The Economist recently ran an interesting article about the Conservative Party in Britain and its longer-term strategy in preparation for the next general election to be held May 7, 2015. Three policies have emerged in the Conservative Party as central and believed to be popular with the people, and consequently destined to "put the opposition on the wrong side of popular opinion". Economics, of course, loom large. The policy of interest here, however, is not economic, strictly speaking: that of reducing immigration. In the UK, 11.3 percent of the total population is foreign-born, and there are some estimates of almost 900,000 illegal immigrants.
In the midst of the many conversations about the issue of immigration has appeared an unusual campaign, by the Home Office, the lead government department for immigration and passports, drug policy, crime, counter-terrorism, and police, and one of whose 2013 priorities (according to their website) is to "secure our borders and reduce immigration". Attached to the back of vans are large billboards:
In the UK illegally?
106 arrests last week in your area.
Text HOME to 78070 for free advice and help with travel documents
We can help you to return home without fear of arrest or detention.
The article describes the "immigration vans" as draconian, gimmicky, and popular. Some surely find the campaign clever. Others surely find it offensive.
Much can obviously be said. But two things strike me as interesting: the popularity of the campaign, and the reference (twice) to "home" on the billboard. In my mind, both things are linked to the question of assimilation. Let me explain. I think most people are fair-minded. I think that people are basically good. And I think that people are inclined to form community. Thus, when people witness and experience others dis-inclined to form community, people who deliberately remain apart, who do not assimilate, they are understandably disturbed.
It is unfortunate that assimilation has become a curse word, for it renders conversation very difficult. Some people view assimilation as oppressive. But if one really thinks about it, assimilation is a natural phenomenon. Indeed, over time, multi-culturalism gives way to uni-culturalism. People form community, and forming community occurs by means of assimilation. And it is normal for those who come from without, from "abroad", to have to assimilate more, for they are the ones entering the society and its cultural patrimony. Assimilation, of course, does not necessarily mean denying one's previous traditions, but it does mean, communally speaking, embracing a new social reality and actively participating in it. The community is obviously enriched by its new members, but its (good) reality takes precedence over that of the communities newcomers left.
Stacey Dooley, a British television personality, who has hosted several documentaries for the BBC, in 2012 decided to make a documentary on her home-town of Luton (population 203,201). Since the 2011 census, Luton has become one of three towns in the United Kingdom to officially hold a white British minority. Thirty percent of the population is Muslim, and struggles with Muslim extremists have become an unfortunate, at least occasional, feature of the town. In the documentary, meant to explore these religious zealots, Stacey earnestly tries to be fair in her portrayal, frequently returning the common narrative "these extremists are not representative of the whole community". Culturally speaking, however, the distinction between moderate and radical is almost neither here nor there. Stacey came home after a few years away to discover, regarding parts of Luton, "I do not recognize my town." The question of assimilation . . .
When members of a community find themselves alongside persons for whom the place they live is not home, they are understandably uncomfortable. How many times, here in the United States, have I heard immigrants say "in my country" — in reference to another country. When experiences such as these are had, campaigns like the immigration vans begin to resonate with people: a campaign to help people "go home" so that everyone can be at home: immigrants where they consider home and members of the community alongside people who are happy to call their place "home" and with whom they are proud of the home team.
The intensity and naturalness of this longing for home is such that, if mainstream voices ignore or denigrate it, it will successfully be taken up by the fringe. We've see that in the UK, where the English Defence League was founded in 2009 in reaction to Muslim extremism. The following passage, from the EDL's mission statement, frames the issue of assimilation in what I think are intelligent terms:
The EDL believes that English Culture has the right to exist and prosper in England. We recognise that culture is not static, that over time changes take place naturally, and that other cultures make contributions that make our shared culture stronger and more vibrant. However, this does not give license to policy makers to deliberately undermine our culture and impose non-English cultures on the English people in their own land.
If people migrate to this country then they should be expected to respect our culture, its laws, and its traditions, and not expect their own cultures to be promoted by agencies of the state. The best of their cultures will be absorbed naturally and we will all be united by the enhanced culture that results. The onus should always be on foreign cultures to adapt and integrate. If said cultures promote anti-democratic ideas and refuse to accept the authority of our nation's laws, then the host nation should not be bowing to these ideas in the name of "cultural sensitivity". Law enforcement personnel must be able to enforce the rule of law thoroughly without prejudice or fear. Everyone, after all, is supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law.
It is a sorry commentary on the state of politics in the UK that it takes a dubious group like the EDL to state such obvious truths about the longing for home.