Wednesday, July 13, 2005

An alien culture in our midst

As a child, through to developing into an ungainly teenager, growing up in North London, I had a unique experience. For a long time, I was the only Christian child (apart from my brother and sisters) in a street populated by Jews – mostly second-generation Eastern and Central Europeans – within a larger community that was almost entirely Jewish.

The area, as you might have guessed, was Stamford Hill, wedged between Stoke Newington to the south and Tottenham to the north, the latter being predominantly Irish Catholic.

Currently, however, I live in Bradford, another area famous for its immigrant population, but this one largely Muslim. When I tell people from outside that I live in Bradford, a common reaction is that we must be living in "little Pakistan" or some such, dominated by the ethnic community.

Such an impression, however, is wrong. We live in an urban village in the south of the city and it is uniformly and rigorously white. We are a white enclave, a tiny minority but wholly separated and distinct from the rigorously and uniformly Muslim communities that border us. There is no mixing and no integration. Apart from couple of businesses – a taxi firm and a general store - there are no Asian-owned businesses in our community.

It was that which set me thinking, and pondering about the differences between the immigrant-dominated community in which I was brought up, and the one in which I currently live. And, although there are many, many differences, one singular distinction struck me, which may be highly significant. Where I live now, there is no small-scale economic integration.

That was not the case in my childhood. Although the Jews lived separately, they did business everywhere, and with anyone. They also employed goys – even myself, who profited hugely from their generosity towards my pocket-money-making enterprises – and they traded with goys. And it was through those enterprises, often started by the sons of the first generation immigrants, that the mixing, and significant integration occurred.

But this is not so much the case in Bradford, apart from the town centre and the famous curry houses. But those are the exceptions. A little way out of the town centre, the Asians not only live together in their own areas, to a greater extent than before, they trade only with each other and exclude the indigenous populations. In the Asian areas, the shops are exclusively and aggressively Asian. The signs are in Urdu script – the labels and advertisements are likewise. And the goods are geared mainly to the Asian community.

Moreover, whole streets are like that. The banks are Asian, the cinemas are likewise, and the areas make no concessions at all to the host country. There are, effectively, huge if invisible signs saying "whites keep out". And if you do not get the message, there are other, more dangerous ways of learning. No white person with any sense – even the police unless they sally out in force, from their fortress-like police station – comes into these areas after dark.

Here, perhaps, is another singular point. Not only are these areas culturally and economically segregated, the writ of British (and European) law does not run. And it is not only the "high level" offences that are ignored – like the "honour killings", under-age marriages and even female genital mutilation (which are all illegal in this country) but also the administrative laws applying to businesses.

Forget hygiene laws. During the last Muslim festival, I was driving round a Muslim area and happened on a street market. And I do mean a street market. Blankets were laid out on the pavements and foodstuffs piled high in all directions, with enthusiastic buyers milling around. Every law in the book was broken. No protective clothing in sight, not a wash-basin to be seen, no protection for open food, no "clean and washable surfaces", no nothing.

Had these traders ventured out of their enclave, into a "white", more regulated area, they would have been assailed by environmental health officers and other council officials, and undoubtedly the police. The market would have been shut down in a flash. But in "little Pakistan", they were safe and untroubled.

The same goes for health and safety and even housing law. My son, when he first left home to set up his own flat, sought accommodation in a bedsit in an Asian area, this being so much cheaper than others. But, exercising what little parental authority I had, I inspected the premises first and refused to allow him to move there. I had no problems with the area but the dwelling had no means of escape and no fire protection. The house, and the flat, was a death-trap. In the "white" area, however - his next choice - the fire regulations were obviously observed.

Herein lies my tentative thesis, a factor that may – and I do suggest may - be instrumental in the failure of our communities to integrate. Basically, the first step of integration in immigrant communities is for many of them to set up small businesses. Firstly, they service their own people and then they spread out, doing business with the wider community. And, in doing business, they mix, from which cultural integration develops.

Where you have ghetto communities and the writ of law does not apply, the cost of setting up business is cheap. But, when it comes to moving into the highly regulated indigenous areas, the full force of increasingly bureaucratic and intrusive laws immediately apply and the cost of breaking out of the ghetto is prohibitive. Administrative law, therefore, becomes a barrier to economic and then cultural integration.

This also works the other way round. The traders (and population in general) in the "white" areas, see the Asian traders getting away with ignoring the law, and resent it, thus fuelling antagonism between the communities. It is made even worse by well-meaning "community" projects run by our council, which have sought to bring some Asian businesses into the regulatory fold by giving them (and only them) grants and special treatment. "They" get help to obey the law – the white traders just get prosecuted.

And so to our previous post on the new food supplements directive. This will outlaw thousands of preparations and put hundreds of British enterprises out of business. But there are thousands of very specific Asian "food supplements" that would otherwise be caught under this law. My guess – based on past experience – is that they will continue on sale, and not one Asian business will be affected.

While some of these supplements might be lethal (some of the cosmetics used, which contain arsenic, certainly are), many are tried and tested and cause no problems. But under the EU regime which is about to come into force, very few if any would ever be able to conform with the "positive list" requirements.

Under existing British law, however, few would have a problem. The traditional British "tolerant" approach to such products – and food in general – is that anyone may market a product and it is up to the authorities to prove it is unsafe. That system has sufficed for over a century but now we are to have an alien culture in our midst – the continental dictum that assumes a product is dangerous, and therefore prohibited from sale, until its supplier can prove it is safe.

It is this alien culture, one of overweening bureaucracy, that may be creating greater obstacles to integration than the many more obvious issues about which so many contemporary commentators are writing. In so far as it is part of that culture, and driving much of it, the EU, therefore, in its pursuit of political integration, may actually be partly responsible for preventing the full integration of immigrant communities.

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