The issue of immigration continues to hold a high place in the news narratives whether directly or indirectly.
The year may have begun with consideration of the response of Rumanians and Bulgarians to their improved rights of migration and continued with the political prospects for UKIP but the immigration debate was not limited to the most obvious forms of consideration of such issues.
The Inquest result into the shooting of Mark Duggen remains in the news agenda largely because he came from a section of society that is easily regarded as “other’, and perceives itself as disadvantaged because of its immigrant origins.
When we speak of the minimum wage or providing work for the unemployed we are often drawn into an appraisal of the effects of newcomers willing to work for lower wages than the indigenous workforce will accept.
When we talk of school standards in our inner cities, or the provision of any other aspect of any services provided by the State, it will never be long before the question of multiple languages comes into consideration
Before Christmas, the patriotism of Ed Milliband’s father drifted between being doubted because of his Marxism and also his non British origins.
Often such controversies serve as surrogate disputes over the underlying problems of immigration and the challenges it poses to the stability of communities when they have to cope with rapid change.
We shall have to get used to this routine intrusion of immigration factors into many of our discussions whether we choose to or not, yet does this seemingly persistent consciousness of immigration mean that we are intolerant or “racist”? Brother Ivo thinks not.
The issue has been with us for half a century.
Brother Ivo recalls his mother speaking of running in fear when she first saw a black man in the street; it was as striking an even to her as when Aboriginal peoples first encountering Captain Cook, yet Brother Ivo was later brought up in an area where an incoming population gradually settled, and became largely invisible to his eye, such is the effect of habituation and the establishment of the new “normal”.
As this was happening, Brother Ivo watched the news reels of the 1960’s and adopted Martin Luther King as his hero, thrilling to his words that a man should be judged by the content of his character and not by the colour of his skin.
It was in many ways, an easy ethical standard for Dr King to assert.
He was the son and grandson of Ministers of Religion. He was steeped in the Exodus narrative and its message of patience and hope. He was well educated and keenly aware of the promise of America as enshrined in its Constitution.
Dr King was not in dispute with the principles upon which his nation was founded, but rather intent upon claiming its promises for all, and especially for those in his own African American community who had been excluded from “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ by slavery and the segregation years that followed.
He never used the phrase later popularised by Bill Clinton that there was “nothing wrong with America that could not be set right by what is right with America”, but that sentiment encapsulated the way he went about agitating for his people to share in the Founding Father’s vision of Justice through equal rights and opportunity.
He wanted a fair shot, not a guaranteed outcome. His father “Daddy King” had taught him that the three steps to success were to get a Vote, a job, and a mortgage, and so there was no element of confrontation with his country’s values involved in either’s teachings.
If you had asked him “How shall we judge a Man?” he would have done so by the ideals of mainstream America. America may not have been living up t those ideals but Dr King wanted what it “said on the tin”.
However estranged from the American dream his people might have been, he sought to lead them by Christian forbearance and Ghandian non-violence, towards the same objectives hopes and aspirations as every other American citizen.
Although the path was a difficult one, and although he never lived to lead his people into that promised land, Dr King’s task was in many ways easier than that currently facing anyone who seeks to build community in the UK’s present circumstances.
Today we not only have a significant arrival of newcomers, but the British people are in many ways unclear what is the character of the community into which such people are to be inducted. Many hold to a traditional vision of the UK and seek to maintain it as it was defended in two world wars, some want to see it integrated into a European super State to rival the USA, some seek to fracture that unity with independence for parts of the Kingdom whilst others deny that there ever was such an identity as “Englishness”.
We seem to be simultaneously urged to welcome others into the “community” whilst being utterly at odds as to what that community might comprise. No wonder we end up confused.
Meanwhile there is a breakdown of trust in institutions whether political parties BBC or the police, and with it all the faith of the past is marginalised by attitude and legislation alike.
We need to resolve what is the nature of the community into which we shall confidently welcome the newcomer.
We may wish to battle intolerance yet “If the trumpet sound an uncertain note who shall prepare himself for battle”?
We have made great strides in the past 50 years. Overt racial prejudice is no longer an acceptable feature of our common life. Not only do we not see signs in lodging houses declaring “No Blacks-No Irish” but if we removed the legal sanction, there is a high probability that they would not appear. We are a different society already.
