Why is there no British equivalent of the American Dream?

My American friends are amazed by the bile that is being heaped upon economic migrants in this country. They can't quite believe that Britons should be unleashing such tabloid vitriol and despatching elderly generals to stem the flow of migrants who use the Balkans as their gateway to soft-touch Britain. Don't the British, they ask me, have their own version of the American Dream? You know, that fervent faith in everyone's ability to improve their lot, from the moment they set foot on American soil. Quicker than a Superman telephone booth, the US of A will turn you from a slope-shouldered desperado into a gung-ho entrepreneur. This is the dream that enticed shiploads of Europeans and now Latin Americans and Asians to uproot themselves from their native lands and throw themselves into the melting pot; it's the promise that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty - give me your poor, your huddled masses. More than 100 years after President Cleveland unveiled those words, they remain the imperative that drives the most disparate community on earth and its economy. Come, try your luck here.

Inevitably, for some, that call proved a siren's song that lured them into an alienating existence in ghettos where their countrymen eke out a meagre living; but for the great majority of the huddled masses, this is one dream that has come true - despite the racism and bigotry they may encounter at the country club or in red-neck country.

Americans take pride in their dream, and have turned it into a narrative familiar to every schoolchild as well as to every hopeful immigrant. Whether you are a Chinese American teenager who lives in Manhattan's Chinatown, speaks Cantonese at home (17 per cent of Americans speak a language other than English) and washes dishes in your parents' restaurant while studying to become a computer scientist, or you're a wealthy, Waspy state governor and can trace your ancestors back to the Mayflower, you will have imbibed at school, in fiction and on television that your forefathers fled persecution and came to the land of the free to forge a new and better life.

This sense of their own generosity allows Americans to be more relaxed about immigration. (Yes, the sheer size of their economy also helps, but even times of recession never seem to unleash the xenophobic tirades that are common to Britain.) Their green card system, with its premium on skills rather than provenance or ethnic identity, selects rather than discriminates; their record of absorption (if not assimilation) is remarkable: 40 per cent of immigrants become US citizens. And Americans take in their stride statistics that, were they true of this country, would send Sun subs rushing for racist expletives. For example, the shocker that, by next year, the majority of Californians will be Hispanic.

Take a good look at the most recent wave of immigrants to the US: few boast any education and even fewer speak English. Compare this with the Iraqi Kurds, Afghans and east Europeans who risk their lives to cross the Channel and come to Britain. The great majority speak English, many are extremely well educated (my Serb carpenter can saw bookshelves while discoursing on anything from Proust to Pythagoras's theorem - "thanks to our communist friends," he says with a wry smile) and highly qualified - doctors and engineers and teachers. These people may be "poor" and may "huddle" in Sangatte, but they could also make marked contributions to our economy, and society. Yet we keep them at arm's length, using army tactics and men to keep these unarmed seekers from the door. Those who none the less manage to come we invite into the British nightmare of detention centres and camps, food vouchers and family separations. My American friends may well ask, where is the British Dream. It would seem that there's never been one. And that it's too late now to even envisage.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?