Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Queen's Speech 2008 Part I - integration

An aspect of life in Britain today is that there is increasingly only one "approved" way to live. Going fast are the days of "it takes all sorts", "each to his own" and "there's nowt as queer as folk". We are badgered not just by government but also by quangoes, charities and self-appointed pressure groups about what we eat, how we dress, how much exercise we take, how we travel, how we heat our homes and countless other things which used to be matters for adults to choose for themselves.

Part of the problem is that quangoes and pressure groups never disband voluntarily and charities now feel they have to promote a cause to justify their existence and, in particular, their government funding. They suffer from "mission creep" by which a modest and laudable task morphs into a wide-ranging campaign requiring more and more compulsion for it to be adopted by a sceptical public.

They might start with the mission to educate people about the benefits of eating more fruit and veg. It starts with leaflets and a free nibble of melon from a display at the supermarket, the education campaign is successful because people then know that fruit is jolly good stuff. Consumption increases and one might think it is job done. But no. People being people, not everyone does eat more fruit and veg. The pressure groups' conclusion is that the campaign must be stepped up, targets must be set. Five portions of fruit and veg a day appears out of nowhere as the recommended intake for everyone. There is no science behind it, some need more to maintain a healthy balance in their diet and some need less because human bodies do not all absorb vitamins and minerals in the same way and different people process fibre at different rates. For the vast majority five portions a day is grossly in excess of what they need to provide themselves with all the vegetative goodness they need, but the slogan has taken on a life of its own and must be defended to the end. It becomes an "official" guideline, "at least" is added by some rabid raffia munching bully, it turns from a guideline into a government sanctioned minimum target which must be enforced in school canteens. Where once people were being informed that fruit and veg are good for them, they are now being told they must eat lots of both, it's not a recommendation but an order. There is only one healthy way to eat, it's official.

The same process applies to so many fringe issues so beloved of our current government. Take homosexuality for example. One of Mrs Thatcher's nuttier ideas was a formal embargo on local authorities "promoting" homosexuality. I have never known what that meant in practice and certainly saw no evidence of town halls handing out pink handbags to lorry drivers and denim dungarees to the ladies knitting circle. Applying one of the finest British traits, many people who previously never even thought of matters homosexual became quite angry that a minority group was being picked on by government. Tolerance of personal tastes and foibles is something we have always been rather good at as a country and many whose tolerance was previously unspoken or even unrecognised found themselves becoming pro-homosexual rather than ambivalent. The mood changed, partly through greater exposure to the overtly homosexual in fields other than entertainment and hairdressing and partly as a reaction to a bullying law.

The current government swiftly overturned Mrs Thatcher's folly and went one step further by outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. One might think that would be that. The wrong had been corrected and homosexuals were given an equal footing in law with everyone else. But no. It was not enough to be fair to homosexuals there was also thought a need to be intolerant of those who had a genuine moral problem in treating homosexual behaviour as acceptable. In real life we have to accept that many people adhere to moral codes different from our own, in fact I suspect we would be hard pressed to find anyone who agrees with us on every single issue of morality.

The scriptures on which Judaism, Christianity and Islam rely all condemn homosexuality as being contrary to their god's will. In a civilised society the adherents of those religions are required to accept and abide by the laws of the country in which they live but they are not generally obliged to abandon (or pretend to abandon) their beliefs. One would expect them to be able to speak out against homosexual practices and explain why they find them objectionable whilst abiding by the law and not discriminating against homosexuals. No doubt that is something the people concerned might find very hard to do because their beliefs are important to them, nonetheless it can be done and I have no doubt a great many manage to do so. When the law goes that one step too far and seeks to act against convictions of morality rather than just actions it risks being held in contempt.

In today's Queen's Speech an interesting measure was proposed about immigration and nationality. For the first time "integration" will be a requirement for those from overseas who seek British citizenship or the right to live permanently in this country. We will have to wait to see the text of the Bill to learn what is meant by "integration". To my mind any definition must involve behaviour because no one can integrate into anything unless they do so by their behaviour. I think I can guess what the government has in mind. It knows that it is at risk of leeching votes to the British National Party in a number of marginal Parliamentary constituencies, indeed the votes in those constituencies could be the difference between Labour being returned to power or exiled to opposition. What the government has in mind is dusky-skinned immigrants of the Islamic faith.

When the country took large numbers from Uganda and Bangladesh in the 1970s many of them continued to follow the practices of their homelands. The man went out to work, the wife stayed at home and looked after the children. In that there was little difference between those families and many pasty-faced whiteys of long British heritage. The difference was in how the wife dressed and acted. Gingham frocks and M&S trousers suits didn't feature; headscarves, veils and head-to-toe black smocks with a slit for the eyes were instead the attire of choice. They did not learn English unless they had to in order to be able to buy five pound of spuds and they did not involve themselves in cultural activities outside those arranged by their local mosque. In other words they did not integrate. This caused and still causes resentment among the very sorts of people who would choose between Labour and the BNP in the voting booth.

I first encountered Bangladeshi families who followed their old customs when I lived in the East End of London as a student and for a few years after starting work. Initially it was quite a shock to my system because I had simply not seen anything like it and my first reaction was to think ill of it. Then I got to know some of my neighbours and it was clear that they were just following the customs they grew up with and which they felt were mandated by their religion. A few years later I moved into FatBigot Towers in Islington. Quite close by is an area known as Stamford Hill in Stoke Newington. Stamford Hill has a large population of Hasidic Jews. Their culture is for the man to work and the wife to stay at home. They also have traditional style of dress. The women do not integrate with the non-Hasidic locals and many of them do not speak English. I am unaware of any move at any time to require them to "integrate" before they could be considered British. They are highly law-abiding people for whom their established religion and culture are of huge importance. In that they are no different from the Bangladeshis I encountered in the East End.

Forced "integration" as a prerequisite of permanent residence or citizenship steps into the same murky territory as seeking to outlaw the expression of religious opinions opposing homosexual practices. It goes beyond requiring people to comply with the law in their doings and impinges on their cultural and religious values in a way that attacks their thoughts rather than their actions. To my mind that is just as offensive as a homosexual person being refused a job because of his sexual orientation, a person of dark pigmentation being refused a job because of his colour or a person of Romany extraction being refused a job because of his race.

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