Last Sunday I attended the Bangladesh Caterers’ Association awards. The UK ‘Indian’ restaurant and take-away trade (the quote marks are there to remind you that most ‘Indian’ restaurants are owned and run by Bangladeshis) is worth up to £3.6 billion. It employs 80,000 people, more than the number of steelworkers, dentists or solicitors in Britain. When my parents were born, there was a mere handful of Indian restaurants. This weekend two and a half million people will eat a curry.
The success of Bangladeshis in the catering trade is part of a much bigger, complex story. Driving up with my host, Mr Abdul Kadir of the excellent Spice Garden, Eastbourne, I remarked that on a short stretch of road in Streatham, south London, you could see a Polish shop, a Nigerian barbers, a West Indian cafe, a Chinese restaurant and an ‘Indian’ take-away run by Mr Kadir’s countrymen. Such integration is a remarkable tribute to the success of immigrants to the UK, and to the tendency of the English, as Orwell put it, to not kill each other. Each generation of the settled community copes with the rapid changes that immigration brings; the next generation sees those changes as perfectly normal.
This week’s census showed that immigration impacts very differently in different parts of the country. There are more foreign-born people living in the UK (which includes people such as Richard Curtis (New Zealand), Emma Watson (France), Richard E Grant (Swaziland), Bradley Wiggins (Belgium) and Eddie Izzard (Yemen)). But the concentration is on certain towns and cities. In London less than half the population classifies itself as ‘white British’, and in Tower Hamlets there are more Muslims than Christians. In my son’s class, in Sussex, there are no children from an ethnic minority at all. The census also shows that there are 176,000 Jedi Knights in Britain, which by my calculation equals 176,000 crashing bores to avoid at a Christmas party.
We are a country at ease with immigration because we are a country of immigrants, be they Danes, Romans, Vikings, Huguenots, Poles or the swelling numbers of French bankers in Kensington fleeing Hollande. That’s not to say that rapid and transformative immigration doesn’t cause disquiet, tension and pressure on social services and housing. In some highly localised areas, it does. When politicians fail to understand and deal with this, they divorce themselves further from the people they represent. Sudden influxes of Poles in the 2000s undoubtedly put pressure on school places, but was good for Catholic church attendances. Labour ministers struggled to adapt to the changes their policies were catalysing.
Ed Miliband, the son of immigrants, makes a useful contribution to the debate in his speech today in Tooting. Much will be made of his call for immigrants to learn English, especially those working in public-facing jobs, for example in the NHS. He’s right of course. Not knowing English is a surest way for a recent immigrant to remain in poverty, exclusion and segregation. Learning English is one step towards rich, full citizenship, as well as friendship and work opportunities. But this is nothing new. Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary in 2007, said that less money should be spent on translation services and more on English lessons. In December that year the prime minister Gordon Brown said that immigrants ‘should be able to speak the English language… should be able to understand and speak about British cultural traditions.’ In 2008, the communities secretary Hazel Blears said learning English must be ‘an absolute top priority’ for migrants to the UK. Ed Miliband is merely treading a well-trodden path.
More interesting are those sections of the speech which argue that immigration is a positive thing, good for our culture, society and economy. He says ‘we should celebrate multi-ethnic diverse Britain. We are stronger for it – and I love Britain for it.’ The positive impact of immigration is there for all to see. We are stronger, better, more vibrant as a nation because of immigration, and Ed Miliband is right to say so. What’s significant is that Ed was willing to start the conversation with the positives, in the knowledge his views will jar with many tens of thousands of people. He is also right to say Labour did too little to properly integrate new arrivals, and too little to tackle segregation in the provision of housing, schooling and work.
Britain would be a terrible place if its population size and ethnic mix had stuck in the 1940s. Its culture, cuisine, music, fashion, businesses and services would be as awful as they were when Clem Attlee was prime minister. Imagine a world where Peter Hitchens’ world-view was the norm. Imagine no chicken tikka masala. What a dreary monochrome country we would be.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.