Miliband’s ill-defined integration

In a recent speech, Labour leader Ed Miliband - the son of Polish Jewish immigrants - made some important statements designed to address ongoing public concern about levels of immigration to the UK. He did so against the backdrop of data from last year's census.

Over the past decade, the proportion of the population describing itself as "white British" declined from 88 to 81 per cent. While the total population increased by 3.7 million, much of this growth (2.1 million) was due to immigration. In 2001, the largest number of foreign-born UK residents hailed from the Irish Republic, followed (in rank order) by persons born in India, Pakistan, Germany and Bangladesh. A decade later, while persons of Indian origin topped the immigration list, they were followed by those born in Poland: the number of Polish-born residents of the UK has risen astonishingly - from 58,000 to 579,000 - between the two censuses.

These are some of the realities (others derive from the inevitable demands that this level of immigration has exacted upon the nation's housing stock, social and educational services and so on) that informed Miliband's speech. He apologised for the fact that much - indeed most - of this had taken place under previous Labour administrations. Labour, he insisted, had blundered when it enthusiastically espoused an open-door policy for people from eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004.

Having got this out of the way, he set out his cunning plan for dealing with the issues that these unprecedented levels of immigration have brought about. He demanded that immigrants learn English, that landlords be prohibited from cramming newcomers into over-crowded dwellings, and that recruitment agencies be prohibited from seeking workers from particular national or ethnic groups. But what was needed most of all was an "integration strategy…

The Jews of Whitechapel were most certainly not isolated

"Separation means isolation and you can't succeed in Britain if you are isolated. Isolation also breeds ignorance and ignorance breeds suspicion and prejudice" he said.

Listening to this, I had to ask whether he had informed himself about the history of Jewish immigration to these shores. Or bothered to consider what "integration" actually meant.

Very few Poles come to this country to live off benefits. They come because there is work to do and because they are prepared to do it. It's not primarily because they are willing to do the jobs "white British" would rather not do. They have an excellent work ethic. Many are - or have the ambition to become - self-employed, or indeed to employ others.

They form small businesses, which in turn create further employment opportunities. Just as the Jews (a great many of them from Poland, of course) did a century ago.

Learning the native language is obviously important. But no "strategy" is needed to ensure this happens. Miliband demanded that translation services be curtailed and that parents of foreign-born children be required to enter into "home-school" agreements to learn English". Why? My parents (the children and grandchildren of immigrants) had no need of such devices. They learnt English at school and that was that.

But what irritated me most was his loose talk on the subject of integration. Behind his use of this term I suspect there was meant to be a criticism of "multiculturalism" but that he did not wish to say so in so many words. And he was certainly careful not to use the loaded word, "assimilation." So he highlighted instead the dangers that must supposedly emanate from "separation".

The story of all immigrations to this country - and archetypically of Jewish immigration - is that members of immigrant groups actually like to live together. That is what they want. Separation certainly does not mean isolation. The Jews of Whitechapel, Chapeltown or Cheetham Hill lived lives that were separate from those of the host communities. But they were most certainly not isolated. Immigration needs to be controlled. Abuse of benefits must be tackled. But integration can only come at its own speed.

Asked by a hostile reporter whether I was not worried that there were so many Poles in this country, I observed - after confessing to my own genealogy - that, come the next census, their children would be bound to describe themselves as "white British".

    Last updated: 9:45am, December 31 2012