Posted on March 26, 2013

A Mega Mosque in a Suburb That Was 90 Percent White 30 Years Ago and the Polite Apartheid Dividing Britain

David Goodhart, Daily Mail (London), March 24, 2013

On Saturday, the leading liberal commentator David Goodhart described the profound effect mass immigration has had on social cohesion. He admitted that, for decades, liberals like him failed to realise its implications. Today, concluding his series, he sets out his vision of how a new Britishness can bind the nation’s fractured communities.

Large-scale immigration has created an England that is increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds — as I discovered one day sitting in an enormous minareted mosque in a sedate London suburb among thousands of men in Pashtun dress listening to the words of an elderly man.

Mirza Masroor Ahmad is not any old preacher. To a couple of million Muslims of one particular sect, the Ahmadiyans, he is the holiest man on the planet.

The mosque in Merton, which dominates its neighbourhood, replaced an Express Dairies bottling plant which provided a few hundred jobs for local people and lots of milk bottles — an icon of an earlier, more homogenised age. 

The symbolism is not lost on the mainly white older residents, who, when I was there researching the effects of mass immigration on British society, did not seem to be embracing diversity with as much enthusiasm as the proponents of multiculturalism think they should.

They are not unusual. Thanks to over-rapid immigration in recent years, Britain is heading for an ethnic minority population of around 25 per cent by the end of this decade.

And in Merton in South-West London, and too many places like it, a polite apartheid reigns: an accommodation rather than an integration. The white population has more or less reluctantly shuffled along the bench and allowed others to sit down.

Since 1980, Merton’s minority population has risen from 10 per cent to over 50 per cent today. Its primary schools — which were still majority white as recently as 2003 — are now 64 per cent ethnic minority. The area has become, in the jargon, ‘super diverse’.

There is no dominant minority in Merton, which helps to make the changes feel less threatening; but there is not much evidence of a common life being built together either. London is not the happily colour-blind multi-racial city that many people like to imagine.

You can see it in action at weekends in a small park close to Morden station. On a sunny day, the place is usually full but divided along ethnic lines: large groups of Pakistani women picnicking with children, Polish guys drinking beer, young Indian men playing cricket, Africans playing basketball.

There is quite a large East European group in Merton which tends to keep itself to itself. Several of the more entrepreneurial communities, such  as the Indians and Tamils and  Iraqi Kurds, create jobs but they invariably go to members of their  own community.

Some minorities import historic feuds. Orthodox Muslims in the area are suspicious of the Ahmadiyans; Tamil youths fight among themselves, as do Somalis; and the historic black (Caribbean and African) versus Asian antipathy is also played out on  some streets.

Economically, many minority Mertonites are doing pretty well in their enclaves. The Indians and Chinese are doing best of all in school and in jobs, closely tracked by Koreans and Tamils. As in the national picture, the white British are somewhere in the middle.

But not everyone is happy with this situation, whatever the local politicians might claim. To many poorer and older white people, there is a sense of loss.

‘We don’t like it, but we don’t have much choice, do we?’ the owner of a hairdressing salon said about competition from a Muslim hair-cutter who had set up shop two doors along.

Poorer working-class whites are doing worst of all in Merton, as in many similar parts of the country. Such people have mainly opted out: they seldom vote, and a lot of the younger people are ‘Neets’ — not in employment, education or training.

For many of the white people who have remained as the area’s personality has changed, the disappearance of familiar mental and physical landmarks has happened too fast —   symbolised by that giant Ahmadiya mosque with its capacity for 10,000 worshippers (plus six smaller, mainstream mosques in the borough).

The Ahmadiyans are model immigrants in many ways. They preach an ecumenical form of Islam and are grateful to be given refuge in this country. They even took out posters on London buses congratulating the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee.

But to many locals, that’s not the point. As one man — described as White Heritage Elder Male in the  jargon of race relations — told a  Merton council focus group: ‘We’ve lost this place to other cultures. It’s not English any more.’

Local political leaders will often  privately admit to the same concern — though, as in all areas of high minority settlement, they have no choice but to celebrate the new diversity.

And from their vantage point, things do often look more integrated  than they really are. For at the gatherings they attend, there will usually be a cross-section of the local minority elites mingling happily together and sharing the same interests  and concerns. 

(Some cynics note that the places where the deepest common life is being forged between the new and the old tribes of urban England is in the local political class and the drug gangs.)

But what we need to do now is  to find a surer way of binding our communities together. One essential tool, I believe, is a national story that everyone can tap into: a story that  can underpin a sense of ‘emotional citizenship’; a belief that despite many different values and backgrounds, we’re also part of the same team.

One of the failings of the separatist multiculturism that developed in the Seventies and Eighties is that it prevented the emergence of a new sense of Britishness — one that absorbed newcomers while keeping a central place for the traditions of the existing society. 

Because no clear national identity was on offer, when new citizens arrived here their own ethnic and religious identities filled the gap, leading  to charges that ‘They keep themselves to themselves’ or ‘They don’t want  to fit in’. Misunderstanding built  on misunderstanding, mistrust on mistrust.

We now need a narrative to inspire and guide us, a new British Dream that encompasses both old and new citizens into this country of ours with its remarkable past. 

For historical reasons to do with our imperial past, some parts of the British elite are uncomfortable with the idea of ‘nation’. 

As a public schoolboy Leftie  who was then briefly attracted to Marxism while at university, I considered any expression of attachment to my country as stupid (with the exception of the England cricket and football teams). 

Boundaries and borders were for the small-minded and the provincial. They were just so uncool. I now believe this disdain of mine was immature and premature,  as well as loftily dismissive of majority opinion. 

And a nation state cannot just be a machine for providing individuals with rights, wealth and passports. It needs emotional ballast, too. We need to reinforce the idea of a ‘citizen nation’ that crosses class and ethnic boundaries.

An unembarrassed and un- chauvinistic attachment to this country — its language, its history, a sense of a common home — has long been the sensible, low-key national feeling of ordinary Britain.

Now, two generations after we stopped being an Empire, the opportunity is here for a benign, confident identity to emerge,  which is an aid, not an obstacle, to  integrating newcomers. 

National feeling is not primarily about institutions but is rooted in everyday life, from sprawling conurbations to small villages; in shared experience and mutual interests; in a certain kind of humour; and in a rich language.

Very few British people think you have to be white to be part of this. 

And most minority Britons, especially those born here, do join the ‘we’, do know something about the history of this country and connect to it, do speak the language as a native, and so on.

They may retain an attachment to other traditions and memories, but there have always been many different, hybrid ways to be English or British.

In accommodating people of  different backgrounds and beliefs, we do not need to abandon a sense of national history, or our popular democratic ‘ownership’ of the country we live in. An inclusive and strong national identity is possible.

To develop it, we need a few more stories like the following one. The Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh told me recently of her elderly Irish father sitting in the gallery of the House of Lords shaking his head in pride and disbelief as he watched his other daughter, Margaret, being elevated to the peerage. 

He had come to England in the late Forties to work as a labourer, met and married an Irish nurse and they had two daughters.

Both did well. One daughter became an MP, the other  became general-secretary of the Labour Party.

And as he watched one of his girls becoming a baroness, he muttered under his breath: ‘Only in England … only in England.’

He was not technically correct — these things happen in other places, too — but they happen here far more than we admit, and it’s  time that our national story reflected them. 

This is not about deference, but gratitude for the best features of an open society. After losing an Empire, perhaps Britain has finally found a role: just being itself.