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Religion and Society

The reasons for (still) saying we are Londoners

Why can't we all just get along? It is from this simple question that the importance of the subject of racial equality emerges. This is the same question that was raised by the episode of Rodney King. One has to go back a number of years in one's memory to the riots of Los Angeles in 1992. Everything sprang from the blows inflicted on Rodney King, a fact that raised the question: 'but why can't we just get along?' We can express this question in a very large number of ways, we can frame it in a very large number of ways, we can even give it a political tone, but in the end the essential question of the current age is: how can people with different traditions, of different races, live together peacefully?

 

In order to answer this question I will establish two points, often referring to the history of Great Britain, a land towards which migratory flows have practically never halted. At the outset immigration was not wanted: the Vikings plundered and stained themselves with violence, then the Romans arrived and they brought a certain kind of civilisation, then the Jews, and then the Catholics. During all these centuries Great Britain knew how to deal with these invasions, and today it is facing up to another 'invasion' by 'the other': first of all the 1.6 million Muslims (about 3% of the British population) and then the great migratory flow from Eastern Europe.

 

 

In London it is impossible to go into a restaurant without being served by someone with a Slav accent. Whoever knows middle-class London couples with young children also knows that we are bringing up a generation of children who speak English with a Polish accent, given that all their baby-sitters are ethnically Polish. For us this is a challenge.

 

Great Britain has undergone a very profound transformation since the end of the Second World War in Leicester the non-white minority will constitute the majority within the next five years; in the capital city 30% of the residents are non-whites and there are more than thirty-five communities and ethnic groups. When we think about the question raised by the Rodney King case, well, in London, within the space of a generation, all citizens of recent residence in Great Britain see themselves as London citizens Londoners. Instead, in Germany the situation is different. Although we are now at the fourth generation, citizens of Turkish origin are still described and see themselves as Turks. Of course nothing is perfect, and in other cities, for example in the North of England, this process is not producing the hoped for results: there are young people who encounter difficulties in meeting each other out of school and most young people under the age of thirty tend to spend time exclusively with groups of friends who come from the same race and religion.

 

 

Integration is not an autonomous process: we have to create programmes that stimulate it. Two premises are necessary here: first of all when we speak of integration we are not speaking about assimilation. People should not be asked to forget their past and become the same as other people, to weaken or eliminate elements of their identity one is not speaking here of conformity. Secondly, I believe that divided societies are unstable societies and that one must ensure that there is encounter between different people. This is the process of exchange and interaction that we call integration. This process should take place at the right speed and in the right way. Most Western countries within the space of a generation will address this problem, as indeed Great Britain is doing at the present time. The British economy has always accepted immigrants and even though these migratory flows are now moving in the direction of the United States of America, we still need these migratory flows. One need only refer to the National Health Service a third of the people working in it were born, educated and trained abroad. And because we will not have enough time to train a sufficient number of nurses to take the place of those who will retire, we will draw upon various countries, above all the Philippines.

 

 

But there is a strange fact that I would like to emphasise. Most of the countries that do not have a specific ministry for immigration end up by placing immigration within the responsibilities of the Ministry of Justice, and thus the whole process of the development of an immigration policy is 'contaminated' by questions connected with crime. It thus happens that policy is directed towards fighting crime and thus immigration as well. This prevents this particular resource immigration from being 'exploited'. In fact, there are two ways of addressing the subject: one is where immigration is connected with crime; the other is the economic approach, which has prevailed more recently. People move, work moves, and this allows us to draw upon immigrants and allocate jobs according to skills. For this to be done in each country there should be a separate Ministry because if it is organised well it will be able to make a notable contribution to the immediate integration of the new arrivals. In addition, other aspects should also be considered, such as international conflicts, which lead many people to seek refuge abroad, above all in the West. There will probably be an increase in migratory flows, which however will be very different from those of the past: we should expect a wave of immigrants who do not speak English, whose history owes very little to the British tradition, who could also be European but very different from us, who perhaps have different traditions or who have the Koran as their book of reference.

 

 

Starting with the assumption that nobody wishes to be integrated if they do not feel that they are on a level of equality, the role played by the Commission for Racial Equality that I chair is very important because it involves ensuring the application of laws that have already been passed on promoting integration and tackling discrimination. We have a second role to play, and it is to be a sort of place for the national conscience, that is to say we can be asked to be a referee as to whether the law has been applied correctly or not, or to see if the behaviour of a certain subject is justified or not. Over the last twelve to fifteen months we have launched a debate on the subject of multiculturalism. The question that is often raised is whether diversity has to mean a lack of unity within a society. I do not think so: if we asked British citizens to indicate the institution that best represents British life, the answer would certainly be the National Health Service. If we look closely, we realise that the NHS was originally launched by a Welshman, and built by Irish labour. There are Caribbean nurses, Filipino doctors, perhaps South African technicians, and office workers from yet other countries. This is an example of integration but it is not enough: a correct requirement is to recognise difference within society and the state. Since I have been Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality I have discovered unexpected situations, such as the fact that local authorities finance voluntary organisations on ethnic lines. A consequence of this is that often attitudes are legitimised that might be acceptable in the countryside of Pakistan or in Saudi Arabia but which should not exist in a modern country such as Great Britain, and to the point, at times, of officially tolerating fundamentalist positions. We are now trying to modify this policy. In the past the same organisations were always supported in order to ensure a certain continuity. This is certainly a correct criterion, but it is partial: we should also consider the result of the activity of these organisations. For this reason, we are trying to change the rules somewhat, as a result of which the organisations that receive our financial support must also justify their use, justify their work and thus justify our financing them. Thus today we are financing many new organisations and these are different to those that we financed in the past, with more young people being involved and with different kinds of activities. In addition, there are two other measures.

