Immigration has become not, as I once thought, a welcome addition to the English way of life, but a source of disquietby Tom Smail / May 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
I live in Harringay, Green Lanes, in the long, elegant stretch between Manor House and Turnpike Lane. It is a predominantly Turkish and Kurdish area with vestiges of an earlier Greek Cypriot civilisation, though Turnpike Lane, according to the 2011 census, is the capital’s most linguistically diverse underground station, with 16 languages spoken nearby. It is an area of community spirit, of good people that I know and greet, of greengrocers whose fresh fruit and vegetables are piled high in affordable excellence, and restaurants of such quality that people come from far and wide to sample their wares.
“It is a total pleasure to live amongst migrant communities,” said Labour MP Jess Phillips recently. My French wife and Italian stepchildren agree, but increasingly I do not. Despite the delights of Green Lanes, I find myself progressively overwhelmed by diversity. I miss Englishness. I miss English. When I hear it, I miss English accents and conversation with someone who understands colloquialisms and references. Even mundane pleasantries at the bus stop are made difficult, if not impossible, by linguistic challenges and a lack of common culture.
It is not the fault of any immigrant that I have chosen to live in a predominantly non-English area. But having seen London change over 35 years, I am finding it hard to appreciate the positive aspects without concern. Immigration has become not, as I once thought, a welcome addition to the English way of life, but a source of disquiet. And quite simply because of its scale. The immigration we have experienced in the last two decades is unparalleled in British history: an average net figure, according to the Office for National Statistics, of over 220,000 people annually for the past 22 years.
Zadie Smith, in a recent interview, recalled an incident from her schooldays: a group of white people on a bus getting angry because four Bengalis were speaking Bengali. Bemused, she put it down to “insecurity, jealousy and a kind of vanity that you should always be included in all things.” I regularly travel on buses where no one is to be heard speaking English, where the 16 tongues of Turnpike Lane are in boisterous evidence, and I freely admit that I feel somewhat excluded. The world I am observing appears to have little in common with my own. Jealousy? No. Insecurity? Possibly, but more a sense of detachment, of distance.
Why not “curiosity, concern, interest?” Smith continues. In the era of her schooldays, this would have been a fairer question; but the balance has changed. The mere fact that people are not talking English is no longer unusual; in several corners of the UK it is the norm. I am far from unappreciative of humanity observed and overheard. I speak four languages and am fascinated by accents and dialects. But the multiplicity of languages outside my front door and the almost total absence of English English leave me feeling like a stranger in a once familiar land.
To talk of feeling thus in one’s own country or to suggest that scale matters when discussing immigration are both considered inadmissible opinions by those who do not regard such things as important. But I cannot accept that the numerous Britons who hold these views are all racists. Large-scale immigration necessarily has a far-reaching effect on that which many people value, namely the character of their society. It is an instrument of profound change. I don’t know how one bridges the divide between those who passionately advocate globalisation and relatively open borders, and those who, while celebrating the diversity of humanity, believe in the worth of smaller subsets.
Whatever you may think of the concept of national identity, there is undoubtedly a bond that exists between people who share history, geography, culture and language. Clearly I cannot properly evaluate my fellow bus passengers without knowing them individually, but I sometimes feel that we are just disparate people inhabiting the same space.
It is not that I prefer English people to other people. Frequently I do not. It is that, in order to have a functioning, cohesive society, there needs to be some shared sense of what that society is. National identity resides in memories, myths and traditions. A confident sense of national identity, interestingly, is an essential prerequisite for successful integration. People settling in a new land need to feel they are becoming part of something positive. Our own sense of national identity took a battering post-empire: everything that Britain had been was largely discredited, at least in liberal and educated circles, and there was little of substance to take its place.
And when the original population begins to lose touch with that identity, it makes it difficult for any immigrant to adopt, maintain and perhaps adapt those national traditions.
Matthew D’Ancona, writing in the Guardian in 2018, asserted: “Beneath all the talk of ‘control’ and ‘global Britain,’ there is the germ of an extremely unpleasant nativism.” There are indeed some highly unsavoury views of foreigners licensed by the Brexit moment and Trump. But there are many who believe in Europe, are well travelled, educated and hospitable, people who do not hate foreigners, but simply feel quietly unnerved at the scale of the changes afoot. People like me.