The eyes of Europe are on Birmingham as it becomes the continent’s first ethnic majority city, Britain’s equalities chief has said.
Speaking at the same Birmingham hotel on the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Trevor Phillips called for a fresh debate on immigration which he said was vital for the country’s economic future.
And he described how he thought Birmingham’s unique ethnic make-up would eventually be the model for the majority of large cities in Europe.
Mr Phillips, chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, described the prospect of ethnic minorities becoming the majority of Birmingham’s population as “a very very big deal”.
He added: “I think it’s a very important issue. It’s important because in Europe this won’t happen in the way it has happened in America, where one lot of people takes over from another.
“There will be a lot of groups of different ethnicities, and that is going to take a new kind of thinking. This is what most European cities in 15 or 20 years’ time will look like, and that’s why I’m so interested in what’s happening in Birmingham.”
Calling for a new debate on immigration laws, Mr Phillips said mass immigration had led to a ‘cold war’ between ethnic communities in Britain, and failed immigration policies risked nurturing racism.
He also invoked the memory of Warwick University student Kevin Gately as an example of how disputes between communities had affected him personally.
Mr Gately was killed in 1978 while protesting at an anti-racist demonstration in London, after students were urged into action by Mr Phillips, head of the NUS at the time. Mr Phillips said he still felt some personal responsibility for Mr Gately’s death.
But despite the social problems that he said immigration created, Mr Phillips said immigrants were a ‘tide of talent’ that had contributed hugely to life in Britain, and were indispensable to the country’s economy.
Making his speech at the Burlington Hotel in Birmingham, where 40 years ago Enoch Powell called for the suspension of all immigration, Mr Phillips said the UK would become “an economic backwater” if highly-skilled immigrants were not encouraged by new legislation to come to the UK.
He added: “If we fail, our children and our grandchildren won’t be arguing about how many immigrants are coming in, they will be wondering how they can get a work permit into dominant economies like India and China.
“The real question will be whether we can, as a modern economy, seize the restless tide of talent that is currently sweeping across the globe.
“So far we are lagging behind our competitors. While we cower in fear and fret about whether to admit clever foreigners from other nations, America, Australia and Canada are already sailing on that tide of talent. Managing immigration is not always the same as reducing immigration numbers.”
Mr Phillips’s comments were welcomed by the crowd at the speech, which took in representatives of many local faith groups, charities and public bodies.
Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, said: “We are built on immigration, we are a race of bastards. Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe, because we are founded on immigration.”
And as the Aston Villa players were beating their Birmingham rivals 5-1 just up the road, Mr Phillips said the Premier League could be an example of how managed immigration could be a success.
He said: “Nobody asks where players come from, only what they bring. The shared desire to win means players make compromises for the common good. The fact we have found players in our game does not make our home-grown players less bankable. None of this happens by accident. There has been control and regulation.”