Rarely do I associate Tony Blair with my mother. After all, they have little in common. One was prime minister and marched the UK into five wars in six years; the other taught for decades in east London primary schools, to which she drove in a cheery red Nissan Micra. But seeking respite from the oven of this weekend, I began reading Blair’s latest remarks on migrants – and found myself thinking instead of a beaming lady in a classroom.
Like so many of us, the former Labour leader is worried about “far-right bigotry”. However, he has a solution. It is simple. It is confident. It comes in his trademark declarative sentences. And it says that to beat racist thugs, their targets must try harder to blend in. They should be forced to do so by the government, acting as “an enforcer of the duty to integrate”. You see, “failures around integration have led to attacks on diversity and are partly responsible for a reaction against migration”.
Follow that circle all the way round, and Blair really is suggesting that victims of racial abuse are partly culpable for it.
Not that he’d ever say it so bluntly. Instead, Mr Third Way argues that only by migrants fitting in can we ensure diversity. But one thing jumps out from his foreword to a just-published report by his own thinktank. The people who are spitting at “foreigners”, ripping headscarves off mums and far worse do not come in for a single denunciation. Not one. Not even a yawning, dutiful, pro-forma sideswipe for appearance’s sake. His focus never wavers from blaming the victims.His remarks are followed by proposals for a government department to ensure cultural cohesion, and even “civic integration contracts”, with only a cursory mention of migrants’ rights. It is around this point that the sore-eyed reader glances at the smiling portraits of the report’s authors and observes that not one appears to be non-white.
Were this just one intervention from one ex-prime minister turned odd-job man for billionaires and brutal autocrats, we might safely ignore it. But Blair is voicing a common attitude of the British political classes, which need people to come over and care for our elderly, build those railways and heal the sick, and yet be treated with an imperious hostility. As home secretary, it was the supposedly liberal Amber Rudd who in 2016 wanted to force employers to draw up lists of foreign workers. Earlier, it was David Cameron and George Osborne who banked the taxes paid by migrant workers, doled it out in tax cuts to big corporates and the rich, and then allowed migrants to cop the flak for underfunded hospitals and schools being at bursting point.
“Government cannot and should not be neutral” on integration, cries Blair – yet neglects to mention the Prevent programme that he set up, which compels teachers and even nursery staff to monitor ethnic-minority children for extremism, and which has been slammed by the home affairs select committee as “toxic” after this year leading to an eight-year-old boy in Essex being interrogated by counter-terrorism officers.
Anyone arriving in this country today is thus put in a near-impossible bind. They are treated transactionally, yet need to act as if they belong. They come from another country but are expected to adopt some mush labelled “British values”. And, according to Blair, just to win parity with racists, they must behave so much better than them. All the while, they are expected to put up with a popular press calling them benefit scroungers and job thieves. There have been times, especially over the past three years, when it has struck me that Britain doesn’t want immigrants at all. It wants saints.
Which makes me think of Heathrow in the late 60s, and a young woman arriving from India. Here to do postgraduate work, my mother came with tracts of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury stored in her memory and a fair knowledge of British political thought, from John Locke to Harold Laski. She knew the language, and would end up teaching it to generations of British children; and, having been born in British India, she also knew the culture. In other words, she was a Good Migrant.
With one notable twist. At the start of her teaching career here, my sari-clad mother was asked by an interview board whether she really intended to turn up at school in similar costume. She replied that her own mother in Varanasi swam the River Ganges every day wearing a sari and, if she could handle that, “I’m sure I can manage a classroom in one”. Thinking about it now, I am amazed all over again: my mother, still relatively new to this land of Enoch Powell and No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs, calmly facing down an all-white panel. She would never look as British as them, so she would stand out on her own terms.
To the best of my recollection, she did indeed go to school in a sari every day. She occasionally drove me there, in that tomato-red Micra, and I remember bullying van drivers rolling down their windows to shout at the small Indian woman that she was a Paki – the same woman on her way to teach reading and writing, possibly to their kids or their friends’ kids. And that is just the tip of a very big iceberg of racial abuse and condescension and stereotyping at work, out shopping or just minding one’s own business.
My mother isn’t a complainer, and this isn’t a hard-luck story. I’m telling it to you to underline the fact that migrants and their children can never fit in enough. Even the woman who spends family holidays on a Thomas Hardy pilgrimage and reps for her teaching union has a core of foreignness to which others may object. The West Indian pensioners living here for 50 years who fought Britain’s wars and wiped British bums might justifiably have considered themselves fully integrated – until it transpired that they didn’t have quite the right documents, and so their Britishness could be taken away from them, along with their homes, their benefits and their right to medical treatment.
If integration is your sole metric of success, we will always, at some level, fail. I can’t make myself white, my mother can’t forget her Bengali, and neither of us can be you. The question is how far Britain is willing to change its ideas of Britishness to accommodate all the millions of people who have so much to give it. But to do that, the pundits must stop treating the white working class as if it is one fused-together identity, ignoring the reality that in many parts of our cities the working class is not white at all, from the security guards who mind the offices to the cleaners who come after dark.
The politicians should stop nodding at racists and their “legitimate grievances”. Stop seeing people from ethnic minorities for what they are, and finally see them for who they are.
• Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist