Miliband’s speech is welcome. Let us now focus on national symbols and ways to celebrate our changing yet shared identity
When the demographics and culture of a country like Britain are changing so rapidly, how do you maintain a sense of shared identity while dealing with the anxiety of its citizens? This is the issue Ed Miliband tried to grapple with today in his first speech on identity and diversity in Britain.
We are now getting a better of idea of what Labour would do in government. But this is the first time a Labour leader has grappled confidently with the issue of “cultural integration” and the importance of speaking English. The last time this was tried, by Gordon Brown, it was clumsy, epitomised by the phrase he used: “British jobs for British workers“. It blew up in his face.
Miliband will will no doubt be accused of xenophobia by some on the left and being woefully inadequate in his proposals by many on the right, but it is a speech that deserves to be taken seriously. He is unabashedly in favour of Britain’s cultural diversity. He rejects assimilation and says that people should be able to maintain their own culture while integrating into British society. Unlike previous leaders there’s no hectoring here, but a full-throated defence of diversity with some useful policy proposals. In fact Miliband uses his own background to make the case, recounting that his parents arrived here as Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. He was educated at a school where 50 different languages were spoken. And yet, he points out, Britain proved wrong “the doomsayers” Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell and Nick Griffin.
So far so good. But if Miliband really wants to reshape the country along that vision he needs to go much further. So far this is just tinkering around the edges. There can be no question that the ability to speak English is a necessary prerequisite to integration and nation-building. At the minimum we all need the ability to communicate with each other. Miliband makes it a central plank of his argument and points out that while the government talks tough on speaking English, it keeps cutting language classes for immigrants. But the lack of joined-up policy in Westminster didn’t originate with this government; New Labour until 2010 was just as bad.
A few years ago I made a documentary for the BBC Asian Network on the plight of women who come into the UK from south Asia as brides, and aren’t encouraged to learn English. The problem isn’t just that the women are then cut off from wider society, but that if they do face issues (health problems or domestic violence) – they don’t know how to get help. They get trapped. Learning English is as useful to new immigrants themselves as it is to wider society.
But more broadly it’s right to acknowledge that there is a degree of public anxiety about Britain’s cultural identity. By that I don’t mean to the kind of people who complain that the country is going to the dogs because some Asians have moved in down the road. Those kinds of racists will always exist and there is little point in pandering to them. Instead, I mean the kind of people who worry that they have nothing in common with their neighbours and cannot connect to them in any way through shared interests or cultural symbols. And I don’t just mean in that in relation to white people worrying about minorities: many of the complaints about integration come from second and third generation Asians who have seen immigrants from eastern Europe or Africa settle down next to them.
Cultural identity matters because people feel more comfortable knowing that even if their street is multiracial and multicultural, everyone feels like they belong to the same country and want what is right for its future. That feeling is hard to measure in statistics and charts.
Ed Miliband suggests solutions to problems in three areas: speaking English, housing and in workplace segregation. This is a good start. But even an unashamedly multicultural nation like Canada has an official policy of providing a “pathway to integration” to newly arrived immigrants. We need a focus on national symbols that define us and we need more ways to celebrate our changing yet shared identity.
It is instructive that Miliband chose to mention Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah as examples, but that highlights part of the problem. So far sport is the main way to celebrate this new Britishness. Almost every time I have seen an Asian or a black person embrace the British or English flag, it has been during a sporting event. From Mark Ramprakash and Linford Christie (who kicked this debate off years ago) to Kelly Holmes, Amir Khan and many others – our symbols of a changing British identity have always been sporting heroes. This humanises the progress, but the issue for Miliband is to find other ways we can celebrate this new Britishness. That requires more than just tinkering around the edges.