Saturday, May 28, 2011

A place for philosophy in UK's immigration policy

The world famous Notting Hill Carnival. One reason for starting it, among others, was to respond to the race riots.
I was tempted to put an old college assignment in a Royal Mail post box a few weeks ago addressed to David Cameron, the British Prime Minister.

While pursuing a Master’s degree, I had written a prescriptive policy paper addressed to him, keeping in mind his personal and Conservative party politics, on the subject of immigration and its impact on UK’s race relations. When I read his entire April speech on immigration, I wanted him to answer a question I had raised then – What is the philosophical underpinning of UK’s immigration policy?

You might think this is flaky but it is not. And the reason this question is important is because immigration is generally discussed as a “problem” and as something to be “tackled” despite centuries of immigration to the UK (albeit largely White till the 20th century). So with a history of immigration that you could argue dates back to the Romans, I find it odd that Britain doesn’t have a more positive narrative and an underpinning for this superb diversity.

“Multicultural Britain” is tossed around all the time but having studied last century’s immigration policies and laws, it seems that Britain sort of ended up becoming multicultural rather than actively trying to be diverse. In the early 1920s and 30s when most nations were closing their borders during the economic depression, Britain promoted the free movement of people within the Commonwealth. But this was primarily a way of pursuing foreign policy goals by improving links with the colonies.

The process of decolonization did not result in an immediate change in policy either as Britain continued to see itself as a “mother country.” The open door brought the first big wave of post-war immigrants in the 1940s and 50s from places that Britain had once ruled over in Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia and the first Nationality Act in 1948 expressed this expansive policy with no controls over entry from former colonies.

But in 1958 Britain witnessed its first widespread race riots in Notting Hill in London and immigration laws since then have been designed to ensure that it becomes harder and harder for Blacks and Asians in particular to settle in the UK. That’s the blunt truth of the matter… but I digress.

The question then is that since the end of the British empire, what has replaced ‘Civis Britannicus Sum’ (to be a British citizen)? Immigration cuts to the heart of national identity and citizenship but I can’t find any answers to what it means to be British. What is the equivalent of the American salad bowl?

New Labour attempted to tackle this issue in a 2002 white paper titled ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain’ saying “British citizenship encompasses a variety of different models of belonging to the political community. Common citizenship is not about cultural uniformity, nor is it born out of some narrow and out-dated view of what it means to be British.” Nice words but so much of New Labour’s actions and statements undercut this.

And now David Cameron pulled out the oldest trick in the book before the local elections in Britain by saying he wants “good” immigration and not “mass” immigration – whatever that means. Fine, go ahead and try to squeeze the immigration balloon from all sides. But to a recent immigrant like me it speaks of the same sort of pathetic lack of vision in finding a deeper, wider meaning for a rich immigrant history.

So much of what we think of as quintessentially British has immigrant roots – Marks & Spencers, Tesco, Dorris Lessing, T.S.Eliot etc. It is a great joy to live in a city where I can spend a Saturday evening eating at a Georgian restaurant with an American and Turkish friend who leave their child in the care of a Colombian nanny. Surely Britain can come up with a grander narrative rather than this seasonal bashing of immigrants.