There are too many parts of Britain where immigrant communities do not speak English as their first language, Boris Johnson has said.
The overwhelming favourite to be the next prime minister said it was important for people to speak primarily English so they can “take part in the economy and in society in the way that that shared experience would allow”.
He stressed that the story of immigration in the UK is “amazing”, and praise the “extraordinary economic success and dynamism” of people who have moved to Britain from overseas.
Can Jeremy Hunt beat Boris Johnson? Listen to the latest episode of Commons People.
Highlighting Bangladeshis, Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia, and Huguenots from France, Johnson said immigrants have “adapted and they have made their lives and they have helped to make our national culture and they have bought into it”.
At a Tory leadership hustings in Darlington, he went on: “That’s what I want for our country, I want everybody who comes here and makes their lives here to be and to feel British.
“That’s the most important thing.
“And to learn English.
“And too often there are parts of our country and parts of London still and other cities as well where English is not spoken by some people as their first language, and that needs to be changed and people need to be allowed to take part in the economy and in society in the way that that shared experience would allow.”
Scottish and Welsh MPs who represent constituents who speak Gaelic and Welsh reacted with fury to Johnson’s “dog whistle” and “racist” comments, which belied an “imperialist” and “stupid” mindset.
The SNP’s Angus MacNeil, who speaks Gaelic and represents Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said: “The utter arrogance of Boris Johnson is yet again apparent.
“I am delighted that there are places in the current UK where English is not spoken - some of my constituents friends and neighbours would think I was weird if I spoke to them in English rather than Gaelic.
“I’m furious with Boris, displaying the imperialist mindset that deliberately tried to erase the native Celtic languages of these islands in favour of the Germanic import of English.
“This barb is aimed of course at others who have arrived more recently than the English language to these shores but we should celebrate multilingualism and foster the speaking of many languages and ignore the racist dog whistles of Boris.”
Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards said: “The crass, dog-whistle, anti-immigrant sentiment of Mr Johnson’s comments is only matched by its stupidity.
“It just proves that Wales isn’t even an afterthought to him.
“Today’s latest gaffe, only reaffirms the fact that this leadership contest is one of the best adverts for Welsh independence imaginable.”
Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds, who is hoping to win the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election and snatch the seat from the Tories, said: “Here in Wales, we know that not speaking English as your first language is no barrier to having a thriving community.
“Boris’s crass comments show just how out of touch he is with areas like ours in Wales, where people can freely and proudly speak Welsh as part of their daily lives.”
In Welsh, she added: “Mae sylwadau di-glem Boris yn dangos pa mor allan o gyswllt yw e gyda Cymru ac ardaloedd fel ein rhai ni (Boris’s clueless comments show how out of touch he has with Wales and areas like ours).”
British Future, the integration think-tank, however welcomed Johnson’s comments but urged him to take serious action to boost funding for English language tuition if he becomes PM.
Steve Ballinger said: “There are around a million people without decent English in the UK.
“That is often down to a lack of strategy and funding for English classes that people can access - a barrier that a new prime minister could help to tackle.
“Speaking English is the foundation for integration - without good English it is hard to find decent work, know your neighbours or participate fully in our society.
“It’s welcome that Boris Johnson is highlighting this issue if it means he will take serious action to address it if he gets into Number 10.”
Labour shadow business minister Chi Onwurah said immigrants and refugees were being denied the chance to learn English due to government austerity cuts.
The Newcastle Central MP tweeted: “Many Newcastle charities provide vital ESOL courses, but devastating funding cuts mean they cannot meet demand. Everyone who comes here should be able to learn English.
“All refugees should have the opportunity to learn the language skills they need to live and work. This Government’s short term austerity cuts mean we all lose out.”
Johnson also said immigration had helped London become the most economically successful area in Europe, and that it was driving similar growth in other cities around the UK.
“London is the most diverse city in the world, 300 languages spoken there,” he said.
“But it’s also the most economically productive region of the whole of Europe.
“It’s our ability to attract people of talent from around the world that has helped to make London so extraordinary.
“And actually you’re starting to see in other great cities around the UK, you’re starting to see the same sort of mix - a youthful population, university educated, diverse, obsessed with tech, all sorts of stuff that I don’t understand and doing all sorts of start-ups and enterprises that are very, very exciting and driving the economy.”