Recently Youguv asked Poles how they felt about Britain and Brits. It seems that overall, Poles love Britain and the Brits who live there. This is particularly true of younger Poles, they even feel at a rate of 50% that Brits have a positive view of Poles.
I bring this up as there are a number of questions that this poll raises and at least one issue that gnaws at the very political debate that rages in Britain now and will likely continue to do so well after the next general election in 2015. Oh and Nigel ( never met an immigrant I didn't not like) Farage says he's uncomfortable not hearing his native tongue on trains. More on this in a bit.
First the questions....
1- What's so great about Britain to other Europeans?
If you work hard and keep out of trouble, locals will respect you and look up to you. Or at least that's what some of us think and even been told. And to a great extent it's true. I have yet to met a single person who will to my face tell me I'm stealing his job or somehow not deserving of the same care or dignity as any native born Brit. I'm sure a handful would have loved to tell me, but being British, preferred to keep it to themselves and have a go at me later when I was gone. But the vast majority have offered help, friendship and encouragement. If anything, when the nasty, ignorant, uneducated EDL came to Newcastle last year, the political, broadcasting and cultural establishment covering the full spectrum of what passes for "normal" here, came out and told the EDL to piss off home and get an education.
2- What, besides the obvious attracts immigrants to the UK?
It is a society where the rule of law prevails, you are innocent until proven guilty ( by law) and if you are here to make money and want to set up a business or to offer your talent to willing buyers, there are laws that apply as much to you as they do to every other person and without having to pay bribes or wait months or even years for answers from the impartial even handed civil service. This much cannot be said of a lot of countries in the World and especially not of specific European nations still struggling with a culture of bribery, laziness and institutional entitlement within the bureaucracy.
3- How do we see the UK as a society?
Well from the outside looking in and even if you grow up in it as the child of immigrants.... The UK has been sold to us an open multi cultural society that is accepting of the contributions of other peoples over the decades since WW2 and even going as far back as Hadrian. With the BBC World service we are led to believe that if there was ever a World power or former power that cared about the fate of the less fortunate in other places, it was the UK. The fact that both sides of a conflict would accuse the BBC of being biased means they have for the longest time, gotten it right. Without sweeping under the rug the many times mobs have gone mad in the past and attacked innocent people based on colour of skin, spoken tongue or religion, the fact remains that the only other Western European nation more historically open to minorities has been Holland.
As an appendage to the last paragraph I have to point out that the BBC through both it's programming on television provides at least 90% of the English language documentaries and costume dramas the world gets to watch and it's World Service on radio and the cable/internet news stations world wide, is the de facto news face of Britain to the rest of the planet. In the rest of the world the BBC news division portrays GB as the knight in shinning armour that decries the depravities and tragedies of the world, that shines a light on other continents in a way that other national news divisions simply cannot or will not. Britain acquires a sort of James Bond mystique of righteousness.
We like what Britain has and want to contribute to it as well. For if you think about it, a lot of those strictly brit things that even the most extreme of the groups want to defend, have by and large come from another place and many many many ( bis) cultures too numerous to name here. Much of the progress that came to pass here was done by and on the backs of immigrants. To pretend otherwise is to deny simple facts that start with trading links spreading as far as India and pre-dating the arrival of the Romans in Colchester to the contributions of Irish, Jews , Asians and Continental Europeans to the growth of the industrial machine that powered mills as of the 18th century, the Empire it built and the modern economy we are all a part of by extension.
Do I need to tell people where the leaders of this nation are from? Maybe I do. The PM is the descendant of rampaging northern town burning Normans, nothing changed there. Clegg is more recent , of a family of Russian emigrees fleeing the Bolshevik revolution and lastly dear old Ed Miliband who is destined to be I think, the next PM, the child of Polish Jews who fled Hitler. That btw, would make him the 2nd Jew in the job after Benjamin Disraeli. What ever you may think of these men and people like them, they are now in positions of power and privilege because their families settled here. In fact the House of Commons and Lords is full of immigrants and their children. And what of the commercial elites and the so called back bone of the high street and neighbourhoods? The shop keepers and small merchant or specialists who keep Britain in milk, fags, beer and clothes and every other thing that is taken for granted? For every old line mythical pure breed brit, 7 or 8 immigrants or descendants of immigrants run those shops. They are the risk takers, the ones who sacrifice normal lives to make miserly takings and small profits while others wait for soft well paying jobs they feel best suited for.
