British society feels more fragmented when a new, transient generation decides not to settle
Sunday November 4, 2007
If the BNP had been given a camera crew, it couldn’t have produced a more revolting depiction of immigrant life in London than David Cronenberg’s film Eastern Promises. It starts as it means to go on with a Kurdish barber forcing his son to cut a customer’s throat. A pregnant Russian child prostitute then dies having a Caesarean. Anna, a naive midwife at the hospital, resolves to find the newborn child’s father. The trail leads to a Russian restaurant. The apparently avuncular proprietor does not solely bring exotic cuisines to grateful Londoners of the upper-middle class, he is also a people trafficker, who holds girls in sex slavery – and has a psychopath for a son, for good measure.
The British barely feature in their own capital. Apart from Anna, a second-generation Russian, they are minor characters: police officers who examine mutilated corpses or passers-by who run for cover when Chechen assassins storm a public baths. Whether as victims or victimisers, Cronenberg’s London is a city of foreigners.
All right, all right, I know a storyteller is under no obligation to accept the constraints of a documentary maker. I wouldn’t have mentioned Eastern Promises if the critics hadn’t treated his fantasy as realism. ‘This is the kerb-crawling reality. This is London,’ declared the man from the Times. Cronenberg shows London as a ‘magnet for hucksters, desperadoes and fortune-seekers; a militarised, relentlessly surveillanced police state in the making,’ said the Telegraph. Our own Philip French was more restrained, but still saw it as a picture ‘about the dark underside of globalisation and multiculturalism’.
It’s easy to feel like that here. Ken Livingstone will be remembered, if he’s remembered, for authorising the building of jagged skyscrapers that celebrate the global power of money while diminishing the little people on the pavements far below. The old English rich complain that they can’t compete against the new men from Russia and India. Crime isn’t as bad as you would guess from the papers – but our police force is second-rate and the reassuring bonds of community have broken down in suburbs where 50 different languages are spoken. The middle class, which was once delighted to have cheap Polish plumbers, now thinks that foreigners will be competing for its jobs. The working class – white, black and brown – has never liked that, and is as suspicious as ever of new immigrants. Everyone is frightened about Islamist attacks, including those who say they aren’t.
This darkening mood explains why liberal-minded critics don’t respond to a picture of London as a city terrorised by foreign mobsters by recalling the tolerance of everyday life. Why should they when a Labour Prime Minister comes out with a BNP slogan of ‘British jobs for British people’ that would provoke a police investigation if an employer put it on a recruitment ad? David Cameron talked last week of ‘unsustainable demographic change’, safe in the knowledge that the old charge that the Tories had ‘lurched to the right’ would no longer stick. For voters from the middle and working classes, left and right, immigration is now their chief concern.
Superficially, it’s hard to understand. If I had said in 1997 that Britain would experience the largest influx of migrants in history and not have race riots, most people would have regarded me as an optimistic innocent.
But there’s the rub: no one did predict that Britain would see the largest wave of immigration in her history, not least the government. It’s almost funny to go back to its assertions that only 15,000 migrants would appear over here when Poland and seven other East European countries joined the EU. True, forecasting is a perilous business, but for 600,000 to come and for the forecasters to be out by a factor of 40 is quite an achievement. Last week ministers admitted that the official estimate that there were 800,000 foreign workers was wrong, too. The figure should have been 1.5 million – maybe more. Damian Green, the Conservative immigration spokesman, has a collection of Parliamentary questions about immigration the Home Office can’t answer. A full catalogue of government ignorance would take me onto the opposite page, but as a taster: Home Office ministers have been unable to tell him how many convicted murderers, drug dealers and racists have been granted British citizenship; how many deported foreign offenders turned round and flew straight back again; and how many times the police and ambulance were called to riots at immigration detention centres.
A feeling that the system can’t cope pervades those who work in it as well as the opposition benches. A liberal judge, of the sort who is routinely condemned in the conservative press, told me he felt he was wasting his time with immigration cases. Even if he ordered a deportation, the immigrant was free to leave the courtroom and disappear into the slums. Officials from the PCS union who represent immigration officers are as exasperated. Their members’ work was driven by ever-changing Home Office targets that themselves were a response to the latest headlines – asylum seekers one minute, foreign prisoners the next.
The pattern of this government has been to meet popular concern with repressive-sounding initiatives balanced by clampdowns on racism. But the anti-racism learned in the Eighties and the need to respond to public fears learned in the Nineties do not fit the 21st century. Today’s migrants aren’t from a few parts of the world – Pakistan, say, or the Caribbean – but from dozens of countries. Their sheer diversity makes the need to simultaneously appease and oppose specific forms of racism obsolete. Most migrants don’t settle. There is less need to integrate, which should calm those who wonder how much integration a society can take, but equally their transient presence makes Britain feel more fragmented, less solid. They send money home, and then go home themselves – ‘immigrants for the age of Ryanair,’ as Trevor Phillips calls them.
‘Stay away from people like me,’ warns one of the many villains in Cronenberg’s blood-drenched movie, and many of today’s immigrants will stay apart. The trouble is the government doesn’t know who they are, where they are, how long they will stay or when they will go. The public senses it, and worries.