Comment: Concerns about immigration are not automatically racist

By Samuel Lawes

We should be brave enough to have a robust, grown-up national debate about immigration without accusations of racism being immediately thrown around.

And when the cultural practices of new arrivals are at odds with modern Britain, we should be principled enough to say so.

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, wrote a brave and intelligent piece in the Telegraph recently. It has breathed honesty and candour into what has become a depressingly hostile debate around immigration.

Some, Harris points out, import cultural practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) with them when they come. Harris argues these cultural practices are simply wrong. And those who reply that no, all cultures are relative and equally valid, must draw the line somewhere. Can men beat their wives if their equally valid culture admits or encourages this? Can girls be forced into marriage? Before puberty?

If a small clutch of surviving Aztecs were to be miraculously happened upon in Central America, and if they chose to settle in the UK, would their cultural practice of human sacrifice to appease the Sun God be treated as equally valid?

Replies vary. A first port of call of many left-wing commentators is now to dismiss such concerns as racism. A favourite response to concerns about increases in crime, for example, is to say 'white British people commit these crimes as well'.

This is a truism. Within it, expect to find neither wisdom and insight nor an answer to the concerns of people who feel that demographic change is happening too fast and needs to slow down. Expect no answers to fears about rises or perceived rises in crime. Expect scorn towards the disinclination of many majority British communities in traditional British towns to become minority British communities in traditional British towns.

In short, these people can expect not to get any answers at all to their concerns except, 'you're being racist, or at the very least offensive'.

One Twitter user, responding to Harris' insistence that constituents need to be listened to with respect, commented that she had "more decency & compassion in my little finger than [Tom Harris] possesses in [his] whole body."

This betrays an immaturity that many of us on the social left have gone through at some point, as well as a capricious vitriol. Throwing insults with those we disagree with doesn't advance our own arguments at all – if anything, it suggests that they aren't strong enough to stand up without the accompaniment of personal insults.

The irony here is if this tweeter was told that the issue was of British migrants (like myself, a British immigrant living in Turkey) putting pressure on communities abroad, she would probably be leaping to attack anybody who dared to disagree with Harris' Romanian or Turkish equivalent. Who is really exhibiting prejudice here?

Another incensed twitternista comments that Harris' article shows "the depth to which the immigration debate has plunged". What a strange, sad thing to say.

The immigration debate in Britain in the not-so-distant past used to be one of pogroms, slavery and overt racism. Later, we used to talk about the White Man's Burden. Then there was Enoch Powell.

This debate has not plunged – it is being dug out of its own insidious past and cleaned, painstakingly, of racism, sectarianism and fear. The latter comment harks back to the same factitious Golden Age of Everything as many right-wing commentators he probably wouldn't share a platform with.

Let's be totally straight about this: Britain's immigration debate is a success story. We are one of the most open countries out there from top to bottom. We might be proud of that – and we ought to be careful not to let this debate turn nasty or puerile.

Recently, a decision by Harris' Labour party while in government – letting a great many people in at once – gave Britain an economic boost, a shot of cultural virility and a serious integration challenge. Like the burgeoning EU, we grew too fast.

Taking action to give things a chance to settle now is not racist. It has to happen at some point. We are seeing cultural tensions, housing shortages and a black market in employment (there are individuals earning £1.50 per hour in London).

And whereas a century ago all this—plus a serious recession—led to world war and genocide, today it has led to even the most right-wing of political figures, Nigel Farage, stressing that immigration is good in moderation. Genuine racists are discredited openly in the press. Just look at the BNP.

The PM stresses openness and the benefit of limited immigration. The chancellor's line is 'open for business'. The deputy PM is half-Dutch.

Let's say it again for all those outraged commentators who broke off reading halfway through to start angrily hammering myopic responses into their poor keyboards.

Having concerns about the scale of immigration is not racist. Having concerns about the workings of integration is not racist. Having concerns about cultural practices that are fundamentally incoherent with modern Britain is not racist. All in all, by and large, modern Britain is not a racist country.

But calling anyone who voices such concerns 'racist' is not noble, brave or decent either. It's illiberal and unkind. In fact, it is quite possibly the worst thing about the immigration debate in Britain today.

Samuel Lawes is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul. You can read his blog here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.