Must I vote Tory to champion immigration?

It now appears Tories will be voting against Labour plans to remove the right of appeal from asylum-seekers
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The Independent Online

What a week this was. We witnessed the first British citizenship ceremony - an excellent idea, though I could never swear loyalty to the Queen and Her family. But that is a quibble. At long last, in ritual at least, we are making recent immigrants feel this is their country and putting before them a clear social contract.

What a week this was. We witnessed the first British citizenship ceremony - an excellent idea, though I could never swear loyalty to the Queen and Her family. But that is a quibble. At long last, in ritual at least, we are making recent immigrants feel this is their country and putting before them a clear social contract.

These new British citizens agree to live by the principles of social democracy. The state, in turn, I assume, will ensure their safety and promote equality of treatment and fair opportunities so they can grow healthy roots into the soil of this country and add to the ever-changing landscape. The recipients looked ecstatic. They appeared not to realise what an overwrought time and place they are coming into.

In truth I no longer know what kind of Britain I am living in either. It is all too bewildering. Traditional ideological maps are now obsolete. My old enemy Michael Howard sacked Ann Winterton, the Conservative MP for Congleton, for making an obscene, racist joke and now, it appears, Tories will be voting against New Labour's plans to remove the right of appeal from asylum-seekers.

Meanwhile, many key names on the left have been propagating views on immigration which are emphatically on the side of small Englanders such as the Daily Mail's Peter Hitchins, who wants the old Empire back, please. Indeed the always-polite Mr Hitchins profusely thanked the new deliverer, Prospect magazine's editor, David Goodhart, for a searing essay arguing that too much diversity threatened the welfare state and tried his own patience. The Observer endorsed Goodhart and gave him a column to convert the unconvinced. The Guardian gave him another column, and then two full pages. Immigration has once more become a volatile subject, one of the three most contentious issues which are breaking up the nation. (The other two are Iraq and "the war on terror".) The clashes go way beyond the numbers game into every aspect of state policy, including the economy, social cohesion, patriotism, civil rights, workers rights, globalisation, diplomacy, war, the EU, gender equality, democracy, ethnicity and race, party politics, the media, national identity, demographics, history, education ... I could go on.

In the 31 years and eight months that I have been here, fighting for the right to be a true Brit, I have never known such chaos and confusion. This is as serious as it gets for immigrants, the descendants of immigrants and the indigenous Britons who have struggled with us against the mean streak that has always been present in this country and which is easily aroused by anti-immigration populists. Or populist intellectuals.

These intellectuals say they want a robust debate, but they haven't the stomach. As soon as we rebut them, and point out the flaws and prejudices which underpin their critiques they burst into victimhood and claim they are being misrepresented or tarnished with accusations of racism. They are not racists, not in the way of a small and vanishing number of Britons. They don't want us to die in gas chambers or to be expatriated. They would not mind their sons and daughters marrying out and they love the writer Zadie Smith and actor Art Malik.

As Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, notes, the genteel and learned can have exclusionary attitudes based on views of themselves, the country and its identity that are entirely in line with the old right's idea of kith and kin. Some of their best friends are not black, and never will be. Their use of "we" does not include me, but does, I presume, include economic migrants from Australia. They have no objections to the army of US citizens in Britain. Their discomfort is aroused by Mr Patel in the corner shop but not Mr Starbuck. In the furore of the past fortnight, not one non-white Briton has defended the Goodhart thesis.

What about double standards, these nationalistic Britons believe that "we" have the right to set up home and live where we wish - Spain, Italy or Bangalore (where they have very good services for old people). These brave new thinkers frequently whinge that they are being "silenced" by the Politically Correct. Yet Goodhart, Anthony Browne (an anti-immigration hawk who was awarded a prize by Prospect for his ideas), the academics Bob Rowthorn and Paul Ormerod (who reject the immigration solution to the demographic crisis) or Robert Putnam (who says diversity causes social fragmentation) can hardly complain they are not free to sell their ideas. They are everywhere - and I have debated vigorously against them at conferences.

It is vital that we, in the opposition, take on their theories. First, the welfare state. Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby of the University of Kent says: "All survey evidence indicates as societies become more diverse support for public spending grows." Most human beings are not that misanthropic, thank God. Without doctors of South Asian background (making 27 per cent of the total) or black and Filipino nurses there would be no NHS today. Social work, teaching, transport, are just as dependent on the people who are still debated about as though they are only receivers of welfare.

The energy in our nation comes not from the sleepy, homogenous villages of Suffolk (sweet though they are) but our messy, multifarious cities. Professor Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University has written persuasively on the creativity of diverse cities, the engines, as always, of dynamic societies. Remember too, under Apartheid, society was very stable, and communities very close.

Finally, the "national identity" which brainy retros are fetishising. Does our national behaviour now include due care in the telling of "ethnic" jokes? Apparently so. Has it been changed by the 24-hour corner shop into a 24-hour culture? Obviously. With mixed-race relationships at record levels, is the very DNA of Blighty changing more than before? Yes.

When there is loose talk about British values, history and culture what exactly do we mean? I do hope we mean Shakespeare and democracy and not duplicitous prime ministers and horrendous levels of domestic violence and teenage promiscuity. May we include the artist Anish Kapoor and the vibrant talent of British Jewry? Had we not moved to this small island, we black and Asian Britons might never have known a Hanif Kureshi or Rageh Omaar or indeed EastEnders. What a joy it was to read a recent report by English Heritage and to see ourselves reflected as an intrinsic part of our nation. This never happened before; it is happening now because it must.

This is why this new leftie chauvinism is so outrageous. Theirs is a sinister invitation to liberals to abandon the nation we have jointly created. Some, not all, in New Labour find the ideas very attractive. The good news is that flying past their ears are yesterday's conservatives, eager to catch up with modernity and its values. The clever, young deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Matthew D'Ancona, wrote in a recent pamphlet, Reclaiming Britishness: "Societies that close themselves from other cultures will wither. Those that don't won't. [Diversity] is not a threat to nationhood, but in modern times, the very essence of nationhood."

Oh dear, oh dear. Does this mean I will have to vote Tory next time?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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