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Posted on Tue 25 June 2024

Immigration is about culture, not just numbers

So much of the recent debate on immigration, legal and illegal, has been about numbers. 

Numbers are important, of course, when we look at the state of housing, education, healthcare and much else besides. There can be little doubt that while immigration assists in some areas, it puts pressure on other services

Every government has to take account of the effects of immigration on services and infrastructure, and have in place policies to control the numbers of those coming here. It is simply fatuous to demand, as a Church of England diocese seems to have done, that the very concept of “illegality” should be abandoned.

But this debate cannot be restricted to the mathematics and economics of immigration. There are deeper issues here, about the nature of human communities and nations. Against the social contractarians who held that the individual is prior to society, which is created by individuals for mutual protection and assistance, the father of conservative thought, Edmund Burke, relying on Judaeo-Christian teaching, held that it is society which is prior and that we are intrinsically social beings. 

Every society has its own sense of identity and history. Language, memory and customs are formed by history and contribute to feelings of mutual belonging. This was seen clearly in the recent D-Day commemoration, where an owning of a common history of overcoming adversity was very much to the fore. 

For Burke, it was culture and tradition which is a surer guide to our views of what is right or wrong rather than the mere exercise of “pure reason”. Our views on fundamental freedoms of thought, expression and religion have been formed not so much by the Enlightenment alone as by a continuous moral and legal tradition going back to Alfred the Great and the common law, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the repeal of the Test Acts and the advocacy of toleration. 

It is true, of course, that no society can flourish if it is entirely closed to the wider world. The United Kingdom has a long history of welcoming individuals, families and communities from elsewhere who have made it their home and have contributed to it. This tradition, formed by the Bible’s injunction to love the stranger, has also led to the welcoming of those fleeing the wrath of tyrants, unjust laws and unreasonable restrictions on liberty.

We must be clear, however, that those coming here are not arriving in a cultural and moral vacuum. They are arriving into communities and in a country with a rich tapestry of common beliefs, values which spring from them, hard-won freedoms, a shared history and collective memory. 

There should be a requirement for those coming here to be aware of these fundamental features of British society, not just when applying for citizenship but on, and even before, arrival. 

Everyone is free to have views on national and international issues and express them in public but they must also respect the right of others to hold and express views different from their own. Those with religious affiliation should be free to observe the personal law of their faith but equally anyone should be free also to appeal to the public law to safeguard their person, livelihood and liberty. 

Our immigration procedures have to be particularly alert to the dangers of importing extremist and totalitarian ideologies quite at variance with the traditions and values of this country. Those coming here should be made aware that some customs, such as child or forced marriage, the mistreatment of women or discrimination on the basis of caste, race or sex are against the law here and will be dealt with as such.

Our immigration policy, then, cannot be just about numbers. It must also be about maintaining the social cohesion which is based on a shared history, and the beliefs and values arising from it.

Michael Nazir-Ali is former bishop of Rochester and now a prelate to Pope Francis in the Catholic Church

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