The saddest image last week of a young child drowned along with his mother and brother in a failed attempt to reach Europe. Meanwhile here in the UK much has been made by the homophobic brigade about how our country is full, there is no more room and crucially, how our way of life must be preserved. There is of course another viewpoint- that immigrants make a valuable contribution to society through hard graft and resourcefulness. Whole swathes of hitherto barren land became fertile through the care and attention of Jewish settlers in that disputed state known as Israel. Since the days of the Saxons and Angles, the British gene pool has metamorphosed dozens of times through force or choice by both invaders and immigrants. Furthermore we now know enough about genetics to understand that we are all essentially related to a small core of common ancestors who came from Africa. However we manage to differentiate ourselves by our beliefs and customs we are all effectively the same.
When the euro was foisted upon Western Europe I remember the conversations and vociferous arguments around some well-to-do dinner tables. As the gin and tonic and Dubonnet and gin in crystal glasses clinked late into the night, the argument that kept being repeated was the need to protect the British way of life. The memory I have of those evenings is the various titbits being served- olives, peanuts, crudités, wine by the gallon and I recall remarking that none of it was British. What therefore was the supposed way of life we were seeking to preserve? The silence was deafening. Granted there has been a huge awakening in recent years that has seen the demand for home grown and organic produce soar but to this day, Britain cannot feed itself. Take a drive down any British motorway and count the number of foreign registered trucks - they are all delivering food to the supermarkets. Stand outside a florist's long enough and a Dutch truck will arrive to make a delivery of blooms grown in the Low Countries. And what about our insatiable appetite for cheaper goods of an acceptable standard? The label almost always reads Made in China. When we buy those we further condemn our own manufacturers to become more 'competitive' or die.
Britain used to have over one hundred manufacturers of pianos. Today there is just one. The same is true for clocks, watches, cars, jut about every single thing you can think of is made using some if not all components manufactured abroad. What therefore is the way of life we are seeking to preserve? Cream teas? Strawberries and cream? Cricket? Cornish pasties? I recently was away in France and how I missed England! I missed the feel of the place, the Edwardian and Victorian architecture, the damp, the morning dew, in fact, all those things that will outlive us all. I would argue that what defines us as being British is the past and the present. The crazy, chaotic, maddening things that are wrong with this country- too many cars, too many potholes, late trains, surly staff just about everywhere, well, I missed them too. The best thing about the UK is the bête noire in other parts of the world but which has now come to define us: at any time of the day or night we can buy anything we want and from every part of the world. What began as a gentle introduction to curry (Coronation Chicken, anyone?) turned into a full-scale love affair where blond, blue eyed kiddies know their Tikka from their Vindaloo. How long did it take for curry to become part of the British way of life? Sixty years or so. How many generations is that? I worked for many years with Jews and came to love Matzo Meal, which I still seek out wherever I go. I also grew to greatly admire the Jewish work ethic which is indefatigable. The Jews came to Britain as refugees once and the Indian and Pakistan contingent came here for a better life too. Let's not forget that immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent was encouraged in the 50s and 60s. And today the road sweeper is invariably foreign-born as that job isn't exactly hotly coveted by British workers!
Is our country too full? I would contest that rhetoric. Our climate makes it difficult to grow crops but there are whole swathes of land that lie empty and which appear abandoned altogether. I'm not advocating mass construction on green field sites but there is a need for a coherent and unbiased study to be undertaken to establish how full we supposedly are. Is that argument due to a shortage of essential workers and services such as doctors, nurses, dentists, schools, housing? What about the argument that all immigrants end up sponging off the state- as in expecting benefits and an easy life? That is perhaps woefully untrue (unless you keep producing children)- the state will help you but not forever so where does that fallacy come from? There are some hard-core spongers who from one generation to the next prefer welfare to working but they are most definitely a very small percentage- the true culprits in that case are the ones handing out the benefits!
There is a lesson in the displaced, the eternal diaspora of human existence not just literally but metaphorically. Very little has been made of how this diaspora began. In my view, the press has not explored enough about the blame that lies in the West for meddling in cultures that do not share the same values and traditions as so-called democratic countries. Tacitus summed it up best: Aurum et opes, praecipuae bellorum causae. Gold and power, the chief causes of wars. The victims of those wars need a place to call their own, a home. Just like you and me.
Photo copyright S. van Dalen