Immigration anxiety writ large in London
LONDON // "London has changed since I came," says Ahmed Sadiq, leaning over a counter of South Asian sweets.
"There's "more crime. Fewer morals," the 67-year-old Pakistani baker, who immigrated in 1977, said ruefully. "They've brought drugs and broken up traditional communities."
This sorry state of affairs was, in Mr Sadiq's opinion, mainly the fault of immigrants.
That immigrants of previous generations are complaining about the new waves of arrivals to the UK demonstrates the scale of the issue.
Opposition to immigration in England today is among the strongest in Europe and politicians have been left scrambling to come up with a response. Last week, data from the 2011 England and Wales census showed that for the first time since records began, white Britons, at 45 per cent, made up less than half of London's ethnic mix.
In all, 80.5 per cent of people in England and Wales define themselves as white Britons, down seven per cent from the last census in 2001. A total of 7.5 million people residing in England and Wales were not born here. Indeed, of the 3.7 million more people in England and Wales, 2.1 million were immigrants.
But the Thames is not "foaming with blood", as Enoch Powell, a former Conservative member of parliament and the poster boy of racially driven opposition to immigration, predicted in 1968. Powell, who died in 1998, warned that Britain's immigration laws would irreversibly change the face of the country. The "Rivers of Blood" speech cost him his position in the shadow cabinet, started strikes across the country and triggered a spike in violence against minorities.
While many in the UK, and in London in particular, prides itself on its multicultural society, this year's British Social Attitudes Survey found that 75 per cent of Britons would like to see a reduction in immigration, with 51 per cent clamouring for a large reduction.
The latest census figures will only "offer ammunition" to anti-immigration and anti-European Union voices, said Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at London University's Birkbeck College.
"They will point to some of these cases and say they are becoming ghettos," Mr Kaufmann said, referring to London boroughs, such as Newham and Brent where white Britons now make up less than 20 per cent of the population.
The opposition Labour Party - in power from 1997 to 2010 - is taking most of the blame. It lost the general election to a Conservative Party that ran in part on a tough-on-immigration platform. The government of the prime minister, David Cameron, has pressed ahead with curbs on immigration, primarily targeting the student sector.
Last week, Theresa May, the home secretary, argued that uncontrolled mass immigration has inflated house prices, lowered wages and made it harder to create a cohesive society.
The small United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), with its anti-EU and anti-immigration platform, is reaping benefits from its stance. EU rules are blamed for the large influx of immigrants from Poland and other new EU countries. Ukip, which wants Britain to leave the EU, saw its popularity shoot up by six points last week after the census results were releasedtaking support away from the Conservative Party and even surpassing the Liberal Democrats in some polls.
Labour has suggested there is a need for a "comprehensive strategy" on immigration. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said this month that his party had underestimated the "profound anxiety" over immigration in the country and suggested workers in publicly funded jobs should be proficient in speaking English.
The suggestion was met with ridicule from the right, which suggested it was too little, too late. Others were also critical. Mohammad Ali, the chief executive of QED-UK, which seeks to improve the economic situation of ethnic minorities, said to focus on language was to miss the point.
"Learning the language is very important, but there's a lot more to it than that," he said
Citing higher unemployment rates among immigrant communities and ethnic minorities, Mr Ali said the government should focus on job creation as the primary means by which to integrate minorities.
Minorities tended to group together, he said, but, "if they work, they have to interact".
Mr Miliband spoke in Tooting. Here, amid the Caribbean restaurants, sari shops and Islamic banks, a bookmakers, right across the road from Mecca Halal Butcher, seems almost out of place. But such changes in the local streetscape has not disturbed Terry Cooper, 78, a retiree enjoying lunch at the nearby King's Head on a recent afternoon.
"Immigrants never bothered me," he said. "They work hard. Nice people. Polite."
The only thing he would want, he said, is that the government takes only "qualified" immigrants.
"London's changed," said Mr Cooper, locally born. "Completely. But that's the nature of things."
Updated: December 27, 2012 04:00 AM