channel migrants

English Channel migrants come in search of community and belonging

Earlier this week, I found within the BBC treasure trove of the Alistair Cooke archive a 1992 edition in which he explored the vexed question of immigration and the relevance of a common language; specifically, how the USA was responding to the decision of President Bush to increase the quotas for lawful immigration, and how this was opposed at the time. The Democrat leader of the Senate, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, spoke of his difficulty engaging with immigrants who did not speak English, bemoaning the fact that “They’re all over the place“. The USA Is a large country, yet fears of being overwhelmed persist even among a nation of immigrants.

We met Sen Byrd in my last post: he had been the Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, but that had not inhibited his rise within the Democratic Party. He continued to serve into the time of Bill Clinton, and had an accident befallen the President and Vice-President Al Gore, then as ‘President Pro Tempore‘ Byrd would have succeeded to the Presidency, which might come as a shock to many of today’s US High School students currently hooked on the idea of the historic taint of institutions.

Alistair Cooke explains that there were misgivings wider afield. America’s black population had worries about the pressure on jobs, housing and political influence; the early Green movement raised concerns about the effects of population growth upon the environment, and Democrat Senator Eugene McCarthy, still possibly the most liberal candidate ever to run for the Presidency, raised historic concerns about how one creates a truly United States of America ‘E Pluribus Unum’. He was concerned about people who were what Theodore Roosevelt called “hyphenated Americans”. He did not mention the Tower of Babel, but Christians will appreciate the problems implied by that single reference.

It is useful to hear these ideas explored so well in this historical context. It teaches us that there are legitimate questions within the immigration debate which have nothing whatsoever to do with your or my prejudices or unconscious bias. Some questions have always been there, and they re-emerge in various contexts whether we like them or not, because they matter. How do we make one cohesive people out of what we now call ‘diversity’, especially when there are potentially multiple factors of estrangement from the majority community?

There are various factors in play; some historic, some more modern. Many years ago I read an interesting legal judgment in which, for some obscure reason, a judge in an employment law case had to consider the issue of identity, and set out within his judgment how people might ‘belong’ to a country or community. I regret I do not recall the case name, but the ideas stuck, so here, roughly, are the propositions he advanced.

A common language is important: often cohesive countries share a tribal background, and a common religion is frequently the basis for a people coming together. There will be common customs, interests and attitudes. Most interesting, was the Judge’s acknowledgement that one need not have each and every characteristic to belong, but plainly if one had none, it would made it very difficult for an outsider to join the group. Crucial for the success of integration was a willingness on the part of the newcomer to join in with the dominant culture in significant ways, and a willingness of that dominant culture to accept the newcomer on that premise.

I think I would add to his analysis that there might often be a totemic idea that defines the country. In the UK it is the Monarchy, in France the Revolution, in the US it is the Flag, and in Israel it is the idea of the Jewish homeland. It is notable that countries which have this cohesion around a common identity seem to be more successful, more comfortable in their historic skins than those without. Some countries which were artificially constructed by hurried decolonisation seem to have particular difficulty in cohering, and Iraq is an obvious example.

Unpopular though it may be in some political and religious quarters, the idea of a national ‘us’ seems to matter to ordinary folk, and they don’t much like that idea being ignored. It is that sense of a core identity being denied by soi-disant intellectuals that causes so much resentment among ordinary people. It is at the heart of current tensions in both the USA and the UK, and it is probably not primarily about race, as the Marxists of BLM would have us believe.

In the USA there is an ironic mini-tension against Californian Democrats fleeing their state which has been politically pioneering an open door approach to illegal immigration, and is now encountering difficulties in the public space. Once there was resentment towards others migrating to the Golden State, but that is being reciprocated today as middle class Californians move to the economically entrepreneurial states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Utah. Those states create a disproportionate number of America’s new jobs. Yet what these host communities fear from the newcomers is not their race or religion, but that the incomers will continue to vote for the same kind of policies that ruined the governance of the state they are leaving.

That is a useful illustration of migration within the same country, but it surely echoes the worry of many in the UK watching the flow of migrant boats crossing the Channel and being facilitated – for understandable humanitarian reasons – by a British Conservative government which had been elected on a pledge to “take back control” of immigration. So two anxieties are problematic here: are these newcomers minded to key into core British values, and what happened to politicians keeping their promises?

Now, all this is happening at a time of great anxiety about public health and the economy. This is not the happiest timing for a debate about immigration and social cohesion, permitting political opportunists like BLM to divide us. One of the reasons so many people seek to come to the UK is precisely because of our culture of social stability; traditional enough to have a grounded identity, confident enough to evolve, but this must be at the pace of the people, taking account of the conditions of the times.

Ordinary people fear becoming what Cooke describes as “the colony of everywhere”, with fragmentation of society and uncohesive ghettoisation. It is not helped by news of many young men being unable to take work, and so further estranged from the host culture. How will they react to a land that does not allow them to realise their dreams?

These are legitimate questions and concerns, and looking back into history, as Alistair Cooke’s broadcasts allow us to do, takes us out of ourselves and permits the exploration of relevant ideas with a certain necessary detachment.

Much anxiety over migration will prove unnecessary or unfounded. I recall controversies in the UK over whether Sikhs should be exempted from wearing motorcycle helmets. In my home town you never see a Sikh riding a motorcycle – you are much more likely to see one driving a Bentley. The Sikhs have become become a well accepted and integrated community: they are to be seen running businesses, running councils, teaching, nursing, doctoring, and competing local sports leagues. They will support England when it comes football, but India when it comes to cricket, which everyone seems to think a fair compromise.

Yet on the Kent coast we have a steady, unregulated flow of unknown arrivals, and people are worrying. Will this prove to be a happy replication of past waves of immigration? Only time will tell, but one thing can be said with some confidence: the UK has an enviable record of race relations, diversity, integration and social cohesion. When the election of Brexit Party MEPs doubled the BAME representation in the European Parliament; when ethnic minority groups are healthily represented in all sections of the arts and media; and when the next London Mayoral election will be contested between the black Conservative Shaun Bailey and Labour’s Muslim incumbent Sadiq Khan, of British-Pakistani heritage, things are nowhere near as fractious and divided as the BLM Marxists would have us believe.