Are immigrants eating our identity?

In debates about citizenship, health and education, the government is displacing its own crisis of identity on to newcomers.

Alka Sehgal

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Topics Identity Politics Politics

UK Chancellor Gordon Brown’s recent initiative to ensure that immigrants feel a proper sense of loyalty to Britain has been criticised for being either too little too late or just plain daft. Brown said last month that immigrants should do some ‘community work’ before being granted British citizenship. For Brown, citizenship should be a ‘kind of contract’ with ‘rights and responsibilities’. This follows on from other proposals suggesting that immigrants should be ‘encouraged’ to learn English and should take tests to demonstrate that they know what Britain is all about and that they wish to be part of it.

Enforced community service is unlikely to engender a sense of belonging. But then, what really seems to be behind the latest demands for immigrants to buy into Britishness is a lack of any positive, coherent sense of what it is to be British amongst the British elite itself. This weakened sense of Britishness has nothing intrinsically to do with immigrants. And yet, more and more, a situation that is the result of various complex historical and political factors is being represented as a problem to do with immigration. This is itself a problem for the rest of us, as it means attention is misplaced upon immigrants and energy is misdirected towards helping immigrants to fit into something that isn’t really there.

Take education. It is argued by some that there has been a ‘downward drag’ in standards due to there being too many immigrant children in the classroom. My guess is that pupils today are more disadvantaged by an educational establishment which is not able, or willing, to assert the need for teaching English language and literature to take precedence over the need to be ‘multicultural’ than they are by the presence of pupils who do not speak English very well.

Some believe that a big problem in the health service today is that patients don’t understand their doctors, and apparently have to strain to make sense of what the man or woman with the strange accent is saying. What about all the other major problems with the health service, from a lack of resources to the transformation of the NHS into a behaviour-policing outfit? Time and time again, problems that are the result of the actions and policies of the British authorities are being ascribed to immigrants ‘failing to fit in’. Few ask what exactly there is for them to fit into.

Most Indian immigrants of my parents’ generation felt positively hostile to certain British institutions. For example, many were distrustful of the British Army and supported the Quit India Movement, the civil disobedience movement launched in India in 1942 in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for the immediate independence of India from Britain. Yet simultaneously they felt an affinity with British society and culture. This meant they wanted to make a break with their country of birth in order to be part of a society perceived as going forwards.

Financial gain was not uppermost in their minds. Individual freedom, meritocracy and social mobility were high on the list of attractions. Even when they arrived in the UK and realised that these things were not available to all on an equal basis, their belief in, and desire to be part of, British life remained. They believed that by working through institutions and popular organisations such as trade unions and political parties, many people – themselves included – could improve their lot.

The dynamic engendered by British society at that time was strong enough to inspire people all over the world. Today what immigrants once sought to do spontaneously (learn the language and culture) has to be imposed by government – not primarily because immigrants have changed, but because British society represents less of what they want to sign up to.

Rather than address more difficult issues – that Britain today is less than inspirational on the world stage, is less of a meritocracy, more socially stratified and a place where individuals are more closely monitored in virtually all aspects of our lives – politicians and pundits tear their hair out wondering why on earth immigrants don’t appear to want to be part of and to celebrate British culture.

Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. I can see no reason why it should matter to anyone. Many people live outside their countries of birth; they work and socialise without conflict. Yet they do not feel that they necessarily belong to, or have to belong to, the country they have chosen to live in. People may feel contradictory affiliations; and something as subjective as a sense of belonging frequently waxes and wanes over time. A more confident, forward-looking society would be more relaxed about these facts.

Whatever measures or cod ‘solutions’ the British political caste comes up with, people’s subjective sense of belonging cannot be created by diktat. One of the few positive virtues of British society that politicians often cite is its tolerance. It is ironic, then, that the present government is so intolerant of people who do not conform to its increasingly long list of absurd criteria of what makes for a ‘good British citizen’.

Still, as long as the focus remains on what immigrants do or don’t do to prove their loyalty, the heat is off looking at ourselves, and identifying what the real problems are and what some real solutions might be.

Alka Sehgal was born in India and raised in Britain.

Previously on spiked

Alex Standish highlighted America’s missed opportunity to discuss immigration. Nathalie Rothschild reviewed the film Ghosts about Chinese illegal migrant workers. Mixed up in the immigration debate is multiculturalism, which Munira Mirza finds divisive. Or read more at: spiked issue race

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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