Leading Article: Sometimes it's not easy being British

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The Independent Online
THE IRISH are perhaps the most famous dreamers of a return from foreign lands. But Afro-Caribbean music, and poetry, such as that of James Berry, also provide moving accounts of loss associated with living in a strange culture. That sense of dislocation is not necessarily resolved in a generation. The difficulties of being part of an ethnic minority remain a powerful stimulant to the romantic myth of return.

The philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin summed up the dilemma in a essay explaining why he was a Zionist: 'There must be somewhere, I felt, where Jews were not forced to be self-conscious - where they did not feel the need for total integration, for stressing their contribution to the native culture - where they simply could have normal unobserved lives.'

These are sentiments that will resonate for Muslim women wearied by stares when they walk along the street with their heads covered; for young Afro-Caribbean men who find themselves stereotyped as drug dealers and muggers; for Asians who suffer racial abuse; and for elderly immigrants nursing hopes of return. Bernie Grant, the Labour MP for Tottenham, this week highlighted Sir Isaiah's yearning for 'normal unobserved lives'. He suggested that black people should be given the option of state-assisted return to their countries of origin. He has created a fierce controversy. Anti-racist groups and party colleagues have been quick to condemn. Finding an ally in the Tory MP Winston Churchill is a measure of Mr Grant's political isolation. Many understandably fear that Mr Grant's comments will fan racist flames. The British National Party's victory in Tower Hamlets is a fresh memory; violent attacks on black and Asian people are rising; the fate of Bosnia's Muslims has chilled their co-religionists in Britain. Some would be happier just to keep quiet about such a controversial topic.

However Mr Grant deserves recognition for his courage in raising this tricky subject. As Linda Bellos notes in her letter on this page, it is a matter that has been much discussed among some members of ethnic minorities. It is a mark of black self-confidence that Mr Grant felt able to open the debate beyond the confines of those communities. Alongside recent discussion about black fatherhood, this shows that Afro- Carribeans are beginning to feel safe enough to look at their society in public.

That said, Mr Grant's recommendation is impractical and undeserving of state funds. Who would qualify? Surely not just non-whites? The list could be never-ending, the cost astronomical. The real value of Mr Grant's comments lies in reminding us that it is sometimes not easy to be British. When immigrants - and even some of their children - want to leave, the time may have come for a more general soul-searching.