A Green Take on Immigration

Immigration is a thankless topic.  It’s thankless because it’s so hard to unravel genuine problems that arise through living on a densely populated island; pressure on services, shortage of housing, community cohesion etc. from fear of change and plain racism.

Fear of being accused of racism has hindered sensible debate.  However intense public concern that in many cases arises from real issues means that politicians have a duty to discuss it.

The scope of this piece however will be limited.  Greens recognise that the underlying drivers behind migration tend to lie outside this country; economic injustice and inequality; shortage of resources; persecution on the grounds of politics, religion, race, caste or culture; war and so on.

Any lasting solution must address these but it needs be an international solution.  As I laid out in my post about Green foreign policy we have to build international coalitions to address the big problems that force many millions of people to migrate.  Those millions will inevitably swell if climate change leaves parts of the world unable to sustain their populations.

However the thrust of this post is to consider our local response to immigration into the United Kingdom.

It’s often said that we live in an inherently racist society.  White British people often see racism differently than non white British people, the former believing that there’s far less than the latter.  White people tell themselves that they don’t actively dislike non white people and therefore they aren’t racist.  Non white people sense that they’re simply not getting equal treatment and that much of what they are up against isn’t overt but an intangible wall of prejudice, much of it very subtle and difficult to call out.

Legislation has an important place.  People deserve protection from prejudice under the law.  However legislation can only do so much.  A deeper problem is mindset and the best way to address that is through mindfulness.

The human mind is given to taking shortcuts.  It’s been important to our survival.  There simply isn’t always time to judge each situation on its merits as we encounter it and so we ‘learn from experience’, for instance, that speeding traffic is dangerous, that certain parts of town are best avoided after the pubs turn out, that groups of teenagers hanging around the corner shop might be trouble.

We make similar ‘judgements’ about one another based either on experience or on what we’re ‘taught’.  These judgements aren’t just made with regard to race but age, gender, accent, clothing, sexual orientation, religion, culture and so on.  Thus we end up approaching people we’ve never met with a raft of prejudices and preconceptions.  It’s what one might call normal human behaviour.  We could feel guilty about it but better than self flagellation is action; we should challenge ourselves not to fall into that way of thinking.

It’s a simple matter of being constantly mindful and assessing every new person we meet as an individual and on their own merits.  So long as we consistently see the person rather than their skin, age, gender or other things that are only a part and most certainly not their whole, then we will both be far more likely to encounter interesting, likeable, inspiring people from all backgrounds and also not give ourselves an unduly hard time when we meet someone who is selfish, unpleasant, dishonest or whatever.   The widely unspoken corollary of prejudice against is prejudice in favour – our guilt over racism inhibiting us from an honest assessment of someone who deserves opprobrium.

Let’s get real; being a git is an equal opportunities life path – there are gits from all backgrounds and walks of life.  The important thing is not to miss out on all the excellent people there are out there because we prejudge them on superficial criteria.

If we can honestly tackle our own prejudice then we have a much better chance of having a constructive debate about immigration.

The first thing to say on that count is the notion of a racially pure United Kingdom occupied by the descendants of its original inhabitants is nonsensical unless you want the place to be pretty much empty except for about a dozen folk directly descended from the Beaker People.

Before people started coming here from Asia and Africa we had influxes of European Jews, French Catholics, Germans, Huguenots, Dutch, Normans, Norse, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Romans, Celts and heaven knows what other immigrants.

When the BNP’s Nick Griffin talks about the ‘British Race’ he’s talking about something he’s created in his own mind.  It doesn’t exist.  If you’re going to dig your heels in you could say the real British are the Celts pushed to the margins in Ireland, Cumbria and lowland Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland by the Anglo Saxon invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries, but I doubt Mr Griffin wants to give up his house in Wales and return to Northern Germany whence his forebears possibly came (I say possibly because the cascading golden locks that lead Pope Gregory to remark of two English children “Non Angli sed angeli”; ‘not Angles but angels’* are strangely absent where Mr Griffin is concerned.  He’s more Marty Feldman meets Benito Mussolini.)

