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You cannot legislate integration, happiness

world Updated: Jun 15, 2010 01:21 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times
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The Conservative-Liberal coalition wants non-European men and women who want to join their partners or marry in Britain to learn English first. At first glance the new rule appears sensible.

Britain's demographic landscape is altering radically and rapidly, with significant implications for social cohesion and welfare. Why should we the taxpayer, one argument runs, subsidize the education and healthcare of immigrants if they can't even be bothered to learn our language?

Language instruction won't work in a bubble, so the learner will take in aspects of English culture (including ‘native values') and that must be good for the country. We'll be one big and happy family.

But laws do not exist in a bubble either. Europe has developed partly through conversations — societies built by babble as it were. And a conversation needs two people. For migration to work, Britain will need to be more welcoming of migrants than it currently appears to be.

Left to themselves, of course, it is perfectly possible that some migrants will take the shortest route to riches and marital happiness: if English is seen unnecessary to either, they will not bother learning the language.

Yes, there are islands within the island where proficiency in English is seen as superfluous. In ghettos across Britain, many people get by swimmingly without much English — they mix among their own kind, and buy grocery, cook food and watch television — all from 'back home'.

Yes, they talk about the English weather — but in Hindi, Swahili or Mandarin. But they are a minority.

Most non-European immigrants (we're talking primarily about South Asians here) will and do learn English. Why wouldn't they? If you are an Afghan cab driver, Nepali care worker, or Indian shop assistant you would be left at the bottom of the ladder if you did not speak the native language.

The new government wants to be seen to be doing something, but the problem is that you cannot legislate integration or happy societies.

Such moves militate against the finest of conservative and liberal instincts — that of small government. Acquiring English language skills make sense if you are a skilled worker. But such tests become an intrusion when applied to couples.

Twenty years ago, a British politician controversially suggested another integration test whom do you support in a cricket match, asked Conservative leader Norman Tebbit.

Is it England or your country of origin? These days most people are delighted to fail Norman's test and Lord's cricket ground is a sea of sky blue whenever India appears.

Tebbit has since learned that integration is a complex affair: most people have multiple identities that they celebrate (a single person can be Indian and British; Londoner and Delhi-ite; Asian as well as Welsh). And language is only one piece in this giant puzzle.