Should we give priority to Christian immigrants?

Lord Carey's comments risk stirring up pointless divisions

The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, was at the centre of a controversy today after making comments to the effect that the UK should give priority to Christian immigrants.

He gave an interview to BBC Radio (you can listen to it here) after putting his name to a call by a cross-party group of MPs and peers for a cap on immigration to prevent the population from swelling to 70 million by 2029.

Here's the relevant excerpt from the interview:

Lord Carey: What I'm concerned about is that we should give priority to all those who are committed to our democratic values; a commitment to parliamentary democracy and understanding of our history, and certainly anyone who comes into our country must be committed to learning the English language.

Now it may be that as a result of that that those who really come from Christian nations or formerly Christian may be regarded as priorities, but I wouldn't want to put that -- I'm saying that it's the values that matter, not the beliefs.

Nicky Campbell: So because we want people with certain values, it's more likely that they will come from Christian countries?

Lord Carey: Exactly.

Now, I don't want to play the "racist" card here -- it's unproductive and precludes rational debate on the subject of immigration, which, as Michael White points out, we need to have.

But there is something profoundly uncomfortable about taking one faith and stating that its members are by nature more democratic, particularly given that Christianity is by no means monolithic -- a point that Dave Semple makes in an interesting discussion of the comments. Let's not pretend that Christians always, by default, do democracy. What about Nazi Germany, or Mussolini's Italy? Christianity is the dominant religion in Belarus, the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. So, too, in Zimbabwe.

The point I'm making is that generalisation along the lines of faith is completely unhelpful -- especially given that all indicators show that Britain is steadily secularising. Research has shown that 66 per cent of the population have no actual connection to any religion or church, despite what they write down on official forms, and that between 1979 and 2005, half of all Christians stopped going to church on a Sunday. In the light of this, Carey's comments start to look like they're stirring up pointless divisions.

Asked about "Islamification", the former archbishop said:

I wouldn't want to focus simply upon Muslim communities -- our country has always had a very strong commitment to inclusion and welcoming the stranger in our midst.

I'll ignore the "stranger in our midst" comment, although as my mother's family is from Pakistan it irks me (is it only the Christian former colonies that count?). But he goes on to praise Jews, Hindus and Sikhs for their integration, saying: "The Muslim community, less so."

I am not accusing Lord Carey of racism or Islamophobia, but comments like this -- particularly taken out of context -- can sound frighteningly reminiscent of those made by the far right. Blogging on the Telegraph's website, Damian Thompson, in a piece of classic generalisation and scaremongering, makes the throwaway remark that Carey must have "opened his eyes to the shared anti-Christian agenda of multiculturalists and Muslims".

The call for a cap on immigration is said to be motivated in part by a desire not to play into the hands of the far right. But stirring up divisions along religious lines risks doing just that.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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New Digital Editor: Serena Kutchinsky

The New Statesman appoints Serena Kutchinsky as Digital Editor.

Serena Kutchinsky is to join the New Statesman as digital editor in September. She will lead the expansion of the New Statesman across a variety of digital platforms.

Serena has over a decade of experience working in digital media and is currently the digital editor of Newsweek Europe. Since she joined the title, traffic to the website has increased by almost 250 per cent. Previously, Serena was the digital editor of Prospect magazine and also the assistant digital editor of the Sunday Times - part of the team which launched the Sunday Times website and tablet editions.

Jason Cowley, New Statesman editor, said: “Serena joins us at a great time for the New Statesman, and, building on the excellent work of recent years, she has just the skills and experience we need to help lead the next stage of our expansion as a print-digital hybrid.”

Serena Kutchinsky said: “I am delighted to be joining the New Statesman team and to have the opportunity to drive forward its digital strategy. The website is already established as the home of free-thinking journalism online in the UK and I look forward to leading our expansion and growing the global readership of this historic title.

In June, the New Statesman website recorded record traffic figures when more than four million unique users read more than 27 million pages. The circulation of the weekly magazine is growing steadily and now stands at 33,400, the highest it has been since the early 1980s.