England is a country of Foreigners

Academic in Residence, Harminder Singh reflects on NAE’s VOCAL Debate, April 2015

Who we are! or Who are we? One is a statement and the other a question and this was an underlying theme of the VOCAL debate: what is identity and who defines it –in one sense we cannot talk about one without discussing the other. So our identity relies on who we surround ourselves with but also on those that are ‘ours’.

It relies on the experiences we have: of finding work, of dealing with discrimination, of being seen as the ‘other’ – Mahtab Hussain’s work explores some of this through the voices of people living in Hyson Green, and is the positive reason for the debate.

The Commonality of Strangers was theme was reflected by the other panel members : Gary Younge, who brought an international perspective from his experiences in the USA; Skinder Hundal, whose energy is symbolised in the existence of NAE building – who would have thought that possible; and Roger Bromley whose insights into post-colonialism brought an historical perspective and also by Bidisha who brought her own perspective and, from the Chair, posed some searching questions.

There was a negative reason for holding the debate: the drearily predictable abuse by so-called politicians in using race, under the guise of immigration, as a general election issue. Negative because it is politicians such as those in UKIP who are reaching into people’s fears about the future…these fears are not caused by immigration…we should perhaps look at the financial markets. The General Financial Crisis was caused by the greed of those who already have plenty and yet the focus of blame is immigration.

The facts are clear: immigration is good for the country and good for the immigrant – in fact what Governments do is to make it harder for immigrants to help this country. The squeeze on provision of learning English – how can this be socially progressive? The quicker people learn English the sooner they can contribute to the economy and the social richness that is England and the UK.

There is a parallel here in relation to the arts – what appears frivolous actually opens up new ways of seeing, from which new ways of doing emerge. The ‘business’ end of this is advertising and design, however art has also brought in a new way of seeing through originating the post-modern. The ‘sin’ of post modernism is ethnocentrism – see oneself as superior to another – and this has particularly been true of international business…but no longer, as most businesses who are trading outside of their home country are respectful of the culture and identity of the country they are working in. So we have a situation where barriers to the flow of trade and money are being dismantled and yet, and yet, the barriers to the free movement of people are under pressure to be raised further.

The identity of being English is perhaps something we will never resolve because England is constantly changing. It is worth reminding ourselves of Daniel Defoe’s famous poem, A true born Englishman, which starts and ends with the lines:

‘Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman’

‘Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive’

England is a country of foreigners. It is what makes England creative, open to new ideas (relatively), new cuisines (absolutely) with a breath-taking breadth of art. The panel reflected this diversity and, from my point of view, it is a beginning from which we will be able to ask the question Who Are We? and answer it with ‘Who we are is….(you complete the sentence)

Harminder Singh

Back to All Posts