Immigration, immigration, immigration. That's what we hear; that's one of the main battlegrounds of the upcoming EU referendum. It's everywhere: "They're stealing our jobs! They're pilfering our benefits! They're destroying our national identity." Damn those immigrants. Nothing but trouble.
It's true, there is little denying how the 1992 Maastricht Treaty opened European boarders to free movement of people, sparking a growth in European immigrants coming into the UK. Of this there is no doubt. Certainly, as the son of a Romanian growing up in London, I rarely heard my mother's home language being spoken on the street. Now, as a parent taking my son to nursery in Turnpike Lane, with the wind in the right direction, I can pretty much make the whole journey hearing only Romanian. It is undeniable. Things are changing.
And let's not pretend there are no issues arising from such changes; it would be imprudent to do so. We can call on Joanne Harris's Chocolat Effect to recognise that when others come into a community with their new ways, they can begin to change the fabric of that society. And today, with other nationalities bringing their own cultures, languages and ways of doing things, there will undoubtedly be changes we see on the streets of our villages, towns and cities. And it does become a numbers game; the more immigrants that come, the more things can change; the more our perceived 'British values' will slowly transform in front of our very eyes - whether they be queuing habits, driving habits, social conduct habits; whether it be language barriers in the classroom, at the doctor's surgery, or in the supermarket. New norms of behaviour will have to be negotiated and new foods will appear on our high streets. Certainly things will change, if they haven't already; the introduction of 'polski sklep' into our vocabulary is evidence enough of that. It becomes less "when in Rome" and more "if you can't beat 'em..."
The question, however, really, is how much any of this is a problem? Or to put it another way, what aspects of our society are we really trying to preserve?
After all, according to the latest figures from the Council of Europe, England and Wales have the highest prison population in Europe, matching squarely with the UK having some of the highest rates of car thefts, violent assaults, robberies and dog attacks in Western Europe. This surely shouldn't be preserved. Moreover, in terms of education, according to the PISA report 2016, the UK has literacy rates behind Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Hungry. And the most struggling group is the ethnic group described as white British. Again, something we really should seek to change. And in terms of health, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of The United Nations, Britain tops the list of most obese nations in the European Union. In short, the UK has many issues within its own culture that we should not be proud of - and for which the small proportion of immigrants coming into the country cannot possibly be blamed. Many of our problems are home-grown; they come from within. They are not coming in.
So let's be honest about this: the real issue is not immigration. It might be a sideshow, but it certainly is not the main event. Immigration is not the root of all the ills in our society today. The real issue is that we, as a nation, seem to be refusing to face up to the fact that our own citizens are far more responsible for the erosion of what is good and great about Britain. And there is plenty that remains good and great about Britain; it is stable, it is wealthy, it has a history of freedom and democracy, and it is peaceful and tolerant. And we should be proud that people want to come and live here. And sad, perhaps even embarrassed, that those who already do, those who were born here, don't appreciate what we already have and how lucky we actually are.
The key is not to be distracted by where people are from or what colour their skin is or what religion hangs around their neck. These things divert from the real point. What we should be focusing on who is prepared to roll up their sleeves, dig in, abide by the law, look after their health, make the effort in our schools, and make our society cohesive in a way that works for all of us - one that is safe for our children, peaceful for our elderly, and cleaner for our future. And we can only do this if we work together and cooperate, if we communicate with one another and get to know the people in our communities, wherever they're from. We each of us need to help the lady next door and look after our local parks. We collectively need to drive carefully through our streets and not bait our dogs. We communally need to keep our streets clean and think about those around us. These are the things we should care about. These are the things we should hold as our shared values. It's our collective responsibility to do so. And we all need to buy in. As a nation, together. Because these are the things which are so often missing in our society today. These are the things which are letting us down. And pulling up the EU drawbridge will not solve our problems; it will just change the people we blame. But change, as they say, must start at home.
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