Recent comments from senior "Leavers" reveal "the xenophobia that is common in Ukip"by Oliver Kamm / June 2, 2016 / Leave a comment
There are roughly five or six thousand natural languages spoken in the world today. The estimate is imprecise because it depends whether you count some tongues as languages or dialects. Of all those thousands, the language least threatened by extinction is the one you’re reading.
The economic case argued by Brexit campaigners makes little enough sense on its own. When you throw in the notion that Britain outside the EU could and should impose language requirements on immigrants, it enters the realm of the immoderately preposterous.
This week, “Leave” campaigners Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Gisela Stuart argued in a joint statement: “For relevant jobs, we will be able to ensure that all those who come have the ability to speak good English.”
Who gets to decide what’s a relevant job and what’s good English? The answer is not the employer but the state. It’s one of the paradoxes of the referendum campaign that the visionaries of Little England turn out to be unabashed advocates of Big Government. Britain does not have a problem with a large labour force that can’t speak English well enough. And if it did, insisting on language qualifications for migrants wouldn’t be a way of fixing it.
The latest census figures show that 92 per cent of people in this country speak English (or English or Welsh, in Wales) as their main language. Of the remainder, eight out of ten report speaking English well or very well. The number of people who can’t speak English at all amounts to 138,000—comfortably less than half a per cent of the population.
It isn’t just the numbers that demonstrate the absurdity of the Brexit campaigners’ message on language. It’s their incomprehension, in our determinedly monoglot culture, that immigrants don’t need incentives, let alone threats, to wish to learn English.
For reasons of historical accident, English has become a global language. There are now something like 1.5 billion English speakers. Non-native speakers of the language outnumber native speakers. In some EU member-states, it’s well-nigh impossible to find anyone below a certain age who doesn’t speak English fluently.
Immigrants by definition are seeking a new life and wish to make use of expanded opportunities. It’s perfectly predictable, even admirable, that some of them won’t yet speak English well, but will be driven by their enterprise to learn.
And what if they don’t succeed? Learning a new language is not straightforward; some people, particularly the elderly, find it too difficult. That’s a shame for them; and for the rest of us, it’s none of our business. English is not the official language of this country (there has never been one), nor is it the only one. It isn’t even the oldest language of the British Isles. The Johnson-Gove case is wrong on many grounds. It’s economically bogus and linguistically ignorant. But above all, it’s illiberal. It discriminates against migrants on the morally arbitrary ground of language and insinuates that people already resident here who don’t speak English well are somehow lesser citizens.
No. A thousand times no. This linguistic scare has nothing to do with the needs of the labour market or the character of a free society. It’s a barely more polite form of the xenophobia that is common in the ranks of Ukip. I’m unsurprised that Boris Johnson has signed up to it. I’m appalled that my friend Michael Gove has lent his talents and reputation to it.