Immigration has been a feature of the British Isles for more than two millennia.  It’s generally only when there’s been a surge in immigration that it has led to problems.  After a while the recent arrivals integrate, become British and at the same time add something to the culture which they have joined.  The Dutch for instance gave us gin; the Huguenots gave us Nigel Farage and the two combined to give us UKIP.  Thank you very much.

Surely integration is the real issue.  It’s not a matter of integration versus multiculturalism.  The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  It’s about increasing the points of contact and commonality so that all of us have something to connect with each other through and to share.

My friend Khoo Kay Kim, emeritus Professor of History at the University Malaya in Kuala Lumpur (actually PJ but we won’t quibble) believes that one uniquely successful facet of the British Empire was its use of sport as a force for coherence.  He offers the example of the Malay College Kuala Kangsar which was set up by the British to educate the brightest local children so they could take jobs in the civil service and other institutions.  Sport, says Prof. Khoo, threw MCKK boys together and made teams of them regardless of whether they were Malay, Chinese or Indian and gave its alumni the skills and the confidence to mix happily with people from all races in Malaya and later Malaysia.

It’s a point that Norman Tebbit seemed to be groping for when he declared; “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”

But Tebbit being Tebbit he missed the key point by a country mile.  It doesn’t really matter whether I’m cheering for England, Rehman is cheering for Pakistan, Bala for India and Max for the West Indies.  The point is that we’ve all gone to a cricket tournament together and are hanging out and having fun.  We have our love of cricket in common.  Tebbit would have done as well to have asked why in the 80s groups of tattooed skinheads would try to kill one another on a Saturday afternoon despite the fact that they all liked football and all supported England.

Sport is just one common point of connection.  Hobbies in general are excellent whether they be computer games, physical activities, art, music, food or whatever.  Community activism likewise; you don’t have to be the same colour, gender, age or sexual orientation as your neighbour to both want your neighbourhood to be clean, safe and a great place to live.  Another is love.  Fancying, dating or loving someone of another race is a very powerful motor to explore their culture.

I remember a conversation I had with a BNP press officer about 10 years ago.  I challenged him because I had just got married and my wife was (and is) not European.  We got to talking and he confessed there was a young Chinese woman at his local chippy he fancied.  “I could have gone for her” he confessed.  One might feel the urge to mock but I found it touching.  The simple biological function of attraction potentially had the power to demolish the prejudices of a member of a racist political movement.

Now to the most difficult issue; should we accept unfettered immigration and are there right and wrong reasons for settling in a new country?

Firstly there is a good case for restructuring the rules around economic migration so that once someone has been accepted to work here the presumption is that if they are offered another job here (whatever restrictions on employment allowing) they are free to take it even if they have left the country.

At present the rules mean that if you leave you often surrender many of your rights to return.  That pressures people to stay and seek citizenship when it is not what they want.  Essentially rather than make citizenship the only option you offer  someone a work permit for life that allows them to come or go as they please to take up employment within areas that are open for international workers.  Their remaining here is dependent upon their being employed (with a humane degree of flexibility) and their entitlement to benefits is limited however they enjoy the full protection of the law especially from unscrupulous employers and employers are bound to pay for their return home if the employer breaches any contract.

Those who argue this case believe that migrants would come to the UK, work and then go back home where the money they’ve saved will buy them a better life.  I’ve seen good evidence for this in Malaysia and Singapore where Indonesian maids (those not ripped off by their employers, let alone tortured or killed as in a few hideous cases) go back to Java or Sumatra after four or five years and build a house that would otherwise have been outside their grasp.

Likewise the UK’s Polish population started drifting back when the pound fell.  They saw better opportunities in the East.  Most had never intended to stay.  Even many Roma return to Eastern Europe relatively wealthy and build trophy houses in their villages in Hungary or Romania.

