Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Right to Speak a World Language

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Right to Speak a World Language

Article excerpt

It is a measure of the deep British muddle over race relations that, when politicians propose that it would be a good idea for new citizens to learn English, the press ring with fevered denunciation. Thus, when the Labour MP Ann Cryer let slip the idea in July, she was accused, by a member of her party's national executive, of "doing the BNP's work for it". When Jeff Rooker, the immigration minister, revived it this month, he was charged with "linguistic colonialism". And when David Blunkett backs Lord Rooker, cries of "Nazi indoctrination" go forth.

Now turn to the United States, a country built on welcoming "your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses". The US requires (though there are exemptions) that new citizens "be able to speak, read, write and understand ordinary English words and phrases". So why do the British find this so painful to consider?

Two points need to be made at the outset. First, a lack of English is not the main reason for poverty and unemployment among Asians in Bradford, Oldham and elsewhere, and if Ms Cryer or Lord Rooker think it is, they should get out a bit more. Many Asians (and, indeed, Afro-Caribbeans) speak perfect English and even hold university degrees. They still do not get jobs. The persistence of racial discrimination in the labour market - and the failure of governments to do anything about it - is a national disgrace.

Second, the left should support the greatest possible movement of labour across national boundaries. This would be the biggest liberation in history for the world's poor, doing more to narrow inequalities in global living standards than any number of loans or grants (which is not to deny the need for the latter as well). It is another national disgrace that "economic migrant" has become a term of abuse.

But our debates about race and asylum have become so highly charged that we cannot see the wood for the trees. …

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