Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Immigrant nations

The United Kingdom is now an immigrant nation. So Paul Scheffer, a Dutch academic and writer, rightly says. His book Immigrant Nations has just been translated into English. He points out that European countries now have proportions of their population born abroad just as large as the US, the traditional land of immigration. Currently for the UK, the figure is 10 per cent compared to 13 per cent for the United States. This is despite a national self-image in many European countries of a homogeneous population.

This contradiction between concrete reality and self-image has driven immigration up the political agenda in all of the European countries. According to the British Election Survey, immigration was the second most important concern of the electorate during Britain’s 2010 general election. Immigration has never been this prominent an electoral issue before. British politicians are now grappling with how they respond to the electorate’s concern.

Scheffer recently addressed a meeting at Westminster. While his book rightly underlines that immigration is now an issue across Europe with which politicians must engage, there is good reason, as this review will argue, to think that his analysis of how to respond to immigration is flawed.

Scheffer’s view is that the incorporation of immigrants into host nations proceeds by a process of ‘avoidance, conflict and integration’. At first, he argues both immigrants and the host population tend to try and avoid each other and retreat into their own communities. As immigrant populations increase, such avoidance is no longer possible and cultural conflict occurs. As a consequence of this conflict, both immigrant and host communities have to renegotiate cultural practices and when this process is complete, integration occurs.

His fear is that the greater the divergence of the cultural practices of the immigrant community and the host nation, the more difficult the process of conflict and integration becomes. Specifically, he is concerned that it may not be possible for negotiation to take place between Muslim communities and host populations. His proposed solution is that much greater emphasis needs to be placed on identifying differences and reconciling them.

Scheffer argues that multiculturalism has been a form of avoidance. In his view, multiculturalism involves complete cultural relativism. However, his treatment of multiculturalism is cursory. It is far from clear that multiculturalism as he defines it has been deployed throughout Europe. Specifically, there may be a very large difference between what has been done in the Netherlands and anywhere else, including the UK. The Dutch way of dealing with immigration may well have been based on avoidance – this is historically how the Dutch have dealt with tension between indigenous religious and class-based communities, a process known as ‘pillarisation’ or ‘Verzuiling’. This allowed the different communities to operate within entirely separate institutions. They each had their own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, banks, schools, hospitals, universities, sports clubs and so on. In addition, Scheffer suggests that national laws which might have alienated a ‘pillar’ were on occasion informally disapplied. Such a fragmentation of the public sphere and of the law goes far beyond anything that most of the United Kingdom has experienced. Indeed, one of the great risks of the Conservative-led government’s will to break up public services and rely on the ‘big society’ is that it will instead create a host of small societies that resemble pillarisation.

A major critique of Scheffer’s argument should also be the choice of the word ‘conflict’ to describe the adjustments that take place between immigrant communities and host populations. It was not conflict that lead Robin Cook to identify chicken tikka masala as Britain’s true national dish. It’s not force that leads people to the Notting Hill Carnival. Of course conflict can arise if cultural practices are both very divergent and mutually taboo. Honour killings, for example, cannot be tolerated under British custom or law. However, such conflict is relatively rare and it may relate to a practice which only small groups either within the immigrant or host population support.

Although Scheffer is an academic, his book is written as an essay. The evidence for his arguments nearly always takes the form of individual stories. This makes it very readable. It also makes it highly unreliable. The notion of ‘conflict’ is not defined and because it is not defined, it cannot be measured. And, because it is not measured, we cannot actually tell where and with whom integration takes place most smoothly. If we cannot identify this, then we cannot investigate those situations in order to see what smoothed integration in practice.

Pessimism as to the possibility of Muslim communities integrating is based on his view that Islam cannot accept the equality of other religions. For him, this means that Muslims cannot practise religious toleration. His analysis is based on what appears to be a limited amount of research into Islamic religious doctrine, primarily as expressed in the Netherlands. In reality, it is very important to make a distinction between the formal claims religions make and the actual praxis of individuals who subscribe to them. In Britain, we see in practice that leading British Muslim politicians (such as the Conservative Baroness Warsi or Labour’s Sadiq Khan) are very vocal advocates of religious toleration. Equally, it should be noted that a number of Christian denominations do not recognise either each other or other faiths as equal. Nonetheless, this does not lead their adherents to engage in major civil disagreement in most of contemporary Europe.

