Once upon a time, British liberals were keen to be seen to be on the side of freedom struggles, equal rights, internationalism, social democracy and immigration. They joyously endorsed the inexorable re-shaping of class and other rigidities which, like a tight corset, had held together the country until the First World War. They appeared to love their rainbow nation and committed themselves to fighting the Little Englander mentality of Enoch Powell and later Margaret Thatcher and her gurus.
It was in 1978 that Thatcher said people of this country rightly felt "swamped" by too many "aliens" making demands on her country. It was the year my son was born and I never forgave her for those remarks and never shall. Left-of-centre liberals reacted with unequalled fury and we immigrants were given to understand that once they were in power, this nation would be ours too. At last.
They lied. They have turned out to be unreliable allies. And I don't just mean New Labour with its pernicious policies which destroy the hopes and lives of asylum seekers. With few exceptions, influential British liberals today have shown their true colours. Using their box of sophistry week after week, they explain why immigrants and diversity are eroding the best of Britain.
They seek white schools for their precious tots; they move into areas without too many "duskies"; they talk freely about how overcrowded the island has become. (Since they are barely reproducing, who else to blame but immigrants for this environmental and population disaster?) Sure, they still love fusion foods and Indian head massages and the feel of dark skin and forbidden sex, but oh God for the white Cliffs of Dover to be properly white again.
They have appropriated Thatcher's mean individualism and nationalism and have re-launched the products as brave new politics. The most audacious among them has got to be the editor of the increasingly reactionary Prospect magazine, David Goodhart who asks in the latest issue: "Are we too diverse?" J'accuse Goodhart and other British neo-cons of threatening the new Britain that many of us are creating together. How confusing and upsetting that today I find myself more comfortable with Stephen Norris than with people like Goodhart and the journalist John Lloyd with their dodgy misgivings.
Goodhart claims there is a "progressive dilemma" he shares with the Tory, David Willetts. The universal welfare state can only survive if the people who pay taxes believe recipients are people like themselves. As Goodhart puts it, "we are readier to share with and sacrifice for, those with whom we have shared histories and similar values". So I assume that if he were to see a small African child alone near his north London home, he would be less inclined to help than if she was as white as one of his daughters.
This, the latest of many reservations to emerge on immigration is based of course on the idea that immigrants are only ever recipients and not producers of wealth, an outrageous assumption. Last year The Economist said: "At a given moment migrants are generally net contributors to the public purse". America's National Research Council found that while first generation migrants imposed an average fiscal cost of $3,000 (£1,640), the second generation yielded an $80,000 gain.
As a tax payer for more than 28 years, I have no burning need to see my money spent only on brown skinned women on the dole. I believe my society is bonded not through race and class and ethnicity but mutuality which cuts through all those categorisations. All those immigrant nurses, doctors, social workers, care workers who give their all believe that too. It may well be that human beings still retain close ties with their own people and may even want to live near them. That doesn't bother me at all. But in the past 50 years vastly more people than was ever expected have crossed imaginary and real boundaries, and today mixed-race Britons are the fastest growing minority group in the country.
European anti-immigration fellows also worry incessantly about "assimilation". The Dutch have now decided they want to re-make a homogeneous country through social engineering because diversity is such a very bad thing. British neo-Cons are excited by this new assertiveness in a partner country.
But what do we assimilate into when British society itself is so fragmented and volatile? And is it only immigrants of colour who must pass this test? What about English immigrants in Spain and Italy? Should they assimilate too? Or is it a question of when in Rome do as the English do? And who do we blame when immigrants change themselves and integrate only to find that they will never be properly accepted?
Nobody said it was going to be easy. We all have a long road to travel before we can create a strong sense of a new collective identity and each step is a challenge. As I have said many times before, no group can be exempted; we must all buy into a civic citizenship which can hold us together and enable our diversity to become a real asset for the future. If we can create this - as Canada has - and remain positive about managed immigration, we will be competitive in the globalised world. If we don't we are defeated, economically and culturally. And we certainly won't deserve the right to stage the Olympics.
Then there is the question of prerogative. These arguments about the welfare state and assimilation are based on a particular view of entitlement. The welfare state could not exist without the wealth that was accrued by centuries of exploitation of people around the world and without all the work that was put in by immigrants. I have no interest in keeping alive historical guilt in this nation. But to erase any historical sense of obligation to the children of empire is surely a travesty.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, the demographic time bomb which awaits this country was once more discussed. A century back there were five people working for every retired person. Soon there will be one, and a large number of these will be the children of immigrants. Even President Bush, right-wing zealot that he is, understands the need for immigration and has granted amnesty to millions of illegal workers in his country. The republican think tank, the Cato Institute, says immigrants are "the lubricants" for the feisty US economy. In the UK, meanwhile, the Home Affairs Select Committee, showing stunning immaturity, has gone in the opposite direction, asking David Blunkett (who was beginning to talk sense on immigration) to retract the amnesty he granted to 50,000 asylum seekers.
We are tired of having to justify ourselves. We have never been given the acknowledgement or appreciation we deserve. We are always asked to be more grateful to this country. When does our country show its gratitude to us for all that we have done and continue to do? And I am furious that these liberals have now given xenophobes licence to malign us further.
I am so disgusted with this latest bout of contempt for immigrants that I think it is time to arrange a national strike. Let us have a National Day for Immigrants. Don't go to work; don't buy anything either. Lose a day's wages or profits and for 24 hours show this nation just what we do. Neo-Con liberals will not be welcome. We know who to trust now.Reuse content