What are the values we should hold to in tackling today's big policy question?
In the Book of Judges, the Gileadites isolated and massacred thousands of Ephraimites after they failed a simple linguistic test: to pronounce the word ‘Shibboleth’ properly. Today our shibboleths – the ways of speaking about an issue that distinguish us one from another – have multiplied as cultural cohesion is lost.
Much can be traced to the 1980s, when the theory of multiculturalism gained traction in US universities first, and then by osmosis in the UK. As the left lost power for a generation, it may be that it compensated for the absence of hard power by seeking to control the way language was used to define and interpret culture. In shorthand, we know this as political correctness, where certain words are PC and if we use others instead, we may become modern Ephraimites in the eyes of some, guilty of false and incriminating speech. There are many ways in which the re-definition of language has empowered minorities, with the decline of terms which demean and objectify individuals or groups, but there are also issues - as well as words - which we are careful in our pronouncement of, lest we be judged. One of these is immigration.
There are good reasons why public figures have been careful in how they speak about immigration, for it can easily fuel racism and discord within communities, especially given the legacy of slavery and deprivation which some ethnic groups have endured. The reluctance to address a sharp and relevant policy issue like immigration among mainstream politicians over a generation has allowed those at the ends of the political spectrum to take command of the debate and set its terms. Others have had to follow but are invariably a step or two behind the lead and can find themselves taken in uncomfortable directions.
This is an unprecedented era of immigration, not just in the UK but across the developed world, as a combination of the deregulation of the movement of labour and capital, a global economic downturn and a series of wars have led to more people wanting to live in better conditions. Meanwhile, those who wish to protect national identity and welfare are jumpy about these new flows.
David Goodhart has become one of Britain’s most eloquent commentators on immigration and his thinking is found in The British Dream: successes and failures of post-war immigration (Atlantic Books, 2014). As former editor of the impeccably liberal political journal Prospect and current Director of the left-leaning think tank Demos, Goodhart’s determination to spark an intelligent and reasoned debate over both the limits of manageable immigration and the duties of cultural integration should have gained widespread approval. In fact it did not, as a number took against his tone and expectations of people wishing to come and live in the UK. The nadir came when the Hay-on-Wye literary festival declined to invite him to discuss the book. Two years on from this, as the nation heads towards another General Election in 2015 where immigration will be a centrepiece, there are good grounds for mainstream politicians and voters to hold a grown-up conversation where slogans like ‘fascist’ and ‘easy touch’ are abandoned
The Conservative policy maestro, David Willetts, uses the term ‘progressive dilemma’ to describe the parameters of the debate. In other words: how do we reconcile the two cherished principles of social solidarity on the one hand and an increasing diversity of values and ways of life on the other? To cohere as a nation and to be content with the distribution of welfare, there needs to be a sense that we recognise and embrace others as one of us. Yet the ethos of multiculturalism has allowed different communities over the years to develop and remain more separate than is wise.
There are also greater differences in values among the indigenous population of the UK as we lose a sense of our national story. A common narrative was preserved and enriched by the institutions which we cherish, but these bodies – Parliament, the press, the police, health and social services, the Church – among others – are not trusted anymore; in fact it has become an essential of debate to denigrate them.
These questions will grow sharper still. Mercifully our public life is largely free of the kind of extremism that can be found in some corners of continental Europe, where racism and especially antisemitism are finding fertile ground, but there is much complacency.
Many modern immigrants have come from countries which nominally or seriously adhere to Christianity and its inherent values, which should help the Church to continue to shape the public debate in a way that does justice to the character of God. This includes a love for the stranger and a commitment by the stranger to the duties as well as the rights of citizenship.
As with all public policy issues, practical answers are complex, piecemeal and always dissatisfy some. If the rhetoric that informs policymaking adheres to the Christian duty to ‘speak the truth in love’, it would help to create a space in which some of these questions might be calmly and clear-sightedly addressed.
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