The language around immigration in recent times has become increasingly toxic and the idea of integration has come to the fore in the last few weeks because of the publication of the Casey Report. It’s very important that we honestly talk about integration as doing so will enable us to soberly address the concerns of people up and down the country. For a long time the Left has danced around the issue of immigration but focusing on integrating new arrivals into British civil society is a way to begin breaking down the idea of the Left being out of touch.
Since the Tories took power in 2010 there has been much rhetoric about the need for ‘British values’ and for immigrants to integrate with their country. Aside from my philosophical view that British values don’t actually exist, it’s worth noting that the government has actually made it harder for new arrivals to learn English. In 2011 the government changed the rules for people studying English as a second language. ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) programmes were cut so that only those on Jobseekers’ Allowance or Employability Skills Allowance could receive government-funded lessons in basic English. At the time teachers warned that this particular piece of austerity would hurt individuals, many of whom were housewives and couldn’t learn English in the workplace, and society, as fewer people would be able to integrate. These concerns fell on deaf ears and the cuts went ahead.
Another interesting fact is that according to the Casey Report, more money was spent by the government on teaching the Cornish language than teaching English. Should Cornish be taught? Sure it should. But, if a concern of ordinary people is to increase the integration so communities don’t feel overwhelmed, I don’t think it is unfair to say that more money should be spent on teaching English than reviving a language currently estimated to be spoken by around 550 people. Cornwall is a lovely place with a wonderful culture, but if Cornish culture stagnates because hundreds more people can speak English I will be able to sleep at night.
The question then becomes: what can the Left do? The most obvious response is funding. Working class people have relatively conservative views when it comes to immigration so constantly saying ‘immigration is good’ alienates people and leaves the door open for UKIP to scapegoat. Instead the Left needs to articulate a bold plan to increase integration rather than allow the Tories and UKIP alike to push the discourse further to the Right. The Left should firstly point out what the Tories have done and contrast this record with what they will do: restore and expand funding for ESOL courses. It is an easy response to boost integration in places across the country.
The second policy prescription should be the abolition of religious schools. At first this may seem like it came out of left-field (pun intended) but there is method behind the madness. In Northern Ireland the British government essentially allowed Catholic children and Protestant children to go to separate schools and as a result the two communities have remained divided along these sectarian lines. Obviously the political situation in Northern Ireland isn’t primarily to do with religion but with political identity, but I believe the point remains valid. If immigrants arrive from anywhere in the world and are not exposed to the same education as everyone else because of their parents’ religious views, an intellectual disconnect is created.
Further, if communities from certain ethnic or religious backgrounds continue to run schools, the foreign-born members of these communities self-ghettoize and become very inward looking. The other consequence is that people who seek to look outwards to wider society are trapped because of cultural differences or, in extreme cases, an inability to communicate. By putting children in schools with people from a range of different backgrounds, cultural differences are appreciated and norms that are run-of-the-mill at home can be challenged.
For example if I was a conservative Muslim and sent my daughter to a school that mirrored my religious beliefs, she would be inculcated with the notion that not wearing a hijab was morally wrong. Conversely if was compelled to send my daughter to a secular school, there would be no such indoctrination and she would be given the intellectual skills to come to her own views about the hijab and Islam in general. Secular education separates what we know (empirical facts) from what we think (beliefs, opinions, and cultural norms). For immigrants coming from radically different cultures to our own this delineation needs to be made.
The final thing that the Left should do is fund schemes to open up communities to the wider population. To some extent people already engage in these activities with the backing of local government, but the Left needs to make a conscious decision to promote these events. It’s no good simply saying that immigration is good, you have to show why it is good.
A famous example is that of the Notting Hill Carnival. In the aftermath of mass immigration from the Caribbean local people organised to celebrate the culture they had grow up with in their adopted homeland. Indeed the carnival was in some ways a reaction to the growing levels of hostility towards West Indian communities. It started small but now people from all over the UK travel to London to take part and watch the festivities.
If the Left wants to be serious about addressing people’s concerns about immigration a highly publicised campaign to boost community cohesion is the way to go. I emphasise ‘highly publicised’ because I am fully aware that these sorts of events already take place. If the Left wants to allay people’s fears, they need to break down the perception of immigrants not wishing to integrate. By running TV, radio, internet, and radio adverts drumming up awareness of events up and down the country, people will change their views.
Immigration is a political issue for a number of reasons but one of the key underlying causes is the idea of a lack of integration. The state has a key role to play in encouraging these new arrivals to integrate, and the Left needs to grab the bull by the horns. If it does nothing to address people’s fears about immigration they will never take power. Peddling the same divisive rhetoric as UKIP will not win them an election. Providing substantive solutions with a sustained media campaign to promote these policies will do that. At first it will be difficult but the reward will be a more harmonious, peaceful and prosperous society.