The great myth about immigration is that there has never been any proper debate on the issue.
Not true. In the 40 years since I first arrived from India, immigration, like taxes and the royal family, has formed a constant backdrop of national discourse.
I came months after Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Then, immigration was a codeword for coloured immigration. But, as yesterday’s figures from the Office of National Statistics show, the group showing the largest population increase between 2001 and 2009 were 533,000 “other whites”: east Europeans and people from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. This should help us stop seeing the issue as a purely ethnic one.
What we have not yet done is to stop seeing migration in purely economic terms.
Migrants are always pictured as coming here to take advantage of Britain’s benefit system and the NHS, and to make more money than they could have done elsewhere. What we do not hear about are the more complex personal stories. In fact people are attracted by the superior value system of this country. Some come even if it means leaving behind a more comfortable lifestyle.
That was certainly true for me. Having qualified as an accountant, I had returned India to become a partner in a leading firm. This was sheer nepotism as my brother-in-law was in charge. I could not have had a better lifestyle: chauffeur-driven cars, servants, membership of the best clubs.
My decision back in 1978 to give all that up for a bedsit in north London broke the heart of my father, a successful businessman. But I had set my heart on becoming a writer and for me this country was the centre of the world of journalism. I was well aware that there was racism, I suffered from it myself. But I also knew that unlike India, a feudal society where I would always be my father’s son, here merit could open doors.
In India I could only advance through family introductions or by greasing somebody’s palm. Not so here. My experience proved that this country has a sense of fairness and much higher ethical and moral values.
And during this period I have seen this country, particularly London, change for the better. More significant is how well the UK has adapted to different cultures. I could not have imagined when I arrived that then-detestable Indian food would be talked about today as the national cuisine. But then we always underestimate Britain’s capacity to change.
If you doubt that, walk past the Houses of Parliament. The most important statue is that of Oliver Cromwell. The man who beheaded a king now stands there in all his glory, and successive monarchs have had to walk past him to address Parliament. I can think of no other country that could come to terms with its history in such a dramatic fashion. It is just one facet of what makes the UK unique.
Mihir Bose will narrate his tale of migration in The Heartache We Must Endure, accompanied by composer and pianist Lola Perrin and vocalist Y Yadavan, at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green Road on Saturday, 21 May. Tickets and information: richmix.org.uk