England, their England
Indians are now the largest foreign-born group in the land, but despite many shared values, integration still has limits
By Tim Rayment, The Sunday Times online of 16 December 2012
They were gathering for their religious classes in Leicester on Friday, but one man had another faith on his mind. Gurjeet Singh Samra had bought the Christmas tree. He had chosen the presents for his sisters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Three generations are coming to his house on Christmas Day and the turkey is all but cooked.
Nothing unusual in that, you say — except Samra is the head of a traditional Indian household and general secretary of his local gurdwara, the place of worship for Sikhs*. His preparations for Christmas are a tiny glimpse into the complexity of modern Britain.
Last week new numbers laid bare our rapidly changing island. We knew the story already, instinctively, but the facts still came as a shock.
According to the latest census, almost 4m immigrants have inflated the population of England and Wales in just 10 years, and in London white Britons make up a minority of residents for the first time.
In 2001 it was the Irish who formed the biggest foreign-born group in England and Wales. Now they are fourth behind people from India, Poland and Pakistan. More than half our 7.5m foreign-born residents have arrived in a single decade. The number of Poles alone has grown from 68,000 in 2001 to 579,000 — 8 times as many.
The census results prompted predictable comment from politicians on how best to integrate immigrants into British life — and discussion of past failures. Yet is it not a bit late to start worrying about a segregated society? Can the dream of integration still be achieved?
At first glance, Oadby and Wigston, an affluent commuter area to the northwest of Leicester where Samra lives, seems the embodiment of John Major’s England of long shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer. But there are not so many old maids* bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist these days (and not just because, as the census revealed, the number of people describing themselves as Christians has plummeted*).
Almost one in five of the area’s population is of Indian origin. If anywhere in Britain is integrated, it is here.
Many of them — Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims — moved to Oadby because the area has good schools. With them came low rates of offending and a set of values, from a strong belief in education and professional qualifications to the importance of family and thrift and careful financial planning, reminiscent of a lost Britain of 30 or more years ago.
The local council offices show no self-consciousness*. The Christmas decorations are up in public areas with no attempt to make them “multi-faith”, suggesting an area that is relaxed and not overly sensitive. The official narrative is of integration.
“Whether it’s Christmas or Ramadan or Hanukkah*, we celebrate together,” says Sharon Morris, a Liberal Democrat councillor who chairs a multicultural group. “The only ones we don’t seem able to connect with are the Chinese.”
Under the surface, however, integration is still a challenge. Nobody is surprised that those aged over 75, whose English may be weaker, stay within a society they understand. But younger generations admit to being part of sub-communities who have little to do with each other. “It’s very hard,” says Saroj Seth, a Hindu and retired schoolteacher who was also Britain’s first female Asian justice of the peace*. “Everyone’s living in their own little pocket.” After working for a lifetime to promote integration, she has concluded it is an unrealistic aim. “It has to come from within.”
On Friday Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, acknowledged mistakes had been made during his party’s 13 years in power. “The capacity of our economy to absorb new migrants was greater than the capacity of some of our communities to adapt,” he said.
The speech was a belated* recognition that concern about large-scale immigration — an anxiety also felt by many immigrants as they watch new arrivals add to their numbers — is not an expression of racism.
Such concern is widespread, as a YouGov poll reveals. Just over two-thirds of people think levels of immigration over the past decade have been bad for the country, compared to 11% who think it has been good. Eight in 10 support David Cameron’s stated intention to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands” — though think it only very or fairly likely he will deliver.
Miliband is now focused on how to integrate our 7.5m foreign-born residents. He has proposed that teaching English should take priority over translating information into mother tongues, and that migrants not proficient in English should be barred from some public-sector jobs such as nursing.
As he prepares for Christmas, Samra thinks he can help. “Politicians have confused themselves about what integration is,” he says. “Fifty years ago, in the early 1960s, people talked integration as mixed marriages. Basically, if there are mixed marriages, that’s integration. Well, I’d say if all the different communities live together, different colours, different religions, different races, if they talk to each other and mix, that’s integration.”
To another Sikh, Raj Mann, integration is when you take the best from more than one culture. In 1990, his parents discovered his relationship with a white English girl and his father said: “Raj, we must strive to mix the best of western culture with best of eastern culture to achieve success, and womanising is not the best of western culture.” Mann, now a property lawyer, said: “Note how my then partner’s colour was not the overt issue.”
Mann’s father was a postman who sent money home and put his children through private schools. He admired British intellectual rigour* and was proud when his daughter read theology at Oxford. He also admires British systems of administration, fair play in sport and the quality of our media.
From the East the Manns would take family values, including respect for elders. “Asians tend to perceive it as an honour to take care of elders rather than a duty — some siblings fight for this honour,” Mann said. He would also keep the philanthropy* celebrated in Sikhism, “which keeps us humble and broadminded”.
How far are we from integration? Even with the wealth of census data, we have no idea.
“We collect vast amounts of data about residence, schooling, employment, marriage and friendship across ethnic boundaries, language spoken at home and so on”, says David Goodhart, director of the think tank Demos, “but we don’t bring the information together to tell us where we are on the road to integration either in the country as a whole or in particular towns and neighbourhoods.”
He sees a danger that as Britain becomes less racist it is also becoming more tribal: “We have a cold accommodation of new populations but no real creation of a common life.”
Demos plans a research project headed by Trevor Phillips, the former equalities chief, to discover how segregated we are.
Goodhart thinks local councils should have duties to promote not equality, as now, but mixed schools and housing. Public funds should no longer go to single-faith activities. The Sikhs agree.
“I belly laugh when so-called communities comment in the local rag that it was ‘pleasing to see so many other faiths at our religious festivals’,” says Mann. “It’s complete baloney*.”
An Afro-Caribbean carnival is an example of what works in the real world. “Music, drink and food,” he says, “seem to transcend.”
* Sikh - A Sikh is defined as "any human being who faithfully believes in One Immortal Being; ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Dev to Sri Guru Gobind Singh; Sri Guru Granth Sahib; the teachings of the ten Gurus and the baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru; and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion". Sikhs believe in the equality of humankind, the concept of universal brotherhood of man and One Supreme God.
* old maid - alte Jungfer
* to plummet - sinken, abstürzen
* self-consciousness - Unsicherheit
* Hanukkah - the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple
* justice of the peace - Friedensrichter
* belated - verspätet, verzögert
* rigour - Präzision, Sorgfalt
* philanthropy - Menschlichkeit, Menschenliebe
* belly laugh - laut lachen
* baloney - ugs. Blödsinn
1. What do G.S. Sasmra's Christmas preparations suggest?
2. What is the most intriguing finding of the latest census. What changes took place concerning Britain's population?
3. Although the Oadly area consists of various ethnic groups, the atmoshere seems to be relaxed as to what integration is concerned. What reasons for this development does the text mention?
4. Generally integration in Britain still seems to be a great social challenge. How do the following four people - G.S. Samra, Saroj Seth, Raj Mann and David Goodhart - look upon integration? What are their different views?
5. Can full integration be achieved? What in your opinion makes integration possible?
Also look at 2011 Census for England and Wales.