A couple of weeks ago, an imam from London appeared on the radio singing traditional Irish folk songs; the reason for this curious cultural anomaly was due to his cosmopolitan childhood. He explained he had been brought up in something of a melting pot community, his ears exposed to more than merely the usual Mosque melodies. He struck me as a good advert for a kind of genuine multiculturalism that usually works in theory but not so much in practice.
As someone once pointed out – I’ve a feeling it emanated from an episode of ‘Yes Minister’ – the Transport Secretary never uses public transport, the Health Secretary never uses the NHS, and the Education Secretary doesn’t send his or her children to state schools, yet the people in these posts oversee the services the rest of us rely on. Similarly, I think a lot of the ministerial notions of ‘positive’ immigration stem not so much from first-hand experience, but something they derived from ideological government think-tanks. After all, unless they originally come from an immigrant background, chances are they reside in an exclusively white middle-class neighbourhood, and always have. I’m reminded of ‘the black man’ David Cameron claimed he met during the last election campaign. Dave must have felt like Dr Livingstone.
Most immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the centuries have instinctively grouped together, whether Irish, Jewish or Bangladeshi, eventually creating not necessarily ghettos, but distinct districts that gradually became defined by their immigrant population – think Kilburn, Golders Green or Brick Lane in London alone. This in itself is entirely understandable; the ex-pat enclaves of Spain and France are a good example of how Brits abroad also fall into this pattern – rigidly refusing to learn the language and preferring to socialise with their own kind, drinking in British theme pubs, reading overseas editions of British newspapers and opting for British cuisine over the local dishes. If you were setting up home in foreign climes, chances are you too would gravitate towards the familiar as a means of easing yourself into an alien culture. Actual integration usually comes with the next generation, mixing and mingling with the natives once they start school.
I was at junior schools in the 1970s and remember a mix of perhaps 80% white kids, with maybe 10% each of black and Asian kids. For a while, the kid I hung out with most at home was Pakistani; my first ever ‘best friend’ when I stepped onto the education treadmill was a mixed-race boy (as I now recognise), and I later also had a similarly close friendship in the playground with a boy who was nominally black, but had a white mother. He once showed me a photo of her (she looked like Dusty Springfield) and I was puzzled how he and his mum were so different. Sounds very quaint and innocent now, but this was my first real introduction to a world in which black and white adults were not separated. It seemed natural for children of different races to interact on a level playing-field, but it wasn’t so common in the adult world.
This pattern, that the first wave of immigrants tended to stick to their own whilst their offspring blended in easier because of their egalitarian schooling, was the general pattern from the 1960s to the end of the twentieth century, and was something I believe prevented the kind of serious racial troubles that have afflicted America in recent decades. Yes, there have been occasional explosions – 1981, 2001 and 2011 spring to mind – but the integration of immigrants into British society has certainly bore fruit in the fields of sport and music to name but two areas, showing that an absence of educational apartheid led to eventual absorption into society. Who but a bigot would even notice how many black players line-up in an England football team these days?
However, something has changed in the past ten-fifteen years, and the source of so much of the alienation many youngsters from immigrant backgrounds have felt this century I think stems from that counterproductive, insidious innovation – ‘Faith Schools’; this, to me, is apartheid in all-but name. Technically, faith schools already existed as a system funded by government before the advent of New Labour, and I’m pretty certain some of the regular visitors to this blog endured/enjoyed ones of the Catholic or Jewish variety. But when the messianic Mr Blair ascended to office, he mirrored his own religious bent by sanctioning the expansion of specialised government funding for faith schools to encompass the Muslim establishments that had previously been privately funded. Even so, by 2011, the statistics bear out that the new faith schools were relatively small in number – 68% remained Church of England, with 30% Catholic; there were a mere 12 Muslim, 3 Sikh and 1 Hindu, whereas Jewish faith schools numbered 42.
What the statistics don’t reflect, however, is the legacy of these changes to the law. Any Muslim child beginning school in the late 90s, when New Labour’s reforms were introduced, would by now have already been released into the big bad world. They will have spent the best part of a decade exclusively indoctrinated in the same culture that had originally been the preferred province of their parents (or grandparents); they will have been cut-off from the country beyond their imported and enclosed community; they will have missed out on the exposure to other cultures that the immigrant children of the 70s and 80s were exposed to prior to the advent of state-sponsored faith schools, instead experiencing very little of Britain other than their own immigrant ghetto, insulated from influences that would render other races and religions less alien. There wouldn’t have been an Us and Them attitude had they been allowed to mix. The results of sectarian separation from an early age had long been highlighted in Northern Ireland, though that didn’t occur to Blair, not even when he was taking the credit for the Good Friday Agreement.
The revelation that some Muslim faith schools, particularly in Birmingham, were allegedly infiltrated by hardcore Muslim extremists, teaching Radical Islamic propaganda masquerading as the curriculum, underlines the problem with faith schools when left to their own devices. They can become effective training camps for legitimising ideology more suited to a terrorist agenda; for all their faults, Catholic schools in England were hardly renowned as recruitment centres for the IRA, yet many of the Muslim establishments have engendered a mistrust and suspicion of outsiders that contradicts any concept of true multiculturalism. By separating the people into groups based around religion, the state has dealt a severe blow to integration, something that was, give or take a few notable exceptions, largely working before Blair decided divide and rule was a policy worth investing in.
Should we really be surprised when some of the graduates of New Labour’s faith school programme have been raised to believe anyone not belonging to their religious clique is perceived as the enemy? Should we really be surprised that journeying to Syria has become the young British Muslim backpacking holiday of choice? It’s a cliché, yes, but you do reap what you sow, and the expansion of faith schools post-1997 has been a disaster for racial harmony in this country. For one thing, it provides ammunition for the far-right when the negative consequences go public; for another, it spawns home-grown bombers of the suicide variety. The bleedin’ obvious fact that the latter were rare to the point of nonexistence before 1997 should emphasise the dangers of splitting children along racial and religious lines; but there doesn’t appear to be any attempts to end the social experiment by any of the parties jostling for your vote at the moment.
Ebony and ivory may live together in perfect harmony, side-by-side on my piano keyboard – but don’t expect the people to follow suit when they are singing from a different hymn sheet as soon as they’re capable of reading.