Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Scapegoats for society's many faults

Gillian Duffy was indeed bigoted, because she lumped eastern Europeans into one big moan and because in her area there is no major "influx" of our fellow EU citizens

I am not a recovering immigrant. I seek no cure, am not on a 10-point plan to rewire my brain so I can emerge from this affliction to join the rest of the adult population, The People, who, we are told, are all "very concerned about immigration". I am not alarmed about myself and the threat I pose to this small, feisty country. Nor do I worry that I (a Muslim) had babies and have therefore imperilled my adopted country. Mothers born abroad are having more babies than those with long roots in this land; many of them believe in Allah instead of Christ or Richard Dawkins or Simon Cowell. Sorry, no guilt, no apology for being here, for daring to reproduce; and no kowtowing to those who become instant celebs by displaying naked hostility to "foreigners".

There are some obliging immigrants – Jewish, Muslims, Asian, African, Caribbean – who join in the chorus of anti-immigrant denunciation. Expediency and cunning are in the toolkits of all wayfarers. Sometimes when ruminating on all that I lost and found, I visualise the ermine endorsement and other gifts that might have come my way had I turned on immigrants and betrayed that cause. And being human, yes, there have been flickers of regret. But not now, not as the day of reckoning approaches and throngs go mental over immigration and use the issue as a lethal weapon to disable politicians and commentators.

Whenever I defend migrants, abuse is thrown at me, thick and reeking, like the sick of many drunks. "Paki bitch", "bloody black", "fucking asylum seeker", "Muslim cunt": I have no right to speak up, to think I am an equal, to live here, to vote, to have the job I do... This election the drunkenness is significantly worse than previously, partly because xenophobes now get such terrific understanding and encouragements; have such power.

Ever since Shakespeare's day, those who came from abroad found acceptance hard. But they always had champions and decency eventually prevailed. When William of Orange wanted to grant naturalisation to Huguenot émigrés, MP Sir John Knight said in a published speech: "let us first kick the bill out of the House, then the foreigners out of the kingdom". There was an anti-Huguenot mood about but the Commons ordered the speech to be burnt. Who dares do that today?

Millions of Britons of all backgrounds are deeply disturbed by the wholesale impugning of incomers whom one is not allowed to defend. One must not question their detractors either. The first big lie is that people cannot object to immigrants for fear of PC. That is all we are permitted. Break that imposed consensus and you pay for it.

Banned too are any suggestions that some anti-immigrant views are racist. Where is the social research evidence that these are uncoupled? Gillian Duffy was indeed bigoted (not a bigot – nobody should be wholly defined by any one set of attitudes) because she lumped Eastern Europeans into one big moan and because in her area there is no major "influx" of our fellow EU citizens. They were used symbolically for deeper indigenous worries – that in Rochdale, in 10 years one in five will be from the "ethnic minorities", and the place changing its old character. Duffy doesn't like that and she has every right to say so. But we too have the right to object to her xenophobic ideas of who may belong.

These days previously internationalist commentators seem to have shrunk into small islanders. Ian Jack, acclaimed editor and writer, accuses the media and politicians of neglecting the feelings of those like Duffy and fuelling support for the BNP. Outlandishly fallacious and dangerous nonsense. All must be seen to be down on migrants to win. He also admits his "own fears" and goes on a binge about memory and national character. Jack was once married to an immigrant – a childhood friend of mine. He lived happily for years in India. But that's OK Jack. As Julie Hilling, Labour candidate for Bolton West (Duffy's constituency), reminds us, Britons expect to go where they want to live or work, to transform their adopted countries, but hate others doing the same.

I will not deny the very serious challenges when the rapid arrival of EU migrants stretches services. Housing, schooling, and social care are under pressure and more resources are needed to stop the localities from imploding.

Indisputable too is the lack of social and neighbourly cohesion in some areas where white racism and organised Muslim separatism makes common purpose impossible. Some "ethnic" groups are disproportionately involved in certain crimes and disorderly activities. An Institute for Public Policy Research report published this spring rightly states that the focus needs to be on integration policies for all citizens and the development of resilient, multi-racial communities, which we do have in vast parts of our country. Time also to remind people (abject though that feels) that without migrants the economy will not recover, care and medical services will fail to meet needs, and science and culture too will stultify.

The same hysteria is rising in parts of the US. Yet there the counterforce is strong. In Arizona and Philadelphia, there is a new movement to protect and speak for migrants. The clothes firm American Apparel has mounted a poster campaign to legalise foreign workers; churches have education workshops and barbeques in parks welcome migrant families. Here, through weeks of electioneering, churches stayed silent, good people were too scared to come out, and now it is too late.

Final thoughts to share. We, who made our lives here, have been humiliated by this election and a number have been panicked too. Two Bosnian acquaintances have recently had their flat torched in south London. They know all too well what happens when the media and politicians lose their moral compass and play to prejudices. Muslims and Christians in that country were the same race, had the same values and lives. Ethnic protectionism was stoked up based on ideas of homelands, and memory and hell arrived. Beware of the whipped up surge against immigrants in Britain. You don't know where that can lead to.


For further reading : 'Exploring the roots of BNP support', IPPR (April 2010); 'Bloody Foreigner's', Robert Winder (2004)