Saturday, July 29, 2006

Counter-productive hysteria about immigration

It seems more middle-England hysteria is taking hold as yet more ideas circulate about cracking down on immigration. One of the most notable things about Britain is that dislike of multi-culturalism is closely linked to the likelihood that the person disliking it will never encounter it (see chart based on Mori attitude data and census data on black and minority ethnic share).

London stands apart from the rest of the country and it is a modern triumph of tolerance and multi-cultural energy. It has a completely different view of migration
(on average - see below), and its economy is powered is by highly productive, hard-working migrant labour. There are 34 communities of foreign nationals in London with more than 10,000 members, and at least a further 20 communities with more than 5,000 members.

Where there really is a problem is with alienated white working class that have been too long out of the labour market, wrongly blame migrants for their woes, and have adopted a 'culture of entitlement' with deepening welfare dependency. Resentment is fuelled by perceived and actual unfairness over allocation of affordable housing - and fanned by Far-Right activism. The excellent study: The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict gives sharp insights into racial conflict where it really matters (ie. not in the golf clubhouses of the Home Counties).


jade said...

Hmmm. I think there are also cultural clashes that get ignored because the people that come into contact with immigrants by and large don’t have the language to explain them in a way that doesn’t sound like a BNP leaflet.

For eg, I am heartily sick of EE migrants round our way thinking that it is acceptable to hassle me on the streets if I am alone. English men don’t do it, or if they do, they generally manage to do it in a humorous way. Also in the last 3 years the pavements up here have been covered in broken glass and beer cans, left by EE blokes having a beer on the way home from work. When I first moved in the streets were pretty clear, at least of booze detritus/large hissing men in sportswear. Now the dog cuts his feet quite regularly. Similar stories about people barging me out of the way in local shops, talking at a volume that I find slightly alarming, fighting in the street, covering the park in BBQ rubbish, sleeping in the park bushes obviously v drunk, EE waiters/waitresses never smiling. None of these things is a deal-breaker, but combined, I have to admit that it does my head in – and I have an anthropology masters so I can only imagine how much it pisses off the local indigenous population. My response has been to put in an offer on a house in Highbury and hold forth at dinner parties about interesting cultural differences. Not everyone has those outlets.

I agree with your economics, but I think that it needs to be understood that culture, as in shared values and all the bits of non-verbal communication that we use constantly to work out how to interact/coexist, are the things that make it possible to live in the sort of population densities that cities like London require. If we are going to make the melting pot work on a social as well as economic level we either have to have all of these little differences explained or take the Swedish approach and expect everyone, no matter what colour/religion to conform to a certain set of values/social rules: buy Ikea, recycle, don’t throw litter on the floor, no funny clothes unless they are tie-dye dungers.

There is some interesting socio-biological theory about the way that social animals create mental ‘maps’ of how each animal in the group is going to react to a given situation. But it means that if people have a totally different set of cultural values/language, even if they can do *really* cheap plumbing, it makes it hard to walk towards them on a dark street and feel totally comfortable.

One thing that struck me when I was in India at Christmas was how many UK-Indian families were over there visiting, and, interestingly, how horrified they were at what they perceived as the dirt/smell/noise/rudeness/social divisions and lust for tourist dollars compared with the UK (presumably they hadn’t every been a tourist in London!). But the point is that even in one generation they had taken on some very English values about quietness and hiding anything about money behind a veneer of disinterest/politeness. It seems to me that the prob isn’t migration but the speed of current migration in London and the lack of understanding/education about the cultural dimensions of population movements on the scale/speed that we are currently experiencing.

Spitting on the floor China-style turns my stomach, but the Chinese generally are utterly grossed out by the English habit of hankerchiefs.

I say this because it is v hard to talk with another person of your own culture about ‘different’ things that other cultures do without it seeming inherently negative - because you and I share the same taboos. Ie we are the products of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign and think litter A Bad Thing, but in some cultures there is no word for clean that applies to outside the home. So perhaps it is not that EE immigrants know that litter is A Bad Thing but have less moral fiber than me - rather to them it doesn’t seem to be terribly important.

Another interesting example - pregnant woman on the bus the other day, but no-one gave her a seat. There were Africans, EE's, turks, all sorts on that bus - all of whom would almost certainly have given up their seat had they been in their own country/community, but the woman was English I think, and there was no one English with a seat (assuming that they would have had a more empathetic approach to her and considered it at least), so she had to stand. I don’t think it was because people were horrible or racist - is about culture/community/empathy/responsibility for each other etc - but the result was that the poor woman stood there in the heat, nearly in tears.. am sure she benefited from cheap waitresses/builders, but it made her feel horrible and tho that is difficult to quantify, it should be important to policy makers.

The poorer you are, the more you rely on 'social capital' and if you look at what the home office considers the 4 or 5 main pillars of social capital - trust, shared values, shared lexicons, yada yada, they are all undermined, at least in the short term, by large scale cultural mixing.

None of this is an argument against immigration, but it is an argument for more than just economics to be considered when decisions are being made. Bring on the anthropologists..

Clive Bates said...

Hmmm... indeed! And that data in my post precedes the influx of East European migrants. However, consider the counterfactual - take all migrants out of London and it would be a pretty sorry place: most of its service industries would fail overnight and we'd be left with an army of miserable swaggering chavs, and I'm sure we'd not like the culture defined by that. Remember what arses Brits are when on tour internationally...

But your point about social capital is well taken... though we've had years of decline in that without big immigration effects - but maybe immigration makes the restoration of social capital that bit more pressing.

I'm pretty sure the balance of advantage is hugely in favour of the East European influx (but perhaps not in Stamford Hill) - they're pretty well self-selecting for having some sort of enterprising spirit simply be virtue of coming. One wonders what Poland is starting to feel like - abandoned like a crap English seaside town.

Having said that, there is definitely a danger of attracting globally mobile trash, who would rather be trash in London than trash in Katowice. And the more sinister manifestation of that is migrating criminals.

I don't buy the stuff about East European waitresses not smiling - it's a cultural thing, but from time in EE in 1995-7, I can vouch that the Poles and others from EE that I know can appear a bit morose but really are cheerful and decent underneath it all.

What's to be done? If we are going to go Euro-mobile but dislike anti-social behaviour, what about ASBOs that exclude the trouble-causers from the entire UK? Would an exclusion order establish a signal that presence here was in the form of a 'contract' - a right, but with reciprocal responsibilities, and a meaningful sanction if violated?