In a better, more sensible, world David Cameron would make a virtue of the opportunity UKIP has given him. He would appreciate that defending his party’s record is actually an opportunity for a counter-attack. UKIP complain – loudly – that 4,000 people arrive in the United Kingdom from the EU each and every week. This, they suggest, is awful and Something Must Be Done to limit the number of people coming to the United Kingdom.
The Conservative party appears, in its dark heart, to share this concern. It suspects the Kippers might have at least half a point. There’s something nauseous about all this immigration, isn’t there? No wonder the party is hemmed-in, unable to find a response to UKIP that is both sensible and persuasive.
Better, then, to attack. Better – better by far – to turn the argument on its head. Better to suggest, nay to shout, that UKIP’s accusation is proof this government is working and proof that Britain is working. What better compliment can a country be paid than to find itself deluged by applications to live and work within its borders? Britain’s immigration problem is a sign of success, not failure.
We should be worried by a lack of immigrants not by a supposed surfeit of new citizens. Because that would say something much worse about Britain. It would suggest a clapped-out country lacking both the energy and the people needed to renew – and retool – itself for the future. A country that offers little to people from foreign lands is liable to be a country that offers little to its native-born citizens. Britain, by contrast, is an open society open to the world. It is one of this country’s greatest strengths even, you might say, one of its chief glories.
Today’s Policy Exchange report (PDF here) on the changing face of England and Wales is a case in point. It is a startlingly cheery document that undermines, nay refutes, many of the darker claims about the impact of immigration on England.
Sometimes we become so obsessed with grievous wrongs that we forget that what’s in the papers is, almost by definition, unusual. We are right to be appalled – and worried – by honour killings, forced marriages and the rejection of what might broadly be dubbed British cultural mores just as we are right to be concerned by low rates of economic participation or educational achievement in some “communities”. None of these concerns should be dismissed as irrelevant. They are not.
Nevertheless, nor are they the whole picture. Far from it. The broader picture is different and much more encouraging. It suggests, above all, that concerns about immigrants’ integration into the mainstream of British society are greatly exaggerated. Not utterly without foundation, I admit, but considerably overcooked.
Policy Exchange’s report on Black and Ethnic Minority citizens in England and Wales reveals a picture of a country largely at ease with itself. A changing country, certainly, but a relaxed and liberal one too. This is the reality that rarely makes the headlines. The quiet people of England are speaking and though you must listen carefully to hear them they’re saying We’re all right, Jack.
Consider this: 90% of people in England and Wales think their local area is a place in which people from wildly different backgrounds get on well with one another. Sure, plenty of voters say they are concerned by immigration and race relations but most of them, most of the time and in most places, think this more a problem for the country as a whole than it is for their local area. The difference between the personal and the abstract is often severe but rarely more so than here.
There are now more mixed-race Britons than there are Britons of Pakistan-heritage. In England and Wales only 5% of pensioners belong to BME groups but 25% of children under the age of 5 do. This is, quite obviously, an enormous change and it’s evident that mixed-race Britain is, in large part, the future.
But, on the evidence of Policy Exchange’s detailed report, concerns about integration are, on the whole (though with obvious high-profile exceptions) misplaced. More than half of BME citizens consider being British extremely important (ie, they have given being so an importance of 8 or more on a scale of 1 to 10). On the whole, BME voters place greater trust in democracy, parliament and politics than white voters and rates of civic engagement – as measured by volunteering – are now almost as high amongst BME citizens as amongst white Britons. If this is a crisis of alienation, it is a crisis we can cope with.
Similarly, the report suggests that, on the whole, the education gap is being closed. BME schoolchildren are now more likely to go on to higher education than white English and Welsh kids. Pakistani-British children are only marginally more likely to qualify for free school meals than white English and Welsh children.
They are increasingly likely to speak English at home too. In 1997 English was the main language in 15% of Pakistani-British households. By 2010 45% of such families were speaking English. We should expect that figure to grow still higher. Moreover, there is almost universal proficiency in English amongst second-generation immigrants.
The BME population of England and Wales has doubled in recent years. It will increase still further. And you know what? So what? The scale of the change in the very look of England and Wales – especially in London, Birmingham and Manchester – is remarkable but so too is the manner in which this change has been met: with, on the whole, a relaxed and tolerant shrug.
Of course there are, as I say, difficulties. Of course there are hideous cases of criminality that quite reasonably hog the headlines. And sure, UKIP are pushing the boundaries of respectable debate and, sure, they will do well in the European elections and, sure, this will provoke much comment and rightly so. But none of this should detract from bigger, more telling, trends which point to an England – especially a metropolitan England – largely indifferent to race, colour or creed. People are just people.
It is, when you think of it, a considerable achievement and one that should be celebrated more often by members and supporters of all mainstream parties. Britain, it turns out, is a land of opportunity and modern England is, in many respects, an admirable triumph of liberalism.
It’s also the future and therefore something that offers the Tory party a choice: it can react against the future or it can embrace it while preserving, nay insisting upon, the best of the past. But that is fodder for another post.