Standing in the offie last night I witnessed a happy interchange between the proprietor, who I assumed to be from Pakistan, and three, blonde, giggling customers who I assumed to be Polish. The proprietor had very little English and the Polish girls hardly any at all, yet they all seemed to get along just fine. Of course, I doubt these are the kind of “skilled workers” who, the Prime Minister announced yesterday at the TUC conference, will henceforth have to learn English before they’re allowed to permanently settle in Britain. For a start, the new rules only apply to those from outside Europe, and I doubt the offie proprietor pitched up at immigration with a business plan in broken English: he’s somebody’s son, father or husband.
The Government is touting its new rules as what’s needed to avoid “ethnic polarisation”. Jacqui Smith putting a more mumsie face on the new rules has said they will help migrants to both integrate and benefit Britain. But at root I think she and her boss are playing to Middle England, which is the only thing Gordon Brown really understands by his much-touted “Britishness”.
Since from now on low-skilled migrants are not going to be allowed to settle, I suspect the actual impact on numbers will be slight. No, this is about playing to the white gallery in the shires, while attempting to construct an immigration policy that will seem all things to all shades of colour and opinion — an impossible chimera.
Here in sarf London we only have to go to the offie to see how complex the reality of immigration is on the ground. I completely agree that speaking English is the best way for newcomers to integrate in our city, but in my neighbourhood, known as “Little Portugal”, the worst monoglots to maintain a bigoted, clannish outlook aren’t the East Africans or the East Europeans but the Portuguese, and possibly even the native English, white or black.
London, free of the bigoted girdle that constrains the provinces, and always a window on the world, has absorbed more migrants, more quickly, than any other region of the country. As global polls show that our city is regarded as second only to New York in the cool stakes (whatever they are), we Londoners understand that our receptivity to migrants is key to our economic expansion.
There’s a downside to this, of course. But it’s difficult to convince Londoners who know fine well there’s a vast black market of illegal migrants toiling away right in front of them that it’s the increased pressure on public services: most of the capital’s hospitals are run by migrants. No, the downside is inextricably mixed up with the upside: it’s sweat-shop labour and cheap drugs, ghettos and gangs, road congestion and exhaust fumes. But while the PM may be a skilled migrant from the far lands of the North, and his English may be fairly good, there are Poles and Pakistanis down my way who speak cockney better than he ever will.