It is impossible to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of a general election campaign here in the UK. It seems that every news item, radio or television discussion programme or news website has lost touch with any item or event unconnected to the current political scene. Whilst momentous international events may be occurring around the world, anyone interested in ensuring that they are in touch with these will find it necessary to delve well beyond the opening pages of a national newspaper. As if they were in some way unfamiliar to the masses, our national press seem to believe that we need to be reminded of the appearances of Messrs Cameron and Miliband, variously posed with babies, farm animals or their endorsing celebrities at every possible occasion. Amidst all this brouhaha there are serious debates to be had, but at times they are completely lost in trivia and flummery.
One issue that has been central to this election campaign, which in all honesty appears to have been in full flow for many months, is that of immigration. Nothing can be guaranteed to raise the temperature of the arguments put forward by our politicians and the media, albeit generally shallow in nature, than a discussion of the various merits or challenges presented by those, who whilst now resident in the country, were born elsewhere. This of course, is not a novel issue in a country made up almost entirely of a population that can trace its roots back to invaders and settlers over many centuries. Romans, Vikings, Celts, Saxons, Normans, Huguenots, all have come to this country, settled and become well integrated as “British citizens,” contributing greatly to our rich tapestry of culture. There is no doubt that at the time some of these arrivals were greeted with greater enthusiasm than others, but each brought with them a new set of skills, architecture, science, arts, music, cuisine and traditions that have enriched our lives.
As a nation once proud to boast that through the might of its empire it ruled over half the globe, it was to be expected that once that rule diminished, there would be many who came to seek a life in a “motherland” which had imposed its own values upon their homes. Arriving in the UK a new wave of immigration contributed greatly to our national economy, bringing with them yet more aspects of their own heritage that has not only become part of the national scene, but in some cases, particularly those of an artistic or culinary nature, have also won the hearts of the “indigenous” population.
I like to think that when visitors come to this country they are made welcome and find that British people are warm and caring, and interested in the experiences that incomers bring with them. When they choose to stay and make the UK their homes, the vast majority make a significant contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of the country, bringing a wide range of skills and knowledge and working hard to support their families. It is for this reason that I find myself frustrated with the low level contribution that many politicians and media personnel are making to current debates around immigration.
Listening to the radio this morning I had the misfortune to hear a prominent politician declaring that excessive immigration was the single greatest cause of strain upon our national health and education services. In the view of this political leader, significant numbers of individuals are coming from overseas, bringing with them their families and friends, simply to benefit from our wonderful welfare state. Their sole interest in becoming resident in the UK is to take from our services, whilst making little contribution to the economic or social welfare of the country. Sadly, the rhetoric of this politician is to be found in much of the reporting in the media and the discussions heard in the cafés public houses and behind the lace window curtains in houses up and down the country.
There is, of course, another side to this argument, which is more often voiced by those who have regular contact with people who have come to this country to provide a much needed service. As a simple example of this I would suggest that far from placing a strain upon our health and welfare services, immigrants to this country are making a huge contribution to its maintenance and efficiency. Having myself spent some time in hospital following an accident a couple of years ago, I was aware that the professionalism of doctors, nurses and cleaners, many of whom had been born outside of this country was contributing considerably to my recovery. Visiting schools on a regular basis, I am conscious of the number of teachers and teaching assistants of a wide range of national origins, who are ensuring that our education system continues to provide a first class service to children and families.
This side of immigration is being sadly overlooked, or in some instances deliberately distorted in the current election climate, as the contribution made by new comers to this country is ignored in order to make political capital. Whilst seething over my muesli this morning listening to the radio, a further thought on this issue came to my mind, which I have no doubt many of our political masters would seldom pause to consider. There have been many instances of “foreigners” taking residence in a country and over the course of time educating the residents of that land to look in greater detail and to appreciate aspects of their own life and culture as never before. Two examples of such people came immediately to mind as I was completing my breakfast.
Nickolaus Pevsner, born in Leipzig, Germany in 1902, came to England in 1933. Shortly after the outbreak of the second World war, Pevsener was interned as an enemy alien of the state. After his release, he continued to make a contribution to the history of architecture both as a writer and teacher. Probably the greatest contribution that he made as an academic historian was the compilation of The Buildings of England, through which he documented in 46 accessible volumes every significant architectural feature of the country. These books, still seen as the definitive guide to English architecture opened the eyes of British people to the magnificent art and architecture that is great feature of the country.
A second example, refers not to an immigrant to the UK, but rather to an Englishman who became the first from this nation to take Indian citizenship following independence in 1947. Verrier Elwin went to India originally as a representative of the Church of England, but before long came to appreciate the rich cultural diversity and lifestyles of tribal peoples within the country. From that point he dedicated his life to recording the art, poetry, rituals and life styles of tribal people in various parts of India. He campaigned vigorously for their right to maintain their traditions and through his writings brought the immense contributions that they make to the ecology and culture of the country to the attention not only of the Indian people, but an international audience. His study changed the perceptions of tribal people, set an agenda for others who wish to defend such groups and influenced changes in national and international policy.
I am not suggesting that every immigrant will make so great a contribution to their adopted countries as did Pevsner and Elwin, but I do believe that many newcomers to a land enable us to see ourselves from a new perspective. They contribute greatly to the landscape and welfare of their newly adopted homes and it will be to our detriment if we do not provide them with an opportunity to express their own ideas in the current political climate.