My family arrived on a doorstep in Hackney, London, in 1957. They travelled from a hot Burma to a cold wintery Britain, and not possessing winter clothes, were seen by neighbours shivering into their new home. The next day they opened the front door and found that those white, working class neighbors had left something on the doorstep - a bag of children's jumpers and coats. Our new neighbors soon became new friends.
Burma had fallen into civil war and rapid economic decline; Britain was a chance to start a new life. And so my parents and siblings worked, studied, made friends and built relationships. I was born in London, and so were most of my friends, whose families had come from Ireland and the Caribbean. In fact until the age of 11 I wasn't sure whether I felt more Jamaican or Irish until my mum clarified that I was neither. Parallel to our story the national narrative of immigration and the immigrant was being framed as a social disaster. The immigrant became symbolic of the ills that have by stealth unstitched the social fabric of this nation.
The idea of a cohesive island idyll that ended through mass immigration is worth a debate in itself. But, I ask myself, what if my family and millions of others had never migrated to the UK? What if not a single immigrant had set foot on British soil in the last 60 years? Kenan Malik suggests that many of the fundamental changes which have taken place would have happened anyway: The decline of the church and unions, the rise of consumerism, youth culture, social permissiveness, the dominance of markets over democracy and the atomization of society, to name but a few.
These tectonic shifts were not caused by immigrants, they were the results of national political decisions and global economic forces. Despite this, the narrative depicts the immigrant as the implicit or explicit symbol of the 'unwanted' change that has taken place. Ironically many members of the political class that made or supported the policies that led to, or precipitated those changes, blame immigration for the subsequent results. The immigrant is now the living, walking, physical embodiment of the changed Britain that the political elite helped to create.
The negative perception of immigrants is driven by the persistent flow of immigration horror stories in the media - many of which are either fabricated or bizarre outliers. It is the water torture on the skull of our political consciousness. It drowns out the daily experience, positively lived, by many across the country who work, study and play alongside those who have chosen to make their home here, temporarily or permanently. Very few people express a concern or problem when asked about their local experience of immigration. The story becomes even more positive among the young, those most in contact with immigrants and those with a higher level of education (irrespective of class or job). But when asked about immigration at the national level the response takes a serious turn for the worse. The further immigration is from people's direct personal experience, the more dependent they are on the media for their information, the more negative their view of it becomes.
The dominant narrative also successfully skews people's perspectives on who comprises the immigrant population. Oxford University's Migration Observatory found that most people (62%) are likely to think of asylum seekers and least likely (29%) to think of students. Students happen to represent the largest group of immigrants coming to the UK while asylum seekers are the smallest group (7% in 2011). Ironically people are much more accepting of foreign students and much less accepting of asylum seekers. Therefore, they are concerned about the group that contributes the least number of people and open to the group that contributes the most. People also tend to think of immigrants as those who come to the UK permanently when in fact half come temporarily. This skewed perspective is driven by the warped narrative.
Facts and personal experiences, in themselves, are not effective counters either. The power of an entrenched narrative is that it can trump your experience and make you question the facts. Repeating statistics about how many businesses are created, skills contributed and taxes paid just isn't working. So what would be an effective response? I think a powerful counter narrative that can disarm and defeat the toxic parody that claims to represent our lived national experience. How can we do this? We can do it by elevating the real stories lived by real people across this country.
Don't get me wrong, I grew up in Hackney (pre-hipster migration) and I know people fight, argue and come into conflict from time to time. The only way to totally avoid that is to find yourself an uninhabited island, not a less inhabited one. The point of a scapegoat is not only to distract us from the real causes of our problems but sometimes from the examples of our success.
We are in great need of the other story of Britain. The one where millions of us get on with our lives and get on with each other. That everyday local experience provides the building blocks of our national experience. It should no longer remain invisible. The story of new neighbors who have become true friends has never been told, now is the time to start telling it.