One of the dominant themes in the debate leading up to the EU referendum is that of immigration. There is much talk of this “problem” and repeated references to “controlling our borders”. There’s more than a whiff of seeing foreigners as some kind of invading pestilence from which we must be protected. The depressing old “taking our jobs” argument keeps resurfacing in one way or another. I can only repeat that those making such an “argument” simply don’t understand how national economies differ from household budgets.
But my point is this: there’s a whole, better way of discussing the subject of immigration and which needs to be presented in a positive and uplifting way.
The Way We Were
I was a young child in the 1950s. Looking back now on old black-and-white film clips from the time, the past, in the words of L P Hartley, “is a different country”. The landscape and the people have a uniform monochrome appearance – in more than one sense of the word. It was a world of deference, of knowing your place and never challenging authority. The moral certainties of the former Empire were still largely intact, although crumbling at the edges with shocks like the loss of India and the Suez debacle. Frankly, it looks pretty boring!
The World Comes to Leicester Square
Let’s move on – to the late 1990s. I was waiting outside Leicester Square tube station for a friend in the early evening. I’d arrived early and had about half an hour to wait. I stood watching the people as they poured in and out of the station entrance. I’d obviously chosen a popular meeting point to stand. What struck me was the sheer range and diversity of the people I saw: in age, ethnicity, style of dress and so forth. They were meeting and greeting each other – with smiles, with hugs and kisses and with an overwhelming sense of people happy to see each other. It was just people meeting people, from all walks of life and from who knows where.
Different Cultures, Fresh Insights
I spent several years on the committee which interviews and appoints candidates for the magistracy. As is common in public sector appointments, we were expected to follow a fairly structured and common list of interview questions. After a while, a certain pattern often emerges in the answers given to particular questions: a certain air of predictability. One candidate was a Nigerian-born man in his 40s who had arrived in the UK around the age of 20. When the interview was over, the three of us on the panel turned to each other and together said something along the lines: “Hey, what did you make of his answer” to a particular question. We all agreed it was a fascinating new insight into the issue that none of us had ever considered before.
Economists are pretty much unanimous that immigrants bring a net boost to an economy. But here was an example of something much richer than just the numbers: this man’s cultural heritage brought a new and refreshing way of thinking about an issue. The benefits of the interactions between people in a diverse population are obvious in creative fields such as music, dance and art. But here was a further example from the rather more formal world of the administration of justice.
Doing the Crap Jobs
Bedfordshire has a long tradition of brickmaking: it’s to do with the type of clay. The social history of the brickworks is a fascinating story. Different waves of immigrants, principally (and chronologically) from Italy, Poland and Bangladesh, have come to work there, prepared to do the dirty and physically demanding jobs that longer-standing residents would rather not do. As each immigrant group matures, they and their children move on to a more varied range of occupations, become more middle class and integrate into the community. This appears to happen typically over a period of around 20 to 30 years. There’s then the need for a fresh wave of immigration to keep the kilns firing.
Partly as a result of the brickworks, the nearby former county town of Bedford is surprisingly diverse for the area of “middle England” in which it sits. By some accounts, around 100 different nationalities are represented. I’m proud and feel really privileged to be Chair of Governors at a school which positively celebrates the diversity of our students. We have kids with around 45 different nationalities. We encourage all to value, explore and celebrate the diverse histories and culture that enrich school life. It’s a joy to watch as, for example, a deeply traumatised and diffident child whose family escaped war-torn Afghanistan blossoms over a few months into a motivated, more confident and welcome member of the school. We don’t give up on the ones with more challenging behaviour, either: we haven’t expelled a child for over 8 years. It’s great to play a small part in the development of the next set of enlightened, confident and well-informed citizens.
Yes We Khan
All of which brings us quite nicely to the welcome result in the election for Mayor of London. Congratulations to the voters of our capital city for rejecting the mean-spirited, racist campaign of Sadiq Khan’s main opponent. Even the former chair of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, has raised the spectre of the “Nasty Party” label again – and rightly so. With London now the most diverse capital city in the world – 40% of Londoners were not UK born – the town is a living example of what can be achieved if people live and work together in an attitude of mutual respect.
This positivity is a welcome antidote to the other side of the coin. Large sections of the Tory party embody the mean-spirited values of the xenophobe. Cameron’s grudging concession on allowing a paltry number of unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and Britain’s opt-out of the arrangements to share immigrants between EU members are examples of this aspect of modern Conservatism. Is this what they mean by “British Values”?
But the pinnacle (is that the right word??) of this mean-spirited, ill-informed negativity has to be UKIP and all its works. I find it deeply depressing if I try to imagine what it must be like to live your life holding such negative, soul-destroying attitudes to our fellow human beings. Yuk!
People Who Need People
“Ah!” some may say, but how can we afford to build the extra school places and other items of infrastructure needed for new immigrants? The short answer is that we can if we choose to. Austerity is a political choice, not a necessity. We could choose to tax the rich more and to change our spending priorities – who needs a new aircraft carrier with no aircraft?
But my main point has nothing to do with economics. It’s all about people – people needing and welcoming other people. They’re the luckiest people in the world.