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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 April, 2004, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Immigration debate
Birmingham Central Mosque
As the debate about immigration rumbles on, maybe we should remind ourselves that the British - most of us at any rate - have roots somewhere else.

The seas around these islands which appear to cut us off - have in fact helped waves of people arrive on our shores - Romans, Celts, Vikings, German tribes, Normans, Huguenots, Jews, plus the more recent arrivals from the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

But how far should newcomers be integrated? And how far should they be encouraged to keep their own distinctive cultures?

Stephanie Flanders reported on a dilemma which is particularly acute now for the government and those politically on the Left.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
This is what immigration looks like when the Home Office doesn't screw things up. Or at least this is what it looks like this week in East Riding. Aicha Jellas-Purvis is the first on her block to get a swearing in service.

AICHA JELLAS-PURVIS:
I, Aicha Jellas-Purvis, swear by almighty God, that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
It's not very cool Britannia or Labour for that matter. Possibly the Government had something more contemporary in mind when they decided to make them compulsory. But striking the right balance on matters of immigration does seem to be something the Government finds hard to do.

CEREMONY OFFICIAL:
We welcome you on behalf of the Queen, the Government, Parliament, East Riding of Yorkshire Council and the people of the United Kingdom to British citizenship.

AICHA JELLAS-PURVIS:
Thank you.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
Places like Beverley aren't really the problem. The chances of seeing a non-white face here are about 100 to one. Aicha's neighbours don't write to MPs about her scrounging on benefits.

AICHA JELLAS-PURVIS:
I invite them for a meal and it was the first time I make Yorkshire pudding. It was lovely. I said to my husband, "I already feel British. I already make Yorkshire pudding."

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
We decided to get together a group of people broadly on the left to talk about why the Government's been tying itself into knots over immigration and to spice things up we invited a heretic. David Goodhart wrote a long piece earlier in the year arguing that lefties should worry more about the impact of rising immigration on the welfare state. He said the more different we are from each other, the less we might want to pay into a system that helps others who are not like ourselves. It caused a huge fuss amongst those who said his piece was a version of Enoch Powell. Mass immigration on the scale that is currently taking place is going to be a problem for maintaining social cohesion because it won't be able to be managed as previous immigration has been managed. Is it right to say there are tensions introduced by that?

PAUL ORMEROD:
(AUTHOR, 'THE DEATH OF ECONOMICS')

There are tensions because we're seeing unprecedented numbers. We've seen at least, even official figures, something like two million per decade. Most of these people compete at the bottom level of the labour market. We can accommodate 10,000 people who have different lifestyles. Two million can't.

MUNIRA MIRZA:
(UNIVERSITY OF KENT)

Minorities are integrated very well at the moment. They're very happy in London. All the panic about black and Asian people not settling in is not true. They are by and large doing that. There's no confidence in the idea we could have solidarity today. That's why everyone stresses diversity and people's differences. We're asking these immigrants come in and pledge allegiance to the Queen, could you ask British citizens to do that? How many people here could sing the national anthem. This is a home grown problem.

DAVID GOODHART:
(EDITOR, PROSPECT)

It's about majority in a sense it isn't about minorities, it's about majority reassurance. The issue of race and asylum and immigration has gone from nowhere. We thought we had solved that problem in the 80s and 90s and now it's the second most important issue.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
What kind of reassurance does a Labour Government want to offer? It's a difficult issue for the left.

MICHAEL EBODA:
(EDITOR, NEW NATION)

There's also the issue of who they are trying to reassure. Is it people of the age of the people around this table? If you talk to younger people, they really do not have a problem with it. You cannot tell me that you could tell the difference between a young black kid and white kid on the streets of London today. They all speak exactly the same. Their slang is the same. They listen to the same music. They have their own words, which none of us would understand, but they all understand them. They are the future of this. You've got to really ask yourself, are we talking about our own fears here?

PAUL ORMEROD:
There's been a lot of integration. But the reassurance of the majority, it comes back to a question of numbers. We're talking about several hundred thousand a year. And people want reassurance that their jobs aren't going to disappear. Their wages aren't going to be driven down. That's what people want.

MICHAEL EBODA:
I don't understand why immigrants are always seen in a negative light. These are people who when they come here, they don't come here to be poor. They've done poor. They don't like it. They come here because they want to improve themselves. By and large, what tends to happen is they do improve themselves. Most immigrants are not a drain on the state.

