Thursday, 14 April 2011

Immigration - the Elephant in the Room..

Over 500 responses to a thread on and I thought soething important and significant had occurred.

Er, no - David Cameron made a speech on immigration and Vince Cable didn't like the tone. Suddenly, the air is full of splits, recriminations and those opposed to the Coalition, both on the Labour side and within the Conservative side, are seeking to exploit and amplify this for their own ends and agendas.

In politics, t'was ever thus...

Immigration goes beyond statistics and quotas - in many ways, it's about individual perceptions which can be influenced by the media or personal experience. A bad word here, an ill-considered gesture there and a lifetime of prejudice and misconception can be created.

There are those who genuinely believe that immigration threatens our way of life and it must be resisted. There are others who simply don't like people whose skin colour is different - there are others who don't understand or want to be around cultures and lifestyles other than their own. These people are often branded "racist" - I prefer to call them "frightened". That fear manifests itself in aggression toward non-indigenous people and support for political parties which support the "defence" of native cultures and people. Stopping immigrants coming in to areas or countries is seen as a defensive mechanism to preserve the indigenous culture and way of life.

Of course, there is a form of economic apartheid concerning immigration - immigrants tend to have little and will work for less so they gravitate to the poorer areas and create ghettoes. Over time, as they become prosperous and integrate more, they gravitate to other areas where they often face greater hostility than they are used to.

Britain has grown on waves of immigration and emigration from the Huguenots coming here to convicts leaving for Australia. British culture and society has been influenced and has evolved as a result of these movements but the pace of immigration has increased over the past thirty or forty years given the legacy of Empire and the ending of the division of Europe.

I live in East Ham in East London which is about as cosmopolitan as it gets. You don't hear English on the streets that often but it is the lingua franca and the children use it to talk to each other. Cultures of all kinds co-exist yet there is an underside to the immigrant dream as the groups of Lithauanians waiting every morning outside the tube station at 7.30am for a ride in a van to a farm or a building site to work will testify.

Yet, the money they earn gives them a standard of life and opportunities that are only provided by a dynamic city like London and we need them to do the jobs we won't do for the money we won't accept. It was true in the 1950s when we brought over Afro-Caribbeans to drive the buses, sweep the streets and do a range of other menial jobs that the indigenous British were no longer prepared to do for the money available.

The truth is that every period of sustained economic growth since 1945 (and indeed before) has been predicated on the availability of cheap labour to do menial tasks for long hours at low wages which enables the price of products and services to be kept affordably low so they are bought or used by more people. The periods of "bust" coincide with waves of anti-immigrant feeling and concern over immigration - it happened in the 1970s and is happening now. The whole debate about immigration would be pushed to the margins if economic growth is restored but that's not where we are now.

This is the paradox of immigration - it makes the good times but is a problem in the bad times. We want people to come to this country, to work and to spend but not be part of us and for some the preservation of "Britishness" is akin to a fly preserved in amber whereas British society has been successful because it has evolved.

Stagnant societies are doomed - societies which are unwilling or unable to embrace a changing world and changing ways are doomed. Yes, immigration and its demands on services can be managed better but we won't preserve our culture or way of life by hauling up the drawbridge. Britain brought so much to the rest of the world - it's a shame we seem no longer to want what the world can offer us.

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