but living separate lives lives, protected from hatreds but never building a common bond - never learning to appreciate one another." He argues that if we are to tackle this problem then we need to tackle the barriers to being 'One Nation', such as proficiency in English language.  His approach has merit because it doesn't seek to reject 'multiculturalism' and doesn't simply focus on 'immigration'.


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