Thursday, 20 December 2012

Living in the Ghetto

The news that an immigrant is going to receive over £2,600 in housing benefits a week has elicited little media comment beyond wry sympathy at his inability to relocate his family to the more select parts of London. Despite the real estate challenge, Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England, will have little difficulty acclimatising to a city dominated by the global executive elite, and as an English-speaking Canadian he is already as integrated as you can be short of being born and bred in Midsomer.

For those without Carney's advantages, Ed Milliband recently proposed that steps should be taken to ensure that every Briton speaks English. This is an orthodox progressive position, arguing that integration, and therefore the life chances of immigrants themselves, would be helped by actively developing language skills. It's a win-win. In fact, it's an example of passive-aggressive intolerance. Exactly the same argument was once deployed against the public use of Welsh and Gaelic. It also gives quiet encouragement to natives who don't like the gabble of foreign tongues, but without pandering to overt racism. But the real motivation for this intervention has less to do with intolerance or prejudice, which I'm sure Milliband is largely free of, and more to do with economic utility. His plea also implies the neoliberal belief that the state should take measures to better train workers for the benefit of capital. Suggesting that immigrants should speak English is anodyne because no one is suggesting that they shouldn't, least of all immigrants themselves. You might as well advocate breathing.

Jackie Ashley supported Milliband's initiative and even broadened it to talk about the undesirability of ghettoes, that is places where English may not be spoken routinely: "But ghetto communities are always bad news. They increase suspicion on both sides. They gnaw away at common citizenship. If we've learned one thing from the politics of the last century in Europe, surely it's that". This is bad history. Ashley's implied reference is to the Jewish ghettoes of Eastern Europe, with their long experience of pogroms and legalised discrimination. But that is simply not a relevant parallel for Britain. Our ghettoes have been built by economic circumstance, both in terms of available housing and the proximity of work, not by walls and curfews. Imagine if she had claimed that the traditional Irish Catholic areas of Glasgow and Liverpool were "always bad news". This anti-ghetto rhetoric, this intolerance, is sadly reminiscent of New Labour's appallingly stupid policy of dispersing asylum seekers around the country in the early 00s.

In the modern world, ghettoes (as distinct from the housing of the poor) are essentially transient communities providing induction support and access to social and economic networks, not unlike a global corporation's relocation function. Every Polish shop is a mini-job centre and a mini-Citizen's Advice Bureau. The ghetto functions as a decompression chamber, where immigrants can be acclimatised in a hybrid milieu, like fish and chip shops on the Costa del Sol using olive oil instead of lard. Once they find their feet, they push on into the interior in waves of further and deeper integration, like the Jews of Whitechapel moving out to Gants Hill and Golders Green. In ending up in Hampstead, rather than Peckham, Ed Milliband's parents were following a well-trodden path to a particularly genteel ghetto. Of course, we don't tend to classify an area as a ghetto (other than ironically) unless there is visible poverty, or at least lots of fried chicken shops.

Ghettoes are overwhelmingly successful in their job. They do not trap people. The point about the "escape the ghetto" trope is that escape is routine. Consider how Italian-Americans migrated from the Lower East Side of New York, out to New Jersey and Connecticut, leaving "the old neighbourhood" to more recent immigrants from elsewhere. It is ghettoes, and not government diktats about language skills, that are the chief facilitators of integration. But government tends to be suspicious of them, largely because they are autonomous, and is impatient for their dissolution: don't stand out, blend in and be quick about it. Today's planning battles over mosques echo earlier conflicts over synagogues and Catholic churches. Milliband didn't use the G-word, but the negative connotations are implicit in his comments about "slum housing" and "segregated workplaces". Instead, he drew a contrast between assimilation (bad because you lose your cultural identity) and separation (bad because you retain it). Integration is the happy medium where the immigrant can operate like a true Brit (in public) while retaining the solace of her cultural heritage (in private). Diversity then becomes a set of sentimental commodities, to be put on and taken off like your football team's colours.

What is rarely acknowledged by politicians is that the specifics of integration, the "points of non-negotiable conformity", are almost wholly to do with economic utility rather than culture. This reveals the too-often elided truth that immigration policy is deliberate and well-planned, not the series of mistakes and bungles that the press paint it as. Tories berating the incompetence of the Border Agency, like Labour confessing that "we got it wrong", are both simple misdirections. All parties are quite open in their insistence on an immigration policy that facilitates the importation of skilled workers at the request of business, while simultaneously pandering to tabloid prejudices about benefit tourists and hate-preachers. Immigrants are neatly divided into good (Mark Carney) and bad (Abu Qatada). It is naive to believe that had the Tories been in power during the 00s, the influx of cheap Eastern European workers would not have occurred. It was what business wanted at the time, which is why it happened.

Insisting on a proficiency in English is an argument about the economic value of the individual, not a plea for more community singing. The reality is that the vast majority of immigrants are only too keen to learn or improve their English because they anticipate the economic benefits. It is a myth that immigrants come here determined not to learn the language. After all, an ability to read and write English would be most helpful for a career in benefit fraud. Perhaps Milliband should worry less about immigrants who can't speak English and more about an immigrant who appears to think the bankers' gravy-train is still running.

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