What seems to bother people the most however are groups that live in the UK but that don’t make any great attempt at integration.

Sometimes this has been because their attempts at integration have been rebuffed.  The number of stories one hears from the Windrush generation of being educated professionals from the West Indies and finding themselves in Britain forced to work as cleaners and bus drivers because no one would hire them as teachers or accountants is heartbreaking.

But the Black community has been very resilient and from where I sit in South London I am profoundly struck by the community’s widening horizons and growing entrepreneurialism as more and more people are starting businesses or succeeding in the professions and passing on their aspirations to their children.

Others however have integrated less.  One thinks immediately of the more conservative sections of some religious groups whose social intercourse with their neighbours of other backgrounds is often severely limited.

In these cases religion has acted to encourage separateness.  We don’t get to hang out in the park or the café.  Our children won’t go to the same schools.  Often people from these groups don’t speak English.  They don’t live here so much as exist separately here.

Then there are the ‘colonies’ of economic migrants large enough to be self sustaining; they don’t expect to stay permanently so they see little reason to master the language or to make friends.

And yes British people have often done exactly the same abroad during the colonial period or after moving to Spain or France (though many recent emigrants readily stress how important it is to learn the language and integrate).

I think it’s important to be clear here; it’s not the people who are undesirable, it’s the separation.  That separateness is a key part of the problem.  There is no mutual enrichment, rather there’s fragmentation, misunderstanding and mistrust.

There are a number of things that arise from this such as whether we should require of economic migrants that they speak enough English to be able to take part in our society, even if they are here temporarily and what are the right reasons to seek citizenship as opposed to economic opportunities or refuge.

Thinking again of those who came from the West Indies in the 50s and 60s, they were often both responding to an appeal for workers and came here with dreams of living in a country they’d been brought up to admire.  They wanted to be a part of it.  They spoke enough English to be able to do so.  That’s enough for me.  In that instance it was us who let them down and not vice versa.

But to settle in a country and take citizenship when one doesn’t like the place, the people, the culture or its values; surely that makes no sense.  Simply wanting for better economic opportunities, while being a perfectly good reason to be a migrant worker, surely isn’t a sufficient claim for citizenship.

So Greens should perhaps concentrate on making sure that the immigration system is fair, that limits are not in any way determined by race while breaking down separateness, encouraging more points of contact and offering more flexibility to workers with something to offer who want to be able to stay here on other bases.

With regard to integration we should question whether faith schools help or hinder that process (and whether mixed-faith schools might not work better).  It should make us think whether we should bar what are in effect arranged marriages or unions where the two parties do not know each other properly but have married to enable migration.  It should lead us to act to bring people together through sport, the arts and community activism.  It should also lead us to consider what price we should put of permanent settlement and citizenship.  Many would think it should be as a minimum a positive desire to be a part of British society.

In return it is incumbent on us to make the immigration process humane.  There is no excuse for stripping people of their dignity even if it is determined that their claim to stay is not strong enough.

The process shouldn’t be skewed to favour white people.  Wanting people to embrace our values (or at least most of them) and requiring them to speak English shouldn’t be used to discriminate against those, for instance, from the subcontinent.  Indeed we should celebrate those people who genuinely want to adopt and embrace our way of life and become friends, neighbours and fellow citizens.

If we can do this and if we can make the system truly fair then we should not fear setting reasonable limits to permanent settlement and to economic migration.  We can offer great opportunities for people who have skills to trade where opportunities become available, we can offer protection to those who have legitimate fears for their safety in the countries whence they’ve fled and we can be clearer about what citizenship means – it means wanting to be a part of something, not a licence to exist apart from it.

Lastly no action on immigration will reflect British values unless it strives to be both just and fair and to be either or both we must always engage with and address the individual as a unique human being and not treat him or her as little more than a statistic.

*I prefer the translation from ‘1066 and all that’; ‘not angels but Anglicans’.

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