Friday, 3 June 2016

Why the British attitude to immigration is a bit different to other countries'

Immigration is a big deal, of course it is. For years we liberals have pretended it isn't - told ourselves that the obsession with immigration was a creation of the tabloid press and Nigel Farage - but it really is. Across the rich world people are becoming more and more exercised on the subject (with the enthusiastic help of the tabloid press and a range of demagogic populists in every country) and in a sense it is hardly surprising. What mass immigration does, apart from anything else, is remind us in the rich West that we are globally a tiny minority and that our relative affluence and geopolitical influence is the legacy of a colonial past whose influence is waning all the time. Time was if we fucked up in some byzantine Middle Eastern conflict the repercussions were felt there and there alone while we walked away relatively unscathed. Not any more.

In some countries 'concerns' about immigration have led to the rise of genuinely scary neo-Nazi parties and thin-skinned childish demagogues with silly hair, but in Britain we generally don't like extremism. For all that Nick Clegg's description of Boris Johnson as 'Trump with a thesaurus' is a good soundbite, at least Boris isn't advocating building a wall, banning immigrants on religious grounds and torturing the families of enemy combatants.

But to say that the British people are entirely sanguine with the concept of immigration would be to put our middle-class left-liberal heads in the sand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tireless efforts of such as the Daily Mail to whip it up, suspicion and fear of 'uncontrolled immigration' have taken root. However it is my contention that that fear and suspicion has a particular British flavour here that isn't quite the same as that encountered elsewhere.

So why have the British begun to react as they do to immigration? Let's examine the predominant theories:

1) Because immigrants will stretch our public services (education, health, housing) to breaking point. This one is often trotted out, and many people clearly believe it to be their primary concern (partly perhaps because it is a view one can hold without bearing any animosity towards any of the individual immigrants involved) but it really doesn't stand up to scrutiny. First, everyone knows that the public services are utterly dependent on immigrant labour (Australian teachers, African nurses, Polish builders) and second, this is a view often held by people who support a government that has taken a flamethrower to public services itself.

2) Because immigrants put downward pressure on wages. Probably second favourite, and it is an argument that has some merit. However again, a moment's thought makes it clear that it is not the immigrants but the combination of a neo-liberal government and global capitalism that have put downward pressure on wages (right on brother!) Seriously, does anyone believe that if immigration were to stop tomorrow, big business would suddenly raise wages and abandon zero hours contracts?

3) Because immigration undermines our country's cultural identity. A bit closer to the bone this one and it may well lie at the heart of some anti-immigration feeling, but to be honest it is hard to argue for the concept of British cultural identity when the films we watch are American, the cars we drive German or Japanese, our furniture Scandinavan (Swedish or Danish, depending on class) and our takeaways Italian, Indian or Chinese.

4) Because immigration dilutes our ethnic identity. Getting more visceral still now, and it's an unspoken argument that probably eats away at the psyche of many a (reasonably) tolerant middle-Englander. The thing is, it is nothing like such a strong argument in Britain as it appears at first glance. First, we never were particularly ethnically uniform as a nation. The mashup of our earliest inhabitants (Picts, Celts and Saxons) led to a far wider range of ethnic types (from swarthy dark-haired Welshmen to pale-skinned, freckled Scots or brawny fair-haired English ploughmen) than was ever the case in, say, Norway. And then our colonial legacy has led to peoples from across the globe becoming far more integrated than in many countries, with third and fourth generation Afro-Caribbean or Asian families now so English that they complain about immigration as much as anyone. Plus the newest waves of immigrants are quite likely to be ethnically similar to 'us', whoever 'we' are.

Arguments number 3) and 4) are probably the root cause of anti-immigration feeling in many (possibly most) other countries, no matter how much arguments 1) and 2) are trotted out. However I don't believe that even they get under the skin of the specifically British reaction to immigration. So what does?

Easy. Language.

You see, what really marks the UK out from most of the rich world (Australia and New Zealand apart) is our national unwillingness to engage with other languages than English. Look at our popular culture: even in the US you will occasionally have the gum-chewing detective coming out with a few words of Spanish as he gets down widd da kidz on the dilapidated basketball court. In British popular culture the only foreign language you will hear will be from the mouths of the devilish German, Russian or (nowadays) Arab villains. Across the rest of Europe a huge proportion of popular culture is actually IN a foreign language (English). Virtually everyone in Holland is completely fluent in at least three languages, apparently from birth.

So it is pretty much uniquely in the UK that other languages than our own sound quite so alien and thus disturbing. In most of Europe it is quite normal to see shops with foreign (English) names or even billboards written entirely in a foreign language (English), but here in the UK many see even the occasional unassuming 'Polski Sklep' above a grocer or 'حلالا' on a butcher's door as weird and vaguely threatening. And as for hearing a couple speaking in Romanian on a bus...

So that's my theory. British people worry about immigration because immigrants (generally) speak foreign languages, and foreign languages are alien and scary and FOREIGN. If we'd grown up in Flemish Belgium, where people in our town all spoke a foreign language (French or Dutch or German) and the songs we listened to and the films we watched were in a different foreign language (English) then maybe we wouldn't feel like that (and we'd concentrate on other markers of foreignness like ethnicity and religion). Or maybe even if we had taken language learning seriously at school and not been told that it didn't really matter because everyone speaks English anyway.

But we are where we are, and maybe we need to recognise it better. Especially since English is already only the second most widely spoken language in the world, and may be overtaken by Spanish in the not too distant future.

Of course, in a sense our language-based xenophobia is a lot less unpleasant and scary than the sort of purely ethnic/cultural xenophobia of much of Europe and we should be proud of that. The BNP has died a death here and I can't see troupes of neo-Nazi vigilantes hunting down anyone of an Arabic appearance here in the way they do in much of central Europe. But where the left have been going wrong, I think, is to see all fear and distrust of immigration as being (at root) racist xenophobia. Sure that exists, but our lack of confidence in foreign languages is a genuine cause too. And one that we could, in time, do something about.

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