Gavin Barwell is the MP for Croydon Central
Croydon, the place I have lived all my life and now represent as a Member of Parliament, is one of the most diverse parts of the country. In just over 10 years’ time, it is predicted that less than half the population will be white British. So issues connected with race – immigration, discrimination, multiculturalism – all feature heavily in my postbag and inbox. And one of the lessons of recent years is that if mainstream parties don’t address these issues, extremists flourish.
One of the first debates I spoke in after my election just over a year ago was about immigration. Although, like most Conservatives, I certainly believe that immigration was too high under the last Government, I stressed that we mustn’t lose sight of the benefits immigration has brought over the years. After the debate, I was interviewed about my speech and asked how I believed Croydon has benefited from immigration. In case the same question occurs to anyone reading this article, two of my closest friends, some of my immediate neighbours, lots of the people who helped to get me elected and many of the members of the volunteer group I founded to help clean our parks and open spaces – to give just a few examples – are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants.
My life would be immeasurably poorer if they or their parents had not been allowed to come to this country. And looking beyond the personal, immigration has brought people with the skills our economy needs, entrepreneurs who have created new jobs and people who play a vital role in our public services. It has enriched our culture – the food we eat, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear. And in today’s globalised world, Croydon’s connections with other countries are a huge asset.
Immigration is a good thing but, as the saying goes, it is possible to have too much of a good thing – and that’s been the problem in recent years. Conservatives should, as this Government is doing, ensure that net migration is at a sustainable level so that it doesn’t put pressure on local communities and local public services.
Who we let in, however, is just as important as how many. The tragedy of the last Government’s immigration policy is that they primarily admitted people with medium to low skills who took most of the jobs created by the last economic boom while millions of people languished on out-of-work benefits. But the current Government is in danger of making the opposite mistake. In its efforts to reduce numbers, it has put a cap on the number of outstanding scientists who can come to work at our great universities. I don’t know a single constituent who has a problem with such people coming to the UK.
It’s also essential that our immigration and asylum systems operate fairly and efficiently – both for those trying to come to the country and in terms of public confidence. Under the last Government, decisions took too long, were often over-turned on appeal and very few people who had no right to be here were ever removed. We have to put that right.
When people settle in this country they shouldn’t expect special favours but they are entitled to fair treatment just like anyone else. But ultimately laws can only achieve so much. Britain is a fairer place today than it was when I was growing up but talk to young black people in my constituency and they still have real concerns about the way they’re policed and more generally people from black and minority ethnic communities are still more likely to be let down by our education system, to be victims of crime. The keys to making Britain an even fairer place are not more equality laws but effective policies to tackle inequality of opportunity – like the academies programme to transform inner-city schools started by Tony Blair, held back by Ed Balls and now rekindled by Michael Gove – and, even more importantly, cultural change.
I am one of life’s optimists – I believe that most prejudice stems from ignorance, not hatred. Of course, there is a hard core of people who are motivated by hatred of those from different backgrounds or those with different religious beliefs and we need to build a coalition across all communities to tackle such extremists. But most prejudice can be tackled by getting to know people from different backgrounds.
Take the elderly lady I met during the election campaign who complained to me about Croydon being full of foreigners. She has no black friends or neighbours – to her, anyone who isn’t white must be foreign. She was genuinely surprised when I pointed out to her that most of the black people she saw in Croydon were born in this country and as British as she and I. Once we get to know people from different backgrounds, we quickly learn that though they may look different and have different religious beliefs, they want the same basic things we do – a secure home, a better life for their children.
If my optimism isn’t misplaced, it has major implications for public policy. At a macro level, we need to rebuild the sense of community, to get people to mix more with their neighbours – a key part of the Big Society agenda. On a micro level, take the issue of policing I mentioned earlier: there is a great project in my constituency where police officers and young people get to swap roles – the police officers get to experience what it’s like to be taken away from your friends and searched and the young people get to experience what it’s like to have to approach a rowdy group of teenagers on your own. Seeing things from the other person’s perspective changes attitudes and behaviour.
But tackling inequality of opportunity and cultural change isn’t enough. We also need to build what the Prime Minister in a recent speech referred to as “a clear sense of national identity that is open to everyone” – the elderly lady I met during the election campaign and the newly arrived immigrant.
In the same speech, the Prime Minister criticised multiculturalism. To the extent that multiculturalism is about focusing solely on our differences rather than what unites us, he was right to do so. But I wish he hadn’t used that word, because it means different things to different people. Also, at the risk of stating the obvious, Britishness – a collective identity for the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – is by definition multicultural in the literal sense of the word. And that’s a good thing. Yes, people who settle here should learn English and integrate into our society but they shouldn’t be forced to choose between being British and being proud of their roots. Identity isn’t a digital quality.
Take my best friend. He was born in this country but his parents are from northern India. He would, I think, call himself British Indian (but not English), although first and foremost he sees himself as a Londoner. If England play India at cricket, he supports India; if they play anyone else, he supports England. But if England play India at football, he supports England.
What this anecdote illustrates is that identity is complicated. I would love our Prime Minister, who has done so much to transform perceptions of the Conservative Party for the better, to give a speech doing to Norman Tebbit’s cricket test what he did to the Margaret Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society” quote. Yes, it is important to have loyalty to this country but your roots are important too. In the words of the Michael Jackson song, no-one should “spend their life being a colour” but our ethnic identity is a part of who we are.
A couple of years ago, I attended an event in Croydon to mark the Islamic festival of Eid – part of a programme of events Croydon Council organises to celebrate the festivals of all the major faiths. Two young Muslim women, Ruhina Cockar and Joanne Kheder, one dressed in western clothing, one wearing the hijab, spoke about what it meant to them to be British Muslims. I wish everyone in Croydon could have been there to hear what they had to say. A single quote doesn’t do them justice but I will let Ruhina have the last word:
“I’m a Croydon girl through and through. I was born in Mayday Hospital … My beliefs are entirely compatible with being British … I have thrived in British society … and I am proud to call myself a British citizen”. I am proud to have Ruhina as a fellow citizen and I am confident about the future of the Britain she is helping to build.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in "Are we there yet? A collection on race and conservatism" published by Demos.