And then there are the migrant workers who are paid terrible wages in factories and warehouses or on farms or in Hotels and restaurants. It's not like they want to take lower wages, the fact is that more often than not, no one born in the UK is willing to take those jobs for any amount of money. If just for one day there was a strike of migrant workers in the UK, the economy of this country would come shuddering to a halt. There would be no food on the shelves for at least three days maybe longer. It would take at least a week to recover the lost revenues and far too many businesses, many of them small would die. As for the hotels and restaurants, I would suggest that a lot people learn to cook real fast, because guess who's making all those curries and pizzas and take away food.
While I want to see better working conditions for all, a proper living wage for everybody and a level playing field for tradesmen, it is important to note first that the educational system of Britain is not able to provide the skilled or even unskilled workers required to just keep the current operation going from day to day without outside help. That those doing the work come from the EU and other places further proves that despite everything, Britain needs the EU and the rest of Europe needs Britain. We may as well learn to like each other officially, you know like when the politicians and the newspapers start saying nice things and stop looking for scapegoats and begin to answer the really hard questions. How do we save European industry, how do we prop up the value of our currencies and lastly , how do we make Europe a relatively self sufficient and competitive part of the greater world economy.
To a greater or lesser extent the United States and Canada have asked those questions and with the contribution of vast armies of immigrants have over the last few decades produced more goods, new services and circulated more money than in the entire history of the early industrial age. Were it not for poorly thought out free market ideas about the "sin" of regulating banks and big corporations, they would still be telling the rest of the world what to do right now.
Which brings me nicely to what I had to listen to today on Radio 4. A panel was asked to comment on Nigel Farage's discomfort at apparently hearing no or little English during certain parts of his commute to and from work. German born Labour MP Gisela Stuart and Peter Hitchens of the Daily Mail speak. It is worth listening to the conversation and knowing that later the vast majority of those who chose to text the show agreed with the pro immigrant and frankly non racist tone of the MP v the fear mongering Mr Farage. ( Listen here, follow the links). Gisela Stuart put it best when we she pointed out the obvious that
1- People need to live somewhere
2- People will talk to each other in the tongue most comfortable to each other
3- And if that happens to be two Poles or two Hungarians etc.... they will speak to each other most likely in that common language.
If pressed, the fact is that most of those people would be able to speak some level of English, often even a very fine English, but like the married couple that consisted of a Chinese born woman and her Brit Chinese husband, it was best to resort to what they spoke at home.... Chinese. When asked how many other languages they spoke, the wife proudly said at least 5 apart from English.
I grew up in a Polish household. My Father was an immigrant, my mother the daughter of immigrants. You bet I learned Polish at home. I also learned English, French, Yiddish and Italian amongst others. I am the better for it and any company I work for benefits from that. If you're uncomfortable hearing a language on mass transit that you don't understand, then you clearly must think people have nothing better to discuss than you. I take it as a point of pride that I live in a place where so many cultures feel sufficiently free and secure they can talk among themselves and not worry somebody will abuse them or force them to do something against their will. The Catholic Parish I belong to has no fewer than 14 different languages spoken in the congregation. NOBODY CARES. We're all there for one reason and we all get along. We have some of the best social events precisely because it's not all just one culture, one language or one tradition. So if a load people want to talk Polish, Cantonese or Slovak on the way to work to each other, let them.
