Does Britain resent successful migrants?

Some of the entrepreneurs I interviewed have been in this country an absurdly short time
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The Independent Online

Both of the main political parties are in serious trouble in the polls and for different reasons. It is time for us immigrants to put on the hard hats and insert quality ear-plugs. We know what to expect from the party conferences.

Both of the main political parties are in serious trouble in the polls and for different reasons. It is time for us immigrants to put on the hard hats and insert quality ear-plugs. We know what to expect from the party conferences.

The one sure way that New Labour and the Conservatives can seduce back a cynical electorate is through punitive policies against immigrants and asylum-seekers. Watch as they display their muscles, as they brag and bray.Is Tony, son of Thatcher, more manly and callous on this issue, or is it that son of refugees, Michael? Tough-on-Immigration-and-Asylum speeches by Blair and Howard have launched this mission in the past fortnight and there is more and worse to come.

Remembering the "ethnic" vote, Tory and Labour politicians will sprinkle about some vanilla phrases on the wonders of our "multicultural society". Yet I know that Tory and New Labour election strategists are working out the most effective ways to promote theirs as the political party that will faithfully and ferociously do what it takes to limit the numbers of migrants and save the soul of this nation.

It was ever thus. This nation of shopkeepers has never had leaders who can educate the population out of this paranoia which destroys its own optimism and makes life so unwelcoming for incomers, especially incomers who are not reassuringly white. Even during the Second World War, a time of severe need, the Army Council in Britain wanted to restrict entry into the army, navy and air force to people of European descent. They joined up anyway, just as immigrants keep coming here in spite of abuse, suspicion and official obstacles. The Labour Party has often passed more draconian anti-immigration laws than the Tories who have to keep one eye on their business mates and their cheap-labour requirements.

On both the left and right you are getting a new polite Powellism which claims this country for its authentic and worthy inhabitants. Few of these "native" Britons mind much that white Australians, Zimbabweans and South Africans are sweeping in and taking their jobs, their women and the best houses. Ruby Wax or Peter Hain don't get letters daily telling them to f..k off or worse; I do, as do most other blacks and Asians in public life. This is not racist, I am told, but a "natural" cultural response to too much diversity.

But we, the immigrants, fight on, claiming our place and remaking our lives, which causes even more irritation and hostility. I am starting to think we are resented even more for what we do than for what we are. It is more prosophobia (fear of personal pro-gress) than xenophobia. In this so called capitalist paradise, there is a terrifying fear of the unknown trader, worker, innovator who could come in and make good. Maybe it is because so many Britons, including the children of immigrants, have grown complacent and indolent.

Oh, the rows I have had with my son over the years. He hasn't got an immigrant's work ethic, that force to succeed which cannot sleep. Of course he doesn't, he replies condescendingly. He's not me, a sad immigrant who never stops. He is a born Englishman. More's the pity.

This week I present a series, New Brit Business, on BBC Radio 4 in which I talk to five successful entrepreneurs who have been in this country for an absurdly short time, some still not speaking polished English. Nicky Santichatsak is one of them. She came here 12 years ago, a young woman from Thailand to upgrade her nursing qualifications. She became pregnant, had to abandon those plans and start again. So she cleaned houses and on Sundays made Thai food which she took to sell at markets miles away. Then she met an owner of a café in Chiswick, a truckers' café which closed at 3.30pm. She persuaded him to let her keep the place open for the evenings to sell Thai food. He took to her and agreed, and when he decided to sell up some of her customers lent her money to buy him out. She set up her first restaurant, called Fatboys because the café previously had served such big men. Today, she has eight restaurants and a delightful English husband, the television presenter Adrian Mills, one of her original customers.

The Amir brothers fled from Afghanistan when the mujahedin were at their most cruel. Quadrat was a qualified doctor; his family were landowners and middle class. Their escape story should be made into a film - the trials, the physical strain, the terror, the absolute dependence on "agents". Today, they run a car-sales garage in west London which is growing so fast they sound surprised as they tell you. The doctor gets tearful when he talks about the profession he had to give up, but otherwise they are full of plans and not washed over with incapacitating self-pity.

Every one of my interviewees told me that this country was not easy but that there were real opportunities that immigrants and refugees saw and seized. So affected was I by this series that, for the first time, I have stopped giving money to able-bodied people on London streets. This is a terrible confession for a bleeding-heart leftie and one resistant to capitalism.

But it does change you when you see Poles and Romanians, Iraqis and Ghanaians coming to this country and refusing to let life beat them down, in fact drawing iron will from their misfortune.

You see this energy and daring in the arts too. Rani Moorthy is an actress and writer performing in an astonishingly moving one-woman show, Curry Tales, at the Lyric, Hammersmith. I go to the theatre a lot; rarely if ever have I seen such talent or such intimate contact with the pulse of this nation. Yet she has been here only since 1996. Or read While There is Light, a novel by Tariq Mehmood, one of the Bradford 12, the activists falsely accused of plotting violent disturbance under Thatcherism. It was a miscarriage of justice as important as that suffered by the Guildford Four. Nuanced and textured, this novel helps you to understand Bradford Muslims and their duality. But it is also a testimony to the strength of an immigrant even in a city which is best known for riots and social problems.

It is curious that immigration, which has excited such debate in Britain has not much engaged the thoughts and passions of writers and philosophers. In six of the fattest collections of literary quotations there is not a single item on immigrants or immigration. Now that is partly due to the selection process. Professor Stuart Hall, Bhikhu Parekh, Caryl Phillips and others have written profoundly about the experience of being an immigrant. In these collections their views are of no value. For "native" Britons, the subject has not led to great creative surges, unlike the USA and Canada where the theme of migration has inspired some of the greatest 20th-century art and writing.

Addressing a convention in 2000, President George Bush castigated Republicans for their "nativist" attitudes towards immigrants and refugees. He said these prejudices went against free-market values and were an affront to the definition of America. How depressing that the cowboy President understands these things better than Blair and Howard.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's collection of writings 'Some of My Best Friends are...' is published by Methuen this month