(This article was published in The Birmingham Post in April 2014)
As a British citizen – but one who is, essentially, from an immigrant family – the current xenophobic climate is, at the best, unsettling; at the worst, alarming. You only have to look at the furore caused by the Channel 4 programme, Benefits Street in last couple of months to see how rife such antagonism is. Poverty and immigration have come to be inextricably linked.
And it is this that the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage is taking advantage of – for nothing, in this country, is as divisive as the topic of people entering Britain and claiming ‘our’ benefits.
To people like Farage the need to create a total blockade on immigration, abandoning our place in the EU and tackling the changing face of British demographic, are the pressing issues of our times. He wants to go back to a time when there was no globalisation, or free economies but a golden age when the Union Jack was a symbol of international supremacy.
But, of course, this thinking is deeply flawed, instigated not by a genuine concern for Britain or modern British history. The fear of foreigners arise out of an economic crisis that has resulted in the cut down in social welfare provision. It has deepened people’s cultural anxieties and insecurities. It has made some factions paranoid, suspicious that other sections of our community are getting more than their fair share.
The recent economic recession has also exacerbated the growing polarisation in British society. Today there is evidence of a startling disparity between the haves and have-nots. Of course, with over three million people unemployed, recent inner city riots, the increasing cost of fuel and utilities, wage freezes and the growing tension amongst factions within the working class, this is a lethal concoction.
To argue that immigrants are a burden is also rather troubling for someone like myself.
I live in this city, an industrial city like Manchester, Bradford, Wolverhampton, Glasgow and Blackburn which invited people like my father from the New Commonwealth to do the heavy labour – the manual work indigenous white British didn’t want to do. Like many Asian men from the Indian subcontinent, he worked in one of the many foundaries. He was made redundant in 1979 when like the coal mines, these foundaries began to close down. Within a few years my brother, my sister and I began working and eventually bought properties of our own. And despite that my family have been here since 1957 – that’s over half a century – yet still my son and my nephew and nieces feel like outsiders, as if they are guests in a country that alienates them.
Farage’s reactionary tirade against immigration – or specifically against people who are non-white – is partly responsible for this feeling of being different or outsiders. As if immigrants are polluting our country, contaminating it – making it unrecognisable. And that applies to Blacks from the Caribbean, Asians from the subcontinent as much as it does to Eastern Europeans.
Last week Farage expressed his concerns that some parts of Britain are like a foreign country – unrecognisable. Not recognisable: from what? 1960s/70s Britain – when there were poor Black and Asian immigrants? Or is he talking about the anti-Irish tirade ridden 1950s that characterised the ‘No dogs; No Blacks or Irish’; or is he referring to the antagonism that sparked anti-Semitism (against the poor Jews) of the 1930s?
Now I am not denying that there are areas in Britain that have concentration of particular poor ethnic groups. Birmingham, like some other cities, certainly has suburbs where there are mainly disadvantaged Muslims from Bangladesh or Pakistan or indeed, the new arrivals from Poland, Romania or Bulgaria. Many have settled in places like Tower Hamlets or Winson Green (where Benefits Street was filmed, a couple of miles from where I live) mainly because the price of property is cheaper than some other parts of the country.
What Farage should be asking is why do we have pockets that have a high density of immigrant people? He should be questioning the political and administrative systems that allow such cultural and ethnic segregation; where people on the poverty line are exploited by scrupulous landlords.
The point is that every generation has had to deal with difference. Not by simply tolerating but accepting it. Over-simplifying a situation or generalising does not help. And this also applies to Asians and Blacks who are supporting UKIP or at least providing tacit sympathies. I would argue that on the whole, new immigrants don’t want state hand-outs or be patronised by tokenistic political gestures any more than we do. They haven’t up rooted from their country abandoning their friends, families, culture and all familiarity to settle in a cold bleak island battered by storms and a perpetual dampness, all for the sake of a few quid a week. New immigrants into Britain are a lot more proud than we might care to think and do, like many of us, have that thing we call human dignity. The German novelist Hermann Hesse once wrote, ‘It is not difference that scares people but similarity.’ Farage knows how true this is.
My fear is that UKIP don’t just want to go back to a time when England was English but he wants to return to a John Major’s idyllic fictitious place when people played cricket on the village green and maids cycled down misty country lanes, and everyone had a job and there was no social injustice and the British empire ruled the world.
Robbed of a clear political mandate, having very little alternatives in relation to the economy, trade and commerce, transport, NHS and education, Farage and his party are honing in on the subtle insecurities of British people and targeting the red herring in current political discourse. It’s the case of a one trick pony – and not even that. The real issue for Farage should not be immigration or whether we should leave the EU. What he should focus on – if UKIP want to be a force to be reckoned with – is how do we tackle poverty in Britain which affects all the working classes? How do we deal with the actual causes not just the symptoms of poverty? All the three main political parties have done nothing but merely managed poverty and inequality. If a child in school is from a poor background, the system merely throws him luncheon vouchers or a lap top. What we don’t do is ask ‘why is there poverty in 21st century Britain? They have not looked at the causes. Immigration is not a cause of poverty. Immigration is the sound, the face of inevitability because we believe in the free movement of people. We believe in migration. The future isn’t black and white. In two or three decades, countries won’t be defined and characterised by a single race. Every country will have to accept that multiracial societies are the norm. And likewise, multicultural Britain is a reality and one that should be welcomed and celebrated – not used to exacerbate fear and anxieties in people.