I've got a secret, the only people who are gossiping about you, YES YOU, are Philipino women in nail salons, the rest of us, we're just wondering what's for supper, if the children got in ok from school, the list goes on. It's like being gay, we do all the same things unilingual English speakers do but in another language and sometimes in a gay way, which of course is pretty much the same way straight people do. I know, shocking but true. We're not plotting the overthrow of the Government, nor are we thinking of new and novel ways to enslave the native population of Britain. People are just people. We worry about the same things and at the end of the day have the same political tendencies from right to left on basic issues that well established British families do.
I am aware that some people like Nigel Farage worry about immigrants not speaking English at work. Fair point. Well the truth is that where English is required, they do and with very few exceptions are learning or already know English. While some could make more of an effort to mingle outside of any particular community, the fact is that those who have come here in hopes of staying long term are fully aware that in order to stay they need to integrate. Some will marry outside of their cultures others won't, but the moment they become part of greater society they will learn the language and culture faster than any English person I know. They will have children who won't stop being what they are but will also be British. And the cycle will go one.
One last thing while I'm at it. Aimed squarely at the people reading this who have a far too skewed and low view of migrant workers and immigrants. Most of the people you see around you running tills, packing fruit, cleaning toilets, wiping the bottoms of old people and the sick.... they aren't stupid, or unskilled. If you stopped to ask them, they would tell you they are farmers,merchants,university graduates,scholars, engineers, doctors, historians and accountants and yes some of them came to take those awful jobs nobody else wants and for better pay than at home. They, unlike some of the ultra privileged classes of natives here, aren't too picky about the work they can get till a better offer comes along and they are most definitively not stupid or simple. The fact is that the more immigrants you have in any one area of the country, the better the economy is there. The correlation is hard to miss and I'm sure the nice people at Her Majesty's Revenue would be more than happy to point out for the umpteenth time this simple fact.
I suppose the real question is when will the chattering classes and the politicians of this country publicly and officially recognize the valuable contribution immigrants make to society and the economy and like the more courageous among them, call out the Daily Mail, The Sun and so many others for the racists and fear mongers they are. Only then can we look at educating the ones who fear and those who learned to believe that those who fear must somehow be right. Like women, Jews and gays before them, immigrants need to make it clear to politicians and the media that the sort of baiting and bigotry they think they can do is not only wrong but dangerous and needs to stop.
In a recent Youguv poll apx 70% of Britons admitted to feeling uncomfortable about hearing a language they couldn't understand. Most of those people would relax if the noise coming from Fleet Street and the Commons was less strident and intent on finding a scapegoat for problems manufactured elsewhere or by their own hand. And as for the NE of England, I hear almost as much of other tongues as I did In New York or Toronto, and that makes me happy. As far as I can tell from the frankly oblivious or relaxed faces of Geordies, they aren't much bothered either.
This so called problem must be somewhere else. According to one effort at locating these quivering folk, a great deal of them were found in the serene country side away from the big cities, some appear to live in the suburbs just outside London. I wonder if they would be so afraid if they knew just how important those people who speak funny were to their ability to eat, be clothed and get decent health care services and that they in fact look up to them and admire them.
I know that regardless of what any of us do or say, some will never be convinced, I can live with that. I do however hope that with Euro elections in 2014 and National elections in 2015, the political classes find a way to finally tell the truth rather than continue to cling to lies they feel they need to uphold just to get elected. It's no longer OK to be homophobic, and all the parties and the electorate behave accordingly, I don't see why we can't do the same for immigrants.
Next time you see me on the street talking Polish to a mate, feel free to ask me the time or for directions, I'll be more than happy to do so in English .... or French or some other tongue. You know what else I learned by not being afraid to speak? That I could and would make new friends from all over the place and expand my horizons, both culinary and cultural. I urge you to do the same, be you immigrant or native born.... it'll blow your mind.
Never forget the words of that great part English part Dutch descendant of immigrants, Franklin Delano Roosevelt "The only thing to fear, is fear itself"
If that's too deep for you, try reading the books of the son of German Immigrants, Dr Seuss. I attach the image of one particularly appropriate tome with it's modified less child friendly title. I'm sure you'll know it right away.