When I was about eight years old I went to see my family GP in Bristol. I wasn’t unwell; I didn’t need medical help — I was there to serve as interpreter for my mum, who, a decade after arriving from Pakistan, could still speak only the most basic English.
Eventually she decided that enough was enough. Today she’s completely fluent and her life has improved immeasurably as a result.
Her story is shared by the vast majority of immigrants. But I know some who haven’t made such an effort. There are people I knew as a child who in the past 40 years have met only a handful of people from outside the south Asian Muslim community. I can name individuals in my hometown of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, who have lived in this country for half a century but speak barely a word of English. I’ve seen friends packed off to the subcontinent to find a wife because the idea of them marrying a British woman was simply shocking. It’s not the norm, not by a long way. But it’s not exactly rare, either.
Dame Louise Casey’s report on community cohesion, published earlier this month, proves that my experience is far from unique.
I am drawn to the recommendation of a new oath for all holders of public office
The report shows how some minority groups are particularly prone to living in ethnic bubbles; children in one school assumed the British population was, like everyone else they encountered, 50%-90% Asian.
Dame Louise demonstrates a link between cultural isolation and poor economic prospects: ethnic minority individuals who don’t integrate with wider society suffer from lower wages and higher unemployment than those who do.
Perhaps most worrying, the report shows that women in Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are twice as likely as men to speak little or no English. This leaves them, Dame Louise writes, “facing a double onslaught of gender inequality, combined with religious, cultural and social barriers preventing them from accessing even their basic rights as British citizens”.
It is quite obviously not right to support this kind of isolation, yet that’s exactly what some well-meaning people do. For years liberals have mocked British migrants who move to France or Spain without bothering to learning the language and confine themselves to little expat ghettos. Yet many of the same people have reacted with horror to the suggestion that more needs to be done to help immigrants integrate into British life. For too long, too many politicians in this country have refused to deal with the problem. They’ve ducked the issue for fear of being called racist, failing those they were supposed to be helping. I will not allow that to continue.
Let me be clear that I’m talking about integration, not assimilation. I don’t want to see a government-approved, one-size-fits-all identity imposed on everyone in this country. The UK has long been home to many cultures, a rich tapestry in which the Three Choirs Festival coexists happily with the Notting Hill Carnival, the South Bank’s Meltdown and the National Eisteddfod.
That diversity is part of what makes Britain great, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, by and large, we are already one of the most integrated, cohesive societies in the world. It’s no surprise that the first Muslim mayor of a big western capital city was elected right here in the UK earlier this year.
So when I talk about integrating into British life or embracing British values, I’m not demanding that everyone drinks tea, watches cricket and bobs up and down at the Last Night of the Proms.
I’m talking about tolerating the views of others, even if you disagree with them. About believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse. I’m talking about a belief in equality, democracy and the democratic process. And about respect for the law, even if you think the law is an ass. Because if you do disagree, you can change it. That’s what freedom and democracy are all about.
Such values are not unique to this country. But if you don’t accept that they’re the building blocks of our society, you’ll struggle to play a positive role in British life. That applies to all of us — black or white, Christian or Muslim, rich or poor, newly arrived immigrant or lifelong Brit. Community cohesion is a two-way street and we all have a role to play in making society a success. That’s something we all too often forget.
I will be responding to Dame Louise’s recommendations in detail in spring next year but she’s completely right in saying that if we’re going to challenge such attitudes, civic and political leaders have to lead by example. That’s why I was particularly drawn to her recommendation that fundamental British values be included in a new oath for all holders of public office.
We can’t expect new arrivals to embrace British values if those of us who are already here don’t do so, and such an oath would go a long way towards making that happen. Studies show that public commitments can influence behaviour change and I believe an oath like this would make a real difference.
Half a century ago my parents were determined that my brothers and I should embrace British values and play an active role in British life. They even sent one of my brothers to a Catholic school so he could experience a whole different world of religion. Thanks to their foresight we’ve all thrived in modern Britain.
I want all new arrivals here to have the chance to do the same.
Sajid Javid is secretary of state for communities and local government