There is no element of shock in seeing someone of a different culture which once would have driven fear and suspicion. We are therefore probably over the first hurdle of unknowing prejudice against all who might be unlike us, but that is not to say that we have resolved all our problems – far from it.
We now find ourselves in a far more complex phase, for whatever the laws and the cultural messages may be, many of the problems we face are not rooted in the issue of overt hatred or discrimination. Our problems are those of managing complexity.
Dr King’s goal was to open the door to a common life. What that common life comprised was not in issue.
The problem that we in the UK are constantly running up against is what that common life might comprise. In Christian terms we will surely speak in terms of “community”, yet ours is no longer a nation that accepts that vision uncritically, we are just part of the mix now.
Those of us who have lived long with a large immigrant community within a locality will have had the opportunity over time to identify common values, common interests, and common life – all the things that make for community feeling.
Thus in Brother Ivo’s case, the local Sikh community quickly established itself as one that ran shops, building companies etc. They appeared in the Banks and Hospitals and even frequented the local pubs supporting India at the cricket – but England at football. Their soccer teams played in the local league, and many indigenous families gradually gained experience of the newcomers as being good neighbours .
The identification of commonality enabled community to grow, but herein lies the problem.
Dr King sought to join the culture of mainstream America; many of his people joined him but many did not. They developed an “alternative” culture, one which continues to live uneasily with the dominant values that formed the nation.
Many parts of our new immigrant cultures saw themselves through the prism of Britishness, but within each, there was an element that did not, thereby laying down and adding layer of complexity to the development of community life.
Because of our past we, are terribly sensitive to the charge of racism, and we often hear those who are uneasy with what is happening in their areas insisting they are not racist; many probably do have friends from other cultures, but that does not of itself ensure that community harmony occurs.
Brother Ivo suggests that the biggest problem we have is not inherent racism, but rather the complexity of dealing with rapid and often un-comprehended change. Having simultaneously lost the certainty of past community structures, pub, church, youth club, High Street, makes the problem significantly worse
Complexity is a complex matter. Integrating four different cultures is probably more that twice as complex as integrating two, and so it multiplies.
Yet now we live in the world where people can and do migrate quicker than at any other time. They arrive with very different cultural mindsets. Some prioritise the opportunity to work every hour that God sends, some need to pray five times a day. Some arrive rejoicing that gay people can live openly within this society, others are anxious to establish areas of Sharia Law in our major cities.
Once Dr King’s test was easily applied, Americans broadly agreed on the “content of character”, but in a very diverse “community”, where are the common values by which that “character” may be judged? Should the newcomer necessarily accept feminism, gay rights, democracy? What if the newcomers will not? He is told he has a has a right to individuality, and may resent imposition of alien standards within a culture that in many ways prioritises individual choice. His choice may not be that of 21st century liberalism.
In cities where new cultures are still arriving the very idea of “community” may be premature.
It is for this reason that Brother Ivo is slow to write off every complainant of multi-culturalism as intolerant or “racist”. He has met only a handful of people in his life who could warrant such description.
He does however sense a more widespread and substantial anxiety at the loss of community, and that is a much more sympathetic complaint.
It is hard to love you neighbour if you do not know her and cannot communicate with her. It is even harder if you are not allowed to know her. The less you and your neighbour have in common, the harder it is for anyone to develop common feeling and when some communities arrive with a declared suspicion of western society, its values and its culture, one cannot help but become a tad gloomy.
Yet we are where we are, and we shall have to invent our way through the minefield of competing values and aspirations. If some suggest slowing the pace of change that might simply be based upon weary pragmatism rather than inherent nastiness. Whether the slowing of the pace of change is possible is itself uncertain.
What Brother Ivo is sure of is that we shall not resolve these matters unless and until we allow ourselves to explore the problems with openess and honesty, and as such the closing of the discourse by too ready an accusation of racist intolerance will not serve us well.
There is much generosity amongst the poor towards the newcomers in their midst who seemingly threaten what is available to them. What is surprising is not how much ill will is expressed by such peoples towards the newcomer but how little, given that immigration so often directly impacts those at the poorer end of the spectrum more sharply than the rich.
Brother Ivo builds on that humanity of feeling and trusts human kindness.
He prefers to regard many of the concerns of ordinary people over immigration as impulses to defend the cohesion of community rather than to be nasty to the stranger when he calls.