Monday, 25 March 2013

Immigration: stop protesting, start celebrating

Back in the 1990s, the rising star in the Conservative Party was Michael Portillo. The darling of the right, he shone in the Thatcher firmament. As it happens, since he left politics and recycled himself as a broadcaster and author on history and on morality, he seems to have become more liberal and shown admirable qualities that he kept well hidden when he was a politician.

In the years of the Blair Labour government, the Conservatives ran through a string of party leaders before settling – God help us – on David Cameron. One of them was Michael Howard. He never made it to the top job, but he’d had ministerial positions under both Thatcher and Major, despite one of his colleagues, Ann Widdecombe, saying that ‘he had something of the night about him’.

Jumping back into the previous century, one of the giants of Conservative politics was Benjamin Disraeli. Among his more dramatic coups was buying the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal. Because the government simply didn’t have the money to buy them, Disraeli persuaded Lionel de Rothschild to stake him and pulled off a remarkably beneficial acquisition on his own personal authority.

Disraeli: grandchild of immigrants
but worth a cartoon by John Tenniel
Why do I mention all these people? Because they are all of immigrant stock. These were not men of the left, but of the solid respectable establishment (you certainly don’t get much more solidly anchored than a Rothschild, in particular), but they came from families who had only recently arrived in this country. Yet they played prominent roles in its life.

And they were far from alone. In the arts, we’ve had a Joseph Conrad or a Salman Rushdie; we had Sigmund Freud launching a psychoanalytic school that is still going strong; we had Ludwig Wittgenstein doing his philosophical work in this country.

These are all celebrities, figures whose names at least are familiar to most of us. But there are many others who have come from abroad and enriched our life as private individuals, even if it’s only by running a shop that stays open late, or providing an affordable and reliable minicab service; immigrants supply nurses, doctors and managers to the the health service; they pick our fruit and till our farmlands (during a previous anti-immigrant campaign in the early years of this century, many farmers were concerned at the departure of so many Poles, if only because it would be impossible to get the strawberry harvest in).

In addition, most of the criticisms of immigrants are less likely to be involved in crime than natives; they are less likely to be drawing benefits; they are less likely to be in social housing. And we have fewer immigrants, per capita, than the US, Switzerland or France.

So what is it about our nation that’s causing a growing proportion of the people to be tempted by the anti-immigrant rhetoric floating around these days? Why is David Cameron trying to ride this wave? Even more dangerous, what is the attraction of the anti-immigrant party UKIP, the wittily named ‘United Kingdom Independence Party’ (as though any nation our size has a chance of independence in today’s world)?

After all, if the worry was overpopulation, we might expect a campaign to concentrate on the birth rate (700,000 babies born a year) rather than net immigration (100,000 more arrivals than departures a year).

But is this concern really to do with the economic or cultural impact of immigrants in the first place? Or is it really to do with the fact that they speak a different language or belong to a different religion? Or, horror of horrors, that some of them are of a different skin colour? Isn’t that all this comes down to in the final analysis? Simply another outbreak of racism seeking to cover its ugliness in pretended worries about the impact of large numbers of arrivals from abroad. It’s sad that so few of our politicians speak out against it.

So let’s remember the vast majority of immigrants who have enriched our national life, even if a few of them did it in the Tory Party. Some have made major, globally-recognised contributions; most contribute on a smaller scale daily; only a tiny number do harm.

Let’s celebrate them and reject those mean-spirited figures who refuse to join in the celebrations with us.

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