9 September 2021
Our Afghan Friends
By John Watson
Teach them English? Give them a summary of British history? An introduction to our institutions perhaps? The media is thick with suggestions as to what we should teach the Afghan arrivals to help them to integrate. All worthy and sensible enough no doubt, but only half the story. The other ingredient is a welcome setting out expectations as to how the integration process should work.
So, suppose you were writing to one of the immigrants to welcome him or her to the UK and to give your advice on how to settle in. What would you say after the initial words of greeting?
Central to the letter would be the theme of reconciliation. Not reconciliation with the forces which have driven them into exile but reconciliation between hereditary culture and the British environment in which they hope to thrive. The prospect of establishing roots in a new environment must be an alarming one, so perhaps the first point to make should be that they are not alone. Scratch a Briton and there is every chance that you will find a multicultural ancestry derived from the waves of immigrants who have washed up on our shores. There are those from our former imperial possessions, of course, but, even leaving them aside, our position as a Protestant centre of global trade has always attracted streams of religious and economic migrants, Huguenots, Dutch, Jews, recently French, and many others have poured in either because they believe they will fit in or because they believe that our rather laissez-faire approach to economics will give them scope to create thriving businesses. The arrival of Afghans, therefore, is merely the latest part of a process and they should understand that, save in the matter of timing, they will be little different from the rest of us.
That is not to ignore the timing element. Many years ago I stood with a distinguished Mullah looking over a midlands city. He pointed out a particular road and observed that it was a good place to live and that until a few years earlier the residents had all been white. That however was changing and now there were Muslim families living there too. Gradually the immigrant community was integrating into the local middle class, a microcosm of what happens nationally where no-one now bats an eyelid at the fact that a number of prominent members of the cabinet have eastern heritage and business is becoming increasingly multi racial.
Here our new Afghan citizens will have an advantage. They are not the beginning of some potentially inexhaustible wave, which might cause popular anxiety, but are arriving on a tide of public sympathy having supported our armed forces in their lengthy deployment. Nonetheless, moving into the central stream of British life is not straightforward and there are a couple of things they need to bear in mind. The first is that they will find prejudice and disadvantage if they look for them and that there is something to be said for not looking too hard. The late Bernard Levin, the brilliant Jewish columnist, described it well when he said that he was sure that during his career he had been affected by anti-Semitism but that it hadn’t mattered much because he hadn’t been aware of it. If you go down a street with your nose in the gutter looking for dog turds you will surely find them. Raise your eyes to the horizon and you will probably pass them by. No doubt the new arrivals will be surrounded by those seeking to identify the turds and profit from the tension they cause. It is necessary to be wary of them and on occasion to just shrug the shoulders.
The second thing is that they should not see their heritage and the British culture as opposed. The first Queen Elizabeth said on her accession that “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” and, in these days of the second, the saying expresses the approach of the state to most other manifestations of religion and culture as well. But that does not mean that it is sufficient for immigrant groups to sink back into some ghetto cut off from wider society. They need to embrace the British culture as well and that means understanding it. It is not fashionable nowadays to hold up the late Robert Maxwell as a role model (though certainly his Military Cross was earned with considerable bravery); however it is worth looking at how, as a newly arrived Czech refugee he went about engaging with British society. He did not know much about English manners or how to conduct himself here so he spent a lot of time watching one of his fellow officers and observing how he behaved and what he said. He knew that if he modelled himself on his friend he would not go far wrong.
Now heaven forfend that all the new arrivals should turn out to be like Maxwell in all respects but still there is a serious point here. If a community is to integrate it needs to reach out towards the host society and at least to make sure it understands it. That does not mean giving up heritage. It means running the two cultures side-by-side until there is some form of merger and penetration becomes commonplace. To see an Afghan play cricket for England or head up a British business would advance things further than any number of well-meaning lectures from social services.
So what sort of letter it would be? Don’t do this? Don’t do that? It begins to sound rather unbalanced, doesn’t it? But that is because it is only a part of the way forward. Those of us who are already here also need to extend the sort of welcome which makes a merger of societies viable: opportunities, comradeship and tolerance when things go wrong. After all if there it is to be a merger of cultures it is not just the arrivals who need to change. We need to change too.