Ideological exclusion is, in his view, compounded by modern technology. Ethnic TV channels, internet and Skype mean that immigrants can remain immersed in their home cultures and never integrate. While this may be a superficially plausible argument, it does not bear examination. Few media academics nowadays would argue that media can have an effect that overcomes a lived daily experience. In any case, Scheffer provides no evidence that those consuming ethnic media are not also consuming media produced in the host nation. Someone may read an ethnic newspaper but may also watch BBC and Channel 4 News. In addition, history tells us that the existence of immigrant media has had no impact on the integration of earlier immigrant communities. The Jewish people who arrived in the east of London in the early twentieth century are now thoroughly integrated. Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood, for example, records the life story of Anna Tzelniker who arrived from Romania in 1933. This is her description of cultural life in the East End in the 1930s: ‘Whitechapel in those days was exciting. It was all Jewish! The whole East End was Jewish. Yiddish was spoken in every home; Yiddish was spoken in the streets; the shopkeepers spoke Yiddish. We had three daily Yiddish newspapers! Daily! Three! Yiddish books were printed here. There were always two Yiddish theatres in the East End of London.’ Following Scheffer’s argument this should have prevented integration.

Despite his acknowledgment that integration occurs as a result of negotiation, Scheffer focuses on only one party to such a negotiation, namely the immigrant communities. In so far as he considers hostility in the host community, he assumes it arises from the different cultural characteristics of the immigrant community. If we examine British polling data, it tells a different story. What it seems to show is that hostility to immigration in the UK arises due to the arrival of low-skilled immigrants, not their cultural beliefs. Polling by Ipsos MORI in 2007 found that the group whose immigration was most opposed by British citizens were eastern Europeans, while those most favoured were western Europeans. (The latter were more favoured than Australians and New Zealanders, perhaps the most culturally similar to the existing population of Britain). Culturally, eastern and western Europeans, from a British perspective, are fairly similar. However, what tends to distinguish them markedly is their position in the labour market.

There is also evidence that the reaction of British citizens to immigration derives from the occupational status of those British citizens. Polling of high-skilled Labour-voting workers versus low-skilled Labour-voting workers shows diametrically opposed views to immigration. This is quite logical from an economic perspective. The immigration of low skilled workers lowers wages in service industries to the benefit of high-skilled groups who consume those services. It will also tend to have the consequence of increasing pressure on the welfare services on which lower-skilled workers are more reliant.

Scheffer’s approach is unlikely to provide British MPs with much practical assistance. Indeed, if it encourages MPs to focus only on cultural differences between groups rather than economic issues, it may impede integration not facilitate it. The key to removing the tension which racist parties like the British National Party feed from is more likely to lie in delivering fairness in distributing the costs and benefits of immigration. Reforming the criteria under which local authorities receive central government funding is the kind of practical concrete measure which should be envisaged. Currently, levels of immigration into an area have very little impact on the proportion of central grant which local authorities receive to maintain the quality of social services.

Actual substantive and deliverable measures is what is needed for Labour to regain the public’s trust on immigration. The risk of Scheffer is that he encourages a flight to rhetoric.


Gregg McClymont MP and Andy Tarrant are, respectively, MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and senior parliamentary assistant to Gregg McClymont MP

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Gregg McClymont MP

is member of parliament for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East

Andy Tarrant

1 comment

  • I’ll tell you who racialised and divides communities. The State and the Labour Party has been very much part of that, state multiculturalism was carried out by the LP at council level. That broke the working class further and instead promoted artificial differences through an ‘ethnic/race’ prism. Furthermore, the Labour Party like the other is a racist party. Controlling Immigration is de-facto racist for a former (arguably current) colonial/imperialist nation. Hey at least the BNP havent officially killed anyone, I think you in government have through racist wars and Immigration controls. What actually removed the disatisfaction from areas that might vote BNP are this. Real working class oriented policies and action and not tailing the racist murdering logic of ‘we need to control immigration’. But hey, Labour have always been the more rehabitilitated wing of racist ruling elites prejudices and actions.

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