The right to speak a world language

It is a measure of the deep British muddle over race relations that, when politicians propose that it would be a good idea for new citizens to learn English, the press ring with fevered denunciation. Thus, when the Labour MP Ann Cryer let slip the idea in July, she was accused, by a member of her party's national executive, of "doing the BNP's work for it". When Jeff Rooker, the immigration minister, revived it this month, he was charged with "linguistic colonialism". And when David Blunkett backs Lord Rooker, cries of "Nazi indoctrination" go forth.

Now turn to the United States, a country built on welcoming "your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses". The US requires (though there are exemptions) that new citizens "be able to speak, read, write and understand ordinary English words and phrases". So why do the British find this so painful to consider?

Two points need to be made at the outset. First, a lack of English is not the main reason for poverty and unemployment among Asians in Bradford, Oldham and elsewhere, and if Ms Cryer or Lord Rooker think it is, they should get out a bit more. Many Asians (and, indeed, Afro-Caribbeans) speak perfect English and even hold university degrees. They still do not get jobs. The persistence of racial discrimination in the labour market - and the failure of governments to do anything about it - is a national disgrace.

Second, the left should support the greatest possible movement of labour across national boundaries. This would be the biggest liberation in history for the world's poor, doing more to narrow inequalities in global living standards than any number of loans or grants (which is not to deny the need for the latter as well). It is another national disgrace that "economic migrant" has become a term of abuse.

But our debates about race and asylum have become so highly charged that we cannot see the wood for the trees. Proponents of multiculturalism argue that we should not require ethnic minorities to behave as though they were model Britons circa 1950, eating roast beef on Sundays, and cheering for the English cricket team. Indeed not. But this laudable care for ethnic minority cultures too easily shades into a denial of basic human rights. These include the right to education and the right of women and gays to equal treatment. Women, for example, should not be forced into marriage against their will. Nor can it be right that British law allows gypsy children to attend school for only half the year. If we are to agree that the sanctity of a way of life takes precedence over universal rights, the southern US would still be allowed to practise slavery.

The language debate is an example of this muddle. Multiculturalists tend to give higher priority to the maintenance of minority languages - they demand that they be taught in schools and that public documents be circulated in Urdu - than to the teaching of English. They are wrong. English is an essential tool for exercising the rights and duties of citizenship in Britain: to find work, to cast your vote and to claim social security, say. This applies particularly to those women who come here within arranged marriages; without knowledge of the language, they cannot lead independent lives. Moreover, English, as an international language, will empower them in other parts of Europe, too, while learning Urdu in Tower Hamlets leaves them trapped in Tower Hamlets. Opportunities to learn English should be a high priority for new arrivals. Whether proficiency should be a condition of citizenship is debatable. But a minister who suggests it should be is not guilty of linguistic colonialism.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot