When opponents of immigration in this country imagine an immigrant, my sense is they don’t have in mind a white, middle-aged university professor. In fact they’re far more likely to imagine a British kid of Asian origin in the local playground as being the foreigner before they think of me.
Maybe that tells us all we need to know about the toxic role of race in discourse on immigration. I remember English friends, many years ago, explaining Norman Tebbitt’s notorious ‘cricket test’ of national identity, along the lines: ‘but he doesn’t mean you’. Immigrants aren’t quite immigrants at all if they’re the right colour and speak the right language.
But I’m an immigrant, twice over. I came to Britain to study for three years in 1988, and came back to work in 1999. I travel on an Australian passport. I follow the Australian cricket team. I came to this country because it is a place of humanity and creativity, a place that rewards hard work and innovation, a place that is tolerant and open to the world, a place that values culture and learning, a place integrated with its neighbours rather than fearful of them. I’ve felt comfortable here, and I’m doing my best as a father to raise two bright, sensitive British citizens.
Being an immigrant can be tough. Even at my level of social and cultural privilege it presents challenges, ranging from living apart from family to learning a new set of cultural codes. For those entering this country with so much less than me in the way of education and financial security – and often weighed down further by the traumas of earlier life experiences – the challenges must be immense. Despite this, all the credible evidence demonstrates that immigrants enter the country with energy and endeavour, and make a net contribution. I don’t know an awful lot about economics, but I know enough to say with confidence that much of the popular arguments against immigration is just plain dumb. Managing a national economy is not a zero-sum game, with a fixed set of resources that foreigners might come and ‘take’ from ‘us’. Immigrants at all levels help the economy grow, and that’s good for everyone.
Of course some of us will get sick. Others will need state support of different kinds. Shit happens in life, and being an immigrant, away from other support structures, raises the stakes. Sure we’re in the queue for doctors and schools, but our taxes are funding them. The NHS belongs to us as much as anyone else. Last year, a lovely Hungarian-born doctor, with a daughter the same age as one of mine growing up in Britain, spent a few hours realigning one of my wonky antipodean feet. That, it seems to me, was a classic British encounter, and long may it remain one.
I believe that, just like the surgeon, I’m helping to make Britain a better, more successful country. Occasionally a taxi-driver will derive some amusement from the idea of an Australian teaching English literature – ‘too important to leave to the Poms’, I say – but most people accept that a global marketplace for academic labour is overwhelmingly positive. Certainly most politicians, wherever they stand on immigration, are happy to boast of the achievements of ‘our’ universities. These universities have achieved their success in large part because they are so international in outlook.
As a teacher, I’m helping students to fulfil their potential and preparing them for satisfying and productive lives beyond the university. As a researcher, meanwhile, I’m helping us all to understand this country more fully. Much of my time these days is devoted to an extraordinary seventeenth-century poem of nationhood, Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion. For all his commitment to some crazy myths of national origin, even Drayton had the good sense to appreciate the contribution to Britain made by wave after wave of immigrants. Don’t believe people who say that immigration is a modern phenomenon; it’s a British phenomenon.
The divisiveness of the current debate – its discourse of a mythic ‘us’ and ‘them’ – scares me. Time after time, in recent weeks, I’ve heard people complaining about ‘them’, all the while carefully setting aside as exceptions the lovely Indian family next door, the nice Polish bloke who fixed the drains, the hard-working Latvians working on the same production-line, and so on. In the process, ‘them’ recedes into the distance, more recognizable as an image on a UKIP billboard than from any lived reality.
In the face of this, it would be easy enough for me to accept an honorary place as ‘one of us’. But that would merely allow those opposed to immigration to set me aside and continue appealing to prejudice and bigotry. So as long as people want to talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’, I’ll be ‘one of them’, thanks very much. And I’ll be bloody proud of it.