It’s Time to say Thank You to our Immigrant Communities

June 20, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

A few days before he delivered his now infamous speech Enoch Powell spoke of his excitement to his close friend Clement Jones. “I’m going to make a speech at the weekend”, he said, “and it’s going to go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket; but whereas all rockets fall to the earth, this one is going to stay up.”

And stay up it has. Forty years later and Powell’s words remain as inflammatory now as they were then. For those who share his incendiary views he has been immortalised as the last great defender of a white little Britain. For the rest of us he will forever be associated with ignorance and bigotry cloaked in the thin veil of political respectability. But whatever you think of the man one thing can’t be denied – the speech he made that day has come to shape the way we talk about immigration in this country.

As the son of immigrants I was brought up to see Powell as a political bogeyman – the symbol of a narrowly defined view of Britishness that excluded people like me and my parents. And the sad truth is that the perception of immigration as a threat to the fabric of British society has persisted to varying degrees ever since. Whether its talk of being swamped, fear of immigrant crime waves or concerns about the fair provision of public services, for many the threat from immigration is as real today as it was when Powell made that speech all those years ago.

However, rather than holding Britain back immigrants have contributed a great deal to our country. Studies show that migration has had a positive impact on the British economy. The Treasury estimates that in 2006 new migration added about £6 billion to economic growth – around one-sixth of the total growth in the economy in that year. And for decades immigrants have brought with them new jobs and industries. The curry industry in Britain, for example, employs more people than shipbuilding, steel and coal mining put together. Out of every pound spent on food in the UK, 30 pence is spent on curry.

Of course thing’s aren’t perfect and I’d be the first to admit that in parts of the country immigration has brought with it real challenges. Change and churn has transformed many communities up and down the UK. However, while we need to tackle these issues it is also crucial that we recognise the invaluable contribution that immigrants have made to this country. If we don’t do that soon, it might just be too late.

In April this year the IPPR published a major study on post-EU enlargement migration flows to and from the UK. The report focussed on the scale and nature of migration from the new EU accession states and found that the patterns of post-enlargement migration were very different from those of the past. Its conclusion was clear – a significant number of these economic migrants are leaving this country to return home or to work in other EU states which are loosening their restrictions on EU labour.

The statistics speak for themselves. Out of the 1 million migrants that they say arrived in the UK from the 8 countries that joined the EU in 2004, around half have now left. And we’re also seeing a major slowdown in the numbers coming to work in the UK in the first place. The report estimated that some 30,000 fewer migrants arrived in the second half of 2007 as compared to the same period the year before. So as migration patterns change, what does this mean for Britain?

Us Brits are getting older. And as we age we are becoming ever more dependent on the labour of these young economic migrants. This is starkly reflected in the country’s dependency ratio – the ratio of children and older people to those in work. This ratio is important because as it increases, there is increased strain on the working population to support the upbringing and pensions of the economically dependent. According to the projections of the Government Actuary’s Department (GAD) the dependency ratio is set to rise from 61% in 2007 to 73% in 2056. However, without migration the ratio would reach a whopping 82% in 50 years time. Far from feeling threatened by people coming into our country we should be worried about them leaving.

Forty years ago Enoch Powell launched a rocket that has stayed up ever since. His prophesy of British streets awash with blood continues to shape the way we talk about immigration in this country. However statistics show that, in the face of demographic change, it is a drought not a swamp of migrants that we should fear. So now is the time to silence Powell and his influence once and for all. To achieve that we need to say two words to the immigrant communities who have contributed so much to this country. Two words that are more powerful than every sentence and sentiment espoused in Powell’s xenophobic speech. Those two words are “thank you.” Thank you for the contribution you have made to Britain. Thank you for your sheer hard work. But most of all thank you for staying.

Parmjit Dhanda is MP for Gloucester, and Minister for Community Cohesion.
This article first appeared on Compass.

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This post was written by Parmjit Dhanda

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