Foreign devils. Photo:Getty
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Britain's immigration debate has taken a turn for the toxic

Whether it is the attacks on migrants crossing the Mediterranean or questions about Nick Clegg's heritage, our national debate on immigration has taken a nasty turn.

The immigration debate has been spiraling into a toxic swamp propelled by cross-party consensus to "control immigration". While a coherent argument on immigration is decades overdue, the current anti-immigrant debate has slipped into a new realm, targeting second generation immigrants. The Daily Express has already attempted to classify the British born BME community as "hidden migrants". With this context, Evan Davis's interview with Nick Clegg was difficult to watch.

Nick Clegg proudly spoke of his European heritage, his Dutch mother, and his grasp of five languages. In an attempt to point out Clegg's elitist upbringing, Davis questioned if Clegg's multicultural upbringing has put him out of touch with the British working class. Davis had a number of examples of elitism to choose: his gap year, his time at Oxbridge, or his public school education. The choice to fixate upon Clegg's multicultural upbringing, suggesting it to be out of touch with "British" people, made for uncomfortable viewing. For centuries immigrants have been an integral part of the British working class. Within the context of the current immigration climate, it feels like further demonisation of BME people.

Davis's intention was unlikely to be intentional racial discomfort, but Clegg's furious reaction mirrored that of many children of migrants. Our Britishness is consistently questioned despite having lived in the UK for our entire lives. Casual racism is on the rise, particularly within politics. On the doorstep a BME canvasser is increasingly likely to hear "I don't want your people here", and worse. These experiences lead to racial sensitivity and passing comments questioning multiculturalism vs Britishness can be interpreted as a personal attack when coupled with modern attitudes to race in Britain.

For the British Asian community, the Ugandan exile was only one generation ago. The discussions of identity, culture, and language are still quite raw for many British migrant communities. Fueled by the rising anti immigrant sentiment, communities are continuously feeling unwanted. This is leading to a rise in extremism, as well as record levels of BME voter apathy. A BBC news personality should understand the effects of language within such a climate and should be able to recognise why using such an argument is harmful towards people already at risk of social exclusion.

Davis's unwillingness to comprehend the harm to BME communities demonstrates a lack of compassion, as well as a lack of cultural awareness at the BBC. His intentions may not have been malicious, but seeing such comparisons on prime time BBC One make the children of migrants feel like they must justify their heritage and language to all of the people they meet on a regular basis who question their identity. Davis does not have to regularly prove his 'Britishness' and therefore he is unable to comprehend his statement for people who have to regularly prove their British identity.

The immigration debate has taken a drastic turn if journalists are so desensitised to such cultural comparisons possibly causing harm. Britain has thrived on multiculturalism, yet if the "British working class" see multiculturalism as an elitist concept, we have serious problems with integration. Politicians need to prioritise multicultural integration within these communities if Davis's statement is true. The curriculum must be reformed to ensure young people are taking up languages. Our cultural divisions are being exploited by politicians and communities are falling behind. Integration can only go hand in hand with an acceptance of multiculturalism and diverse communities. For immigrants and their children, political discourse is attempting to create divisions within society. We constantly feel like we must prove our value and it is not helped by journalists inadvertently contributing to these divisions. We need to seriously look into why multiculturalism is regarded as an elitist concept, despite the "British working class" being extremely multicultural. Most of all, we need to acknowledge when the immigration debate creates sensitivity and unease within BME communities.

Pexel
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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times