Thu, 30 Mar 2000

Is British culture strong enough to absorb more immigrants?

By Andrew Marr

LONDON: Slumped in a London Tube train, a passionate song broke out. It came from a handsome-looking woman, with a sunburned face, a richly-colored skirt and, yes, a headscarf. Hanging from a strap, her back arched and her head thrown back, she was good, though whatever Roma lovesong or hatesong she was giving us, no one knew.

But she was loud and, within a single stop, she had come very close to causing a punch-up.

"Oh shut up and leave us alone," said a lean-faced man in a suit. "Go on, go away, we don't want you." At which, another man ostentatiously gave her a pound and a second jostled the complainer. "F-- off, don't you dare disrespect that woman," he said in an American accent. All three were pushing one another and shouting by the time we stopped.

Crippled by journalist's disease, I was watching. It is amazing, this impact on a country of nearly 60 million souls -- and, more directly, on a global mega-city of 8 million -- of a few thousand Rumanian gypsies begging with babies or songs.

England, according to the poetic patriarch of the Roma clans outside Bucharest, is "a garden full of fruit" for the professional beggars.

British reporters, who set off to "expose" the home village of the latest asylum-seekers, sent confused but honest reports: on the one hand, the gypsies were not being persecuted but, on the other, they were, it seemed, very poor indeed.

So why not pick the fruit? Here we are, a relatively rich, historically secure, busy and powerful people, and we feel both angry and disconcerted by a few wrapped babies and shaking open palms.

There is no violence involved, though plenty of lying, in order to gather our tiny crumbs, the thinnest scatter from our table, to transform their lives. Officially, we still give relatively little in overseas aid.

But these hot, dirty coins, by magical accumulation, stamped with the enigmatic profile of Her Majesty, seed whole houses, gleaming clean kitchens and satellite televisions on the grimy wastelands of a city on the edge of throbbing Western Europe.

Why not? People make their living by selling tobacco and pornography, by tip-tapping out vile incitements to hatred for newspapers, by polluting and pimping, flogging missiles and crack. There are worse ways, are there not, of getting by than waving a baby at strangers, or singing to commuters?

It depends on the singer. A few hundred yards from the Underground incident, there was another woman singing. About the same age, at least as loud, with a portable tape deck, she, however, was surrounded by perhaps 200 smiling, welcoming faces, and was the recipient of showers of coins. She was belting out opera hits to passers-by in Covent Garden. She had no headscarf.

Between the two, and people's reaction to them, is the story of our culture. The second woman represented what we want most: entertainment.

She offered a free, uncomplicated, cheering-up street transaction, a mildly flattering musical decoration for a moment in the day -- civic liberalism personified.

The Roma singer, however, was tapping almost every source of modern anxiety. She was not herself: she stood for an uncountable army of the poor -- not just the few thousand Rumanian gypsies here, but millions, no billions, of anonymous mouths around the world. She invaded space, right up against people, with the enclosed world of a Tube carriage standing for the limited world of this island.

She was not offering what we are accustomed to hear as entertainment. Her song was like a waggled baby, a way of attracting attention for begging. And, in begging, she offended against our work-ethic-driven culture, in which there is nothing so degrading as economic passivity.

I feel this too. I hate not beggars, but begging. Yes, if you are pushed to the margins, utterly desperate, have nowhere else to go. But for an able, intelligent, opportunity- crammed, sense- gorged mammal that is a human being to have no better idea of what to do with the short time granted on this planet, than to stand with an outstretched palm? Well, that offends me. In a swarming megalopolis, for fit and active people, there is nothing else?

But for our cities full of Bad Samaritans, it is unease about the billions of poor waiting at the gate that is the really powerful challenge to liberalism. As Eric Hobsbawn hammers home in his latest book of interviews, The New Century, we live in an age of vastly greater mobility -- a world of cheap air travel, in which most of the border guards have gone home. In 1997, the number of nights spent abroad was 630m, or one night for every nine human beings.

This mobility doesn't necessarily mean any greater understanding between peoples. For the rich, it may mean taking a pressurized tube to the Caribbean to spend a week inside a Western womb on the edge of a beach when, all around you, hidden, there are the shack-villages stinking of human excrement, children with eye diseases and the dogs running wild with open sores.

Or it may mean taking one set of values, such as those of the Roma beggars on the backs of lorries, into the heart of Berlin, Paris or London. Around the world, cultures which developed largely in isolation -- the Islamic Umma, the Netherlandish bourgeoisie, the mid-Western American fundamentalists -- find themselves, not yet homogeneous world citizens, rubbing up against one another without a social primer.

These migrations are achieved, of course, not by the new migrants themselves, whose poverty and mobility so scare Western electorates, but by the West itself.

We opened those borders; we provided the means. From the Rio Grande to the Oder, from long-distance lorry freight, to satellite TV, it is all us. And now we are beginning to face the question: is our own liberal culture strong enough to survive the result?

Greater understanding requires a mental grammar -- ideology or religion. You need a reason to engage with other people. A program, even. An ideology, even.

And these new migrations are happening at a time when the Western value-systems which promoted human solidarity are in decline. The nation-state, whatever its drawbacks, was a powerful engine of solidarity and of the happiness that undoubtedly comes from an intense feeling of group identity. (Ask a Scottish nationalist today.) Nationalism makes you more hostile to outsiders, but it also makes you readier to engage with and help the people immediately around you.

But, as Hobsbawm also points out with characteristic quirky precision, the heyday of the nation-state was from the 1500s to the 1960s. There are, once more, large parts of the world where it has virtually disappeared -- much of Africa and the Caucasus, Afghanistan, bits of the Balkans, swathes of the former Soviet Union.

And nearer home, the dissolution of old nationalisms into larger trade-blocks, the European Union and North American Free Trade Agreement, makes the notion of "we" a little harder to grasp. The singer in the Tube is not addressing a self-confident community; just uneasy individuals passing by.

As for national solidarity, so for the other kinds. Class solidarity as taught by socialists, and soul solidarity as taught by Christians, are both in retreat, driven backwards by the liberal-scientific age.

At least missionaries wanted some contact with people. When we watch TV reports of the flooding in Mozambique, or starvation in Siberia (both caused, incidentally, by global warming for which the West is primarily responsible), fewer and fewer of us respond to the desperate faces by thinking "fellow workers" or "souls to be saved for Christ". We don't think "fellow Commonwealth members". So what do we think?

Fellow Briton, fellow Anglican, fellow proletarian, fellow anything -- all these primed responses are falling away. In the liberal handbook, "fellow human" ought to be ample replacement: but -- emotionally -- is it working?

Or does the death of ideology lead to a bland consumerist indifference which is actually readier to condemn intrusions and sees devastated African scenes as merely the dull bits clogging up the beginning of the news? (Dull bits, of course, which thanks to the digital revolution we can increasingly avoid.)

We are all liberal now. But we are selfish liberals, hanging onto our place on the beach, or the Tube train, and glaring at anyone who dares to come near. Liberalism has changed the world. But it may have made us less attractive people.

-- Observer News Service