It is fair to ask what the future is for newcomers within the United Kingdom, and what the future for the United Kingdom is with them inside it. Despite the current temperature of debates surrounding migration, political strategies need to embrace the breadth of moral and social issues which migration opens up.
We need a new vision of Britain which values its authenticity as a union of separate nations and of vast and rich regional cultures; invests in enterprise within localities; and exercises greater control over the commercial activities which pour tarmac over the cobbles of our languages, entertainment and identity. This is not a vision of social inclusion of the minority, though that is important, but rather of the transformation of localities through appreciating their shifting demographics, showing profound respect for their rootedness.
To have an authentic culture matters in an individual’s sense of belonging and the telling of their own story. I had a debate with someone recently as to whether “scouse”, the stew eaten traditionally in North Wales and the North West of England, which gave Liverpudlians their name, was made with beef or lamb. It may seem of little importance, but these details of local culture matter more than we think.
So, before talking about migrant cultures in Britain, let us examine what is happening to culture and identity within the general population. Village schools and shops are closing. Town centres are filling with charity shops, while large, anonymous, out of town shopping areas fill with identical chain stores. TV programmes are copied from one country to another. Talent shows become opportunities to ridicule or commercialise talent rather than express the things we enjoy together. In such a uniform world, a trip to Brixton Market (predominantly African Caribbean, African and Latin American), or Brick Lane or Green Street (where Bengali, Indian and Pakistani shops and restaurants predominate), is a welcome diversion in London. Cultural renewal is often aided by migration.
What may be happening in Britain, though, is not a fusion between in-coming and existing cultures, but the replacement of vibrant local cultures with sterile and bland alternatives. This is the perfect circumstance in which blame shifts to the newcomer who is still in possession of an authentic culture. The answer does not lie in a retreat from multi-culturalism to an enforced bland mono-culturalism. Rather it lies in new policies for villages, towns and local industries, and an investment in the richness and diversity of language and culture.
At the National Eisteddfod of Wales I was surprised and delighted to meet colleagues from the Welsh refugee sector. They held an event, attended by the First Minister of Wales, entitled “Somali and Welsh”. The great thing was that they were present at the main Welsh language cultural event. Scotland too has a pro-immigration policy - New Scots 2004 - which seems to work because it is also pro-Scottish. There has certainly been stronger opposition to the dawn raids and imprisonment of asylum seekers by the UKBA in Scotland than elsewhere.
When the result of the Olympic bid was announced, staff, volunteers and clients of Praxis, from diverse countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, gathered around the television and cheered enthusiastically for London. Would they have been so excited if it were Edinburgh’s bid? I don’t know, but London’s bidders had emphasised the diverse character of London. We were all included in London’s moment of pride.
In Tower Hamlets we have established a New Residents and Refugee Forum which engages stakeholders in shaping public policy with positive outcomes. But the starting point, I believe, is the local authority understanding that inward migration is not a new phenomenon but a constant phenomenon which needs constant attention. In contrast, where immigration is viewed as a symptom of decline, it becomes problematic. The problem is not immigration, but cultural mediocrity and cultural neglect.
The prevailing assumption in the UK is, “They should learn English”. An ability to speak the English language is the test of being British. English is one of the great linguae francae of history – like Latin, Sanskrit, Spanish and Mandarin. An ability to speak English is an asset to anyone who learns it, and new migrants need every opportunity to learn it. But colonial history is littered with examples of diminishing the value of languages other than English, and by implication their speakers.
We are reminded in philosophy that language is one of the strongest links that unites human beings. Plato tells us that the purpose of a city is to create language. What if the purpose of London and other metropolitan centres – their historic destiny – is to create understanding within and across languages?
To have many thousands of Chinese, Somali, Bengali, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Quechua, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Lingala, Amharic etc, mother tongue speakers who also converse in English is a huge advantage to this country.
Your mother tongue is your birthright, and to ask someone to abandon it is to ask them to abandon their soul.
Nation states are not the only natural affinities of people. As global conflict has increased alongside global mobility, so has the inter-connectedness of families and ethnic and linguistic communities that have strayed way beyond territorial boundaries.
Many British communities are diaspora communities committed to other countries beside Britain. When the country is in turmoil or experiencing disaster or under external threat, then emotional sympathies will run high; but Tamils protesting in Parliament Square, or communities collecting money for earthquake victims in Japan or Chile or flood victims in Bangladesh, or Somalis engaged passionately in the reconstruction of Somaliland, aren’t diminishing Britishness by their actions. They make Britain a more open, wiser, more passionate and compassionate society.
There has to be space within public and private spheres – in community halls and media -- for loyalty to another country or faith to be openly expressed. The granting of that space inspires loyalty and commitment to the new country, since it shows understanding of the newcomer and builds trust in the goodwill of those who open up.
It has always been too easy to turn the spotlight onto the newcomer. If our government wants to be part of a globalised economy then the migrant will always be with us – and no bad thing. Economists measure migration in “stocks” and “flows” but instead we should be measuring human lives, loves, languages, histories.
English language tests, citizenship tests, rhetoric about “limits to tolerance” and “sleepwalking into segregation”, “genuine and bogus refugees”, “getting it wrong on immigration”, all fuel the false narrative of a migrant community which is taking more than giving. In the real world, migrants are working hard, supporting families in their country of origin, encouraging their children to learn, starting businesses, becoming school governors or local councillors, and proudly putting the photo of their Citizenship Ceremony on the mantelpiece. If we value and provide protection for national, regional, identities – Welsh, Scottish, Yorkshire, Geordie, Scouse – then we should not fear incoming new identities. Communal identity on a national scale will only happen when all our differences are valued.