Britain has always had an ambiguous relationship with the notion of immigration. There is a long tradition of Britain welcoming immigrants escaping from religious and political persecution in their own countries but this has been tempered by a fear of immigration as a threat to employment, impact on services and effects on British ‘values’. The free movement of labour within the European Union and the global movement of population evident since the 1990s had exacerbated the issue and immigration has increasingly become a divisive issue in British politics. The difficulty for politicians has long been that any discussion of immigration and its effects is quickly transmuted into whether that discussion is racist or not.
Take, for instance, Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s statement that politicians need to ‘wake up’ to the issue of corruption in some minority communities and that it must be made ‘absolutely clear’ that a ‘favour culture’ is unacceptable in Britain. Apart from the fact that Britain has its own ‘favour culture’—the ‘old boys’ network’—and the Attorney General was quick to point out that corruption was found in the ‘white Anglo-Saxon community’—one only has to look at the continuing question of MPs’ expenses—what he points out if that different communities in Britain have different views of what is and is not acceptable behaviour that reflect the sorts of behaviour that are and are not acceptable in their countries of origin. The problem is that whether that behaviour is acceptable or not in countries of origins, that may not be the case in Britain.
The question is not whether immigration is a good or bad thing—in my view it has throughout history in Britain almost invariably been a good thing even if this was not recognised as such at the time—but how quickly those immigrants become part of Britain’s society. This has often been a fraught process—the experience of Irish migrants before and after the Famines in the 1840s illustrates this. What has changed in the last twenty years is the rapidity and scale of immigration leading to the belief that some communities are being swamped by migrants, the unwillingness of some immigrants to integrate into mainstream British society because they wish to replicate the societies they left within Britain and the often economic reasons for migration. Tolerance of immigration by people in search of religious or political asylum has been replaced by growing intolerance of immigration in its totality. This has been caused primarily by the unwillingness of politicians in the last few decades to address the question of immigration lest they be accused of being racists—the silence has been deafening—leaving the field open to those who are racists to attack immigration in often combustible terms and to the growing and frequently misinformed disquiet among the general public.
The point about immigration is that it is not going to go away. The ethnic composition of Britain is changing and changing very quickly. Now that may be a good thing and certainly not something to be feared. Why do people want to come to Britain? Well for most, it’s not for the welfare benefits; it’s because they believe that they will have a better life—economically, politically, spiritually and culturally—in Britain than in their native countries. It’s not that they should leave behind their heritage and values and language but immigrants need to accept that they also have to accept the basic and always changing precepts and values of Britain—adherence to the rule of law, tolerance, democracy, individual rights, a belief in justice and fairness and equality between peoples and genders. They should be a part of, not apart from Britain’s society. If they are unwilling or unable to achieve this, then you have to ask with some justification why they came to Britain in the first place.