 

 

First of all the Commission for Racial Equaliy creates the premises for useful and valuable activity, giving the necessary encouragement and guidance. Secondly, we try to meet the heads of all these organisations at least twice a year in order to give them explanations and guidance, and to receive in our turn a feedback from them so as to arrive at a shared agreement. These subjects are rather complex and we define them with the phrase 'company multiculturalism', that is to say the multiculturalism of public companies which have to state their readiness to address diversity by engaging in gestures that involve drawing near to the communities.

 

 

The second major area that we are trying to address is the integration of immigrant communities into society. A positive fact is that many exponents of the minorities that live in London consider themselves Londoners. A result of this kind is achieved not by trying to 'reinvent' these people but by 'reinventing' what is meant by the term 'Londoner'. For my parents' generation, the idea of a Londoner was a white person who expressed in himself in line with the Cockney tradition. Now, for most people, this image is clearly superseded: when one says 'Londoner', what comes to mind is rich, modern and cosmopolitan people, perhaps rather snobbish, who maybe look down at you, arrogant, and rather modern and very practical. So rather than saying to someone 'well, you should behave like that to be a Londoner', we have in reality changed the concept of being a Londoner so that people can belong to this definition, and this is a great British tradition.

 

 

But those who arrive in a new social context have to face up to an inevitable choice, which can also be expressed in the question: are there circumstances in which respect for cultural and religious difference should allow the breaking of civil law? That is to say, are there moments when membership of a community that has historical differences compared to the rest of society should be seen as an element that is more important that adherence to the principles of law in relation to questions such as polygamy, conflict between spouses, the upbringing of children, and freedom of expression? This is a particularly difficult question. A few months ago a small theatre receiving public funds in Birmingham put on a theatrical work on the Sikh community in which reference was made to the difficulties faced by women. In one scene a rape took place in a Sikh temple and the Sikh leaders were irritated and asked for the scene to be rewritten. As Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality if I had allowed offence to religion to be seen to be more important than the freedom of expression of the authoress, then I would have had also to forbid works such as Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot. If freedom of expression is suppressed, who is the victor? This is a very complex question.

 

 

If we want integration we have to ensure equality. My impression, however, is that from some points of view there is a situation in the United Kingdom that has led to the favouring of difference over equality. For example, of the six hundred organisations that administer the National Health Service, only four or five are managed by an exponent of an ethnic minority.

 

 

Lastly, I would like to dwell upon what our goals must be: what do we want to achieve? I believe that the answer is rather clear: a society in which we can share experiences, interactions and ambitions, and in which access to services, the possibility of finding a job, and the character of our friendships are not dependent on the nature of our origins. Today, if a child is born to a mother of Pakistani origins there is a double chance that that child will die during childhood; a young person of African-Caribbean origins has a double chance that he will not pass his exams at secondary school. How can this goal be achieved, therefore? Certainly not by adopting the models of other countries. Let us take as an example the United States of America where the choice in fact has been in favour of a segregated society. Nine African-American children out of every ten study at schools which have a black majority; nine white families out of every ten live in neighbourhoods where there is a minimal presence of other ethnic groups. If Americans support freedom, how can one explain the fact that they are not interested in people who do not belong to their ethnic group? And what should be said about a lack of interest in those who are different and do not have access to services, instruction or have a greater probability of being in a situation that involves breaking the law? The United States of America has magnificent immigration policies but it does not have integration policies and when it does have them they are catastrophic. What happens at the borders of America is positive, but as regards the conditions of the co-existence of the various communities within the country we can state that the American model is the worst model there is. In Great Britain, Elizabeth I established the concept of tolerance, arguing that worship was a personal matter. Whatever the case, what was done very well in this country was the creation of an authentic version of a British Catholic, where British Catholicism is rather different from Italian Catholicism or French Catholicism. For that matter, the Jews who arrived in the United Kingdom from Russia practice their religion differently from what is standard. And the blacks in Great Britain are very different to the blacks in the Caribbean. Now, to have a real multiethnic society in general requires compromise, composition and insertion.

 

 

Those who are inserted must have the space to express themselves I believe, for example, that the French made a historic error when they insisted on the fact the French Muslims must not have this space. What they are perhaps doing is to 'buy' a decade of peace during which, however, many Muslims will be pushed into the arms of the extremists.

 

Instead, changes to one's own traditions, adaptations, exchanges, 'adoptions', can be accepted. Let us think of gastronomic customs. Once the British national dish was 'fish and chips': today everyone loves Indian restaurants, which are in reality from Bangladesh, and the favourite dish is 'chicken tikka massala'. The curious fact is that this dish is unknown in the Indian sub-continent because it is a British culinary invention created specifically by the Indian community resident in Great Britain. This is a different way of eating the English way, and indeed to such an extent that most Indians would not recognise this dish. This is an example of what being British for the new arrivals means, and this is how we should proceed: accepting them by allowing them to express themselves like we Europeans. This is the task that is before us.

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