BILLY BRAGG:
(SONGWRITER AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST)

Every now and then someone comes up with a reason why the welfare state isn't going to be viable any more. When you have a welfare state there will always be people who abuse it. But that's no reason for closing it down. This is an interesting thing you said in the article; "People who consistently break the rules of civilised behaviour should not receive unconditional benefits." What has that got to do with immigration? Nothing at all, absolutely. It is nothing to do with immigration.

DAVID GOODHART:
It is to do with immigration, go back and read it in its context.

BILLY BRAGG:
I did.

DAVID GOODHART:
I'm talking about everybody, white people too. There has been so much misreading of my article.

BILLY BRAGG:
Why should you worry about immigration though?

MUNIRA MIRZA:
Let's engage with David's point though. He made a very important point. We have a problem, we don't have any shared values. There's no idea about what British society should be for.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
Now as it happens, down the road from Aicha, the Government's got them thinking about that as well. Yesterday the academic who helped get the Home Office into the swearing in business complained about shelving plans to make new immigrants take citizenship courses or prove they could speak the language. Maybe home grown citizenship is the right place to start.

MIKE DAVIDSON:
(PUPIL)

People don't think British means anything. It's a title. You can't say British means that you're white, because it doesn't.

MICHAEL LIKUPE:
(PUPIL)

British almost entails a sort of wealth. You almost associate good quality living with British.

ADAM PAFFLEY:
(PUPIL)

If we as British citizens don't feel particularly British, then how are the people who are not British meant to feel like that?

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
Back with the poppadoms, the answer isn't clear. In a week when even the head of the Government's Commission on Racial Equality questioned whether it's possible to have too much difference and diversity, some say the left has to start looking for a new England after all.

BILLY BRAGG:
There is a need for people of the left, for people of a more progressive mind set to talk about national identity, Englishness or Britishness and how the modern 21st century identity that we have fits into Britain as it is. For those of us who live in a multicultural society, enjoy a multicultural society there's nothing to be feared in having a debate about where we are together.

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR:
(AUTHOR, 'INTRODUCING ISLAM')

There has never been and there never will be a single British identity. The only problem in the identity I see is the one that Paul's got. To me, that's half of humanity.

PAUL ORMEROD:
You may disagree with my views but I'm certain that my views are shared by the vast majority of British people. If people will not recognise the problems that are caused by the points that you make, that will cause serious problems.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
I'd be interested to know what any of you think in a year's time if the election is in more or less a year, what the best way for the government to respond to this is. It's an undeniable issue whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of it.

DAVID GOODHART:
I think the Government on the whole is getting this roughly right. It's trying to have its cake and eat it too. It's happy with 150,000 people a year. They also want solidarity and it's worried about the reactions of many white British people and it therefore focuses on majority reassurance and in particular in the person of David Blunkett who is very good at doing it. I think we should congratulate him.

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR:
I don't think we can go and reassure the majority. What we actually need to do is change the perception of the majority and the attitude of the majority towards the vast diverse city of the minorities we have in this country.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
How is the Government doing on that point? How are they doing?

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR:
I think the Government is failing on that.

BILLY BRAGG:
I need reassuring that the BNP are not going to make any real gains at the polls. I need reassuring that the society I live in is willing to pay enough tax to fund a decent welfare state. I need reassuring that politics in this country is going to move away from its obsession with a minority and start to deal with the massive problems of the people who are poor in this country. This is what it's about. It's about poverty. It's about more people coming in at a poor level. If we can raise everybody up.

DAVID GOODHART:
So you're against immigration? You're worried about the poor who are here already and you want an open-door immigration policy? You're honestly telling me you care about the poor people here , this is what the free-market right want. This is what the Wall Street Journal want.

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR:
I am sitting here and Paul is sitting there. We both contribute to the welfare state. But you are telling me that Paul is not very happy to make his contribution to the welfare state because I am slightly different and he doesn't see me as an essential part of the system. The attitude is the problem. The problem is the attitude.

PAUL ORMEROD:
No, that's all right. The problem is that people coming here have to make adjustments and fit in.

MICHAEL EBODA:
People have just got to deal with it. It's something that's happening, it's going to continue happening, and you're going to have to just put up with it. You can't keep masking your own prejudices in these intellectual arguments, which is basically what you are all doing.

STEPHANIE FLANDERS:
It comes down to the difference between a rain bow and a melting pot. Can you support immigration and diversity in a fast changing economy without people worrying that a core sense of national identity is somehow getting lost in the mix? It's not an easy question for any government to answer but as Tony Blair is discovering, it's not one that's going to be easy to ignore.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



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