Ed Miliband’s speech on immigration the other day caught my eye. In part that’s because I know that his father, Ralph, is one of the more famous alumni of the college where I’m a governor, learning English at Acton Technical College as the first step on a career which led him to prominence as an academic. I hope that one day we can welcome Ed, or David, or their mother, to what is now the Acton campus of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, to inspire our current ESOL students. I want them to believe that as recent immigrants they can ‘make it’ themselves, as Ralph Miliband did, and do not have to live their hopes only through their children.
Clearly Ed Miliband was trying to shift Labour’s centre of gravity on immigration in response to widespread concerns, and despite the oddly staccato style of the written version, it was a thoughtful speech, worth attention.
I was struck by this phrase: “almost one million children in Britain now don’t speak English as their first language at home, double what it was in 1997”. How far is that really a problem? I want everyone in this country to be able to use English effectively in their daily lives, but I also hope that everyone who has another culture as their heritage continues to cherish it.
I’ll illustrate what I mean by the example of my own family – because neither my father, nor my wife’s father, spoke English as his first language.
My father-in-law was Polish, drafted into the German army against his will when it invaded in 1939, then losing out a second time as the Soviet army began its invasion. As he started again in Britain he was very clear that he intended to integrate, anglicizing one of his Christian names for use at work, and never making any attempt to join Polish clubs or teach his children Polish. I think they’ve missed out.
My own father, by contrast, was a Scot – and a native Gaelic speaker, who learnt English only when he went to school. Conversation in the home was always in Gaelic when he was a boy, though of course everyone spoke English fluently and to the uninitiated my father was not so much “integrated”, as a “normal” fellow Brit. And I, too, like my wife’s family, have missed out because my father did not teach me his native language, or anything of Gaelic culture.
A civilised society values both, doesn’t it? Everyone needs to be able to converse in English, and read and write English well, so that they can get and keep a decent job, talk to the doctor and to their children’s teachers, and play a normal part in society. And those who argue fiercely that immigrants should be made to learn English should stop getting in the way by curtailing ESOL classes for the vast majority who are hungry to do so.
But those who are lucky enough to be part of some other culture too, should be encouraged to celebrate it, protect it, and nurture it. How is my Britishness threatened when my local Sainsbury’s sets up a stall selling sweets for Diwali? The staff wear their saris on Diwali, and I think they look great. I don’t know if the many Poles who queue alongside me think so, too, but we all know that the staff speak fluent English. That’s the key. What happens in someone’s own home is up to them.
PS Miliband made a passing reference in his speech to signs in pubs and landlords’ windows a few decades ago which said “no blacks and no Irish”. It wasn’t just private discrimination: it was the State too. Before open display of vacancies (and before the Race Relations Act) it used to be normal for many vacancies in Government Employment Offices to be marked “NCNI”: ie “no coloureds, no Irish”. Who says there’s